Tuesday, November 13, 2018


Vincent van Gogh, "Bridge in the Rain, (after Hiroshige), 1887
In the late 19th century, a passion for the art of Japan, particularly woodblock prints known as ukiyo-e swept through Europe. In France, quite a number of artists were significantly influenced, although others were also smitten. For example, Vincent van Gogh collected woodblock prints by various Japanese masters including Hiroshige who is now considered perhaps the last great master of ukiyo-e, and Hokusai, the great master of the common man, whose work I mentioned a few posts back. Moreover, a number of painters studied these works and spent time copying some of them, van Gogh being one.

The fascination with Japanese works was given the name Japonisme (in French), and refers to not only fine art but also architecture, music, performance, dance and decorative art. Japan had been isolated from the outside world for two hundred years, its cultural path mostly hidden from the West, and of course not exporting its own arts. Japanese goods and art were known, but only in minuscule quantities, while western arts were known and studied by Japanese masters. In any event, the widespread availability of inexpensive Japanese prints on paper was a revelation.

Mary Cassatt, "Woman Bathing," oil, 1890
Among others, Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas. Gustav Klimt, and Vincent van Gogh were captivated by the Japanese use of bold color, in flat masses, asymmetric compositioin and reduced detail. Van Gogh in particular copied prints he admired, including one of figures crossing a bridge by Hiroshige, above. Others, like Mary Cassatt, the famous American ex-pat painter worked to give their paintings the same kind grace and impact in contemporary terms. In "Woman Bathing," 1890, right, she emulated the elegance she saw in Japanese works, for example.

Even now, more than a century later, we study the works of ukiyo-e masters like Hiroshige, Hokusai, and Kesai Eisen, who was a contemporary. As I mentioned before about Hokusai, I've found the study of these works to be very productive, particularly the Hokusai Manga, the great compendium of woodcuts of the common people of Japan. His use of line is a wonderful study, alone. But add in his compositions, coloring, and humanity too.

After Hokusai, "Saisoro," digital 2018
While I am not a printmaker, digital media are a malleable and worthwhile method of emulation. The image here is "Saisoro," or "Old man gathering mulberries," that appeared in the Manga. The image refers to a dance performed in Japan in the Imperial Court since the 9th century. The single dancer is dressed in white, carries a stick, and shows great decrepitude. The image has also been thought by some to represent how Hokusai saw himself in his advancing years. Regardless, it's impressive to see what can be done with a brush and a few tints. Hokusai was a true master.

Copying Hokusai

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