Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Ukiyo-e: "pictures of the floating, fleeting world ..."

French artists first became familiar with Japanese art at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1867. The characteristic subjects, the differences of scale, the unfamiliar intensities of color, and the innovations in the nature of background in these Japanese works soon found their way onto easels and sketchpads in the West. Here, just to remind ourselves what it must have looked like, at first, is a lovely print, "Irises," by Hokusai:

Look at the sharp edges of the leaves and the insect, the way the bottom does not feel heavy, but rather reaches upwards, and the ivory of the iris blossoms, though close to the color of the white-gray sky, are softly outlined and distinct.

What started me thinking about Japonisme? I recently saw a picture of a Renoir painting. Generally I think we see Renoir as a painter of sensuous women or small children immersed in gardens. Yet, here was this painting, "Still Life with Bouquet," from 1871:

Rembrandt (the framed work on the wall), Impressionism (the bouquet wrapped in white), the books and tablecloth (generic!) but then we see that vase and that fan ... they float.  The influence is there. Then we look to Whistler, who has used Japanese styling in his landscapes and portraits ... but here is a beautiful little study, which appears to be called "The Blue and White Covered Urn" (really?):

Simple lines, elegant against the background, each mark with a slightly different shape, nothing repeated, all observed closely. Now to Van Gogh, who, again, is someone we know loved Japanese prints; here is his "Still Life with Japanese Vase with Roses and Anemones," from 1890:

Definitely not the still, calm world of the Whistler, and with a vase at an angle worthy of a Cézanne, here is energy -- tucked inside the Japanese envelope.  And now to the latest of the artists in this group, Matisse, and his "Still Life with Apples on Pink Tablecloth," from 1924:

Here, Matisse has complicated the background, pulling the wall into the foreground just a bit, and he is taking chances, too, with the colors pink and yellow, which often tend to fight one another. Here, they seem to have just enough interaction to keep the eye moving around the canvas... and the blues here come from the traditional vase patterns that Whistler was studying but here they are given to us with  a larger, freer brushstroke. Matisse would work in this mode pretty extensively ... but he seems to have been the only one of these artists to take the lessons of the Japanese print and apply them across his work.

And then I thought -- who else has looked at Hokusai and Horishige since the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? There have been people here and there -- Brice Marden's "Cold Mountain" series, inspired by Japanese calligraphy, would be one contender -- but no movement, as such. And why not?
While we think about that -- why the excitement stopped with Matisse -- I did think of one painter who is working through her Japanese influences: Helen Frankenthaler. In a show at Knoedler & Co last winter, "East and Beyond," Frankenthaler exhibited work in the ukiyo-e tradition that she began in the 1980's. Here is one of my favorite works by Frankenthaler from this show, "For Hiroshige," a painting from 1981:

And here is another work, a woodcut, "Weeping Crabapple," from 2009:

These demonstrate, I think, the possibilities ... we have come full circle, but without losing anyone's own artistic "voice."

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