Objectified East on Western Art:
France and Japan
The postmodern perspective suggests that all art is subjective and even when we attempt to look objectively at the world we see ourselves, not the thing as it actually is. This is particularly evident when examining how the art and life of another culture is filtered through the vision of another. In Europe, particularly in France, during the 19th century there was great frustration with the static, current conception of the French Academy's art, with its emphasis on realism, self-consciously important historical and literary subjects, and the static replication of old, tired images. This revolt, which coalesced in the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist movement, also coincided with the brief opening up of trade with Japan. There was a great deal of cross-cultural ferment between the East and West during this period and artists, particularly Monet, Manet, Degas, and Toulouse-Lautrec, where highly influenced by Japanese prints. But although such prints were influential upon them, their vision of what they called the Orient was always a translation and clearly through a Western gaze; it is important not to confuse actual Japanese art with how these Frenchmen saw Japan.
Commercial trade agreements between Japan and the West in the 1850s facilitated the exposure of Japanese print-making and other art in France.[footnoteRef:1] Although these artists did not have deep knowledge of the culture of exposure to Japan itself, the presence of these prints gave them the impression that they did and they used the style to inspire their own works. Although their work is still quite Western in its orientation, in their eyes, it was infused by the exotic and intrinsically different, remote, and feminine East. The opening up of trade coincided with the rise of the Impressionist movement and those who wished to find alternatives to the "rigid and stylistic alternatives of academic art."[footnoteRef:2] The styles and images demonstrated a new way of looking at the world, a new way of being, outside of the static tenants of realism embraced by the Academy. [1: Karin Breuer, Japanese: The Japanese Art in the Age of Impressionism, (New York: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2010), 67] [2: Breuer, 68]
Some artists used the new Japanese style as a way of integrating new, Japanese-looking subject matter into their works while other used the Japanese motifs to take on Western subject matter. They incorporated the flat, spare, and stylized print appearance to address their own preoccupations, like Manet did with his 1875 pen and ink illustration of Poe's The Raven, clearly inspired by the frequency and style of birds in Japanese art. [footnoteRef:3] [3: Ibid., 70]
Edgar Degas is another prominent example of an artist that used French styles to render objects he saw in his daily life, most notably his ballet dancers as can be seen in this work from 1875, simply titled The Dancer. [footnoteRef:4] [4: Ibid., 75]
To an everyday observer, such influence might not necessarily be manifest in an obvious fashion but something as simple as an arrangement of one woman standing and one woman kneeling demonstrates the influence of Japanese print art, given the commonness of this motif in Japanese works but not necessarily in previous European stylization.[footnoteRef:5] What were then considered innovations such as a "bird's eye view" and a "geometric organization of space" are direct examples of how Japanese prints became more and more incorporated into European art of the period.[footnoteRef:6] [5: Ibid., 75] [6: Ibid., 80]
It is interesting to reflect upon the manner in which Japanese culture was transposed into European terms, however. For example, a great deal of Japanese art reflected images of women at their toilettes, either bathing, dressing, or adorning themselves. Degas transposed similar stylistic motifs into images of prostitutes and washerwomen as well as his famous ballerinas (and dancers were often thought to be of low moral character at the time in France). This was not necessarily the case of the Japanese women in the original prints. The candidness, in the European conception translated into sexuality although it is worth noting that Degas also observed a great deal from his own life.[footnoteRef:7] The painter Toulouse-Lautrec similarly was inspired by visions of Japanese art in his depictions of can-can girls at the Moulin Rouge: the stylization, emphasis on flatness versus three-dimensionality and the centrality of the figures versus placing them in a finely detailed landscape are all quintessentially Japanese, although Toulouse-Lautrec's illustrations have a distinctly European, ironic gloss to them as can be seen in his painting A Dancer Adjusting her Leotard (1896). [7: Breuer, 79]
Later, advertising in Western art would similarly adopt this flatness and whimsicality in service of its own needs, once again transposing the style but draining it of its original ethos.
Most of the European artists inspired by Japan had little actual experience with the land itself, had never traveled there, and thus images of the far Orient could excite their minds and provided an escapist vision of fantasy into which they could slip. Monet stated directly that without Japanese prints he could never have escaped the oppressively narrow vision of the West and the academic view of the environment as something geometrical, planned and realistic in its construction, and Japanese prints were critical in enabling people to see "bright red," versus paintings which were before "subdued colors, drowning in half-tones."[footnoteRef:8] However, for Monet, as this quote illustrates, the glory in having access to Japanese prints was not what they revealed about Japan to him but what they revealed about his inner life and how he saw his exterior environment. They enabled him to see his own river-bank more clearly, not become more closely aware of the essence of Japan itself. [8: Lionel Lambourne, Japonisme (London: Phaidon, 2005), 48]
It is also important not to idealize the influence of Japan upon Western art as the West was also profoundly influential upon Japan, despite the official isolation of many periods of this island nation's history. A very practical example of this is the evolution of the use of Prussian blue in Japanese prints. Before the Japanese acquired this particular shade, it was virtually impossible to render blue in a manner that did not fade but once this pigment was acquired it became extremely popular as a result. It "enabled new expression in the rendering of landscape" and became so ubiquitous people today often assume that it is a traditional Japanese pigment and was always available. [footnoteRef:9] Another example of the symbiotic relationship between Japan and the West can be seen in the series of prints known as Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. On one hand, they reflect "added realistic depth to Eastern space" and the adoption of Western techniques such as perspective and depth in a manner not seen before in Japanese prints. On the other hand, the rendering of different versions of the same space was something that would be enthusiastically adapted by the Impressionists, particularly Monet.[footnoteRef:10] "Western methods of realistic representation provided the opportunity to broaden the artistic repertoire." [footnoteRef:11] [9: Gary Hickey, Monet & Japan (National Gallery of Australia, 2001), 176] [10: Ibid., 179] [11: Ibid., 180]
Before the influence of Western art, Chinese philosophy and stylization was the primary influence upon Japanese printmaking ant its representations of mountains, rivers, and other natural structures. Western art's influence is credited for a more balanced and humanistic rendering of nature.[footnoteRef:12] Thus, this went beyond the purely symbolic construction of nature and infused it with a more individualistic sense of character. In some ways, this could be considered the inverse of how Western artists were inspired and adapted the use of Japanese prints in their renditions of human figures. From a more individualistic representation, human figure were rendered into broad patches of color instead or impressionistic dots and splotches, as if they were part of nature. [12: Ibid., 181]
Thus, the influence of Western art upon Japan and vice versa must be considered in effect a dialogue, not a monologue between these two artistic traditions: both influenced the other. However, the perspective of Japan was inevitably filtered through the Euro-centric view of artists such as Monet, just like Japan's representations were inevitably filtered through a highly Japan-specific lens. It is also important to remember the extent to which the aspirations of different types of art forms were manifested when these influences are evaluated. While Western artists were highly influenced by Japanese prints, they were for the most part self-consciously attempting to create 'great' or individualistic art which was an expression of their unique artistic vision and interior life (the one possible exception being Toulouse Lautrec's art for the Moulin Rouge). Japanese prints, on the other hand, were produced for purchase by ordinary individuals.[footnoteRef:13] This was also true of the influence of the West upon Japan as well -- quite often, even high art motifs in the West had more of an influence upon every day Japanese pictorial renderings, versus high Japanese art. One of the most influential types of 'art' of…