The Impressionists

They were inspired by Japanese art?  Who knew.  Some may even go so far as to say that the Impressionist movement was sustained by Japan. To unpack this, lets first take a look at the century when the Impressionist movement happened, the 19th century.

The mid-nineteenth century was a tumultuous time in Europe.  Industrialization combined with labor and civil revolutions were changing the fiber of society.  People were questioning what technology was doing for the general quality of life.  Goods were being mass produced, people were being forced to work in certain time frames, modes of transportation were becoming faster.  Modernity was unfolding.  What was the value of something hand-made?  Now that one could travel outside of their local region, what could the world provide?  The potential for expansion of any and all kind was intriguing to the individual, and the society at large.

As part of this expansion and intrigue, trade outside of Europe was increasing and becoming more common place.  In 1851, the Great Exhibition in London that showcased the worlds industries under one roof.  This was the first of its kind.  Indian craftsmen were even put on display for the European eye to look at and understand.  Th exhibition itself was created, start to finish, in just under 18 months by a man named Henry Cole.  This man was a member of the newly respectable class, the aristocrats.  This class was the working man, the business man, the entrepreneur.  This class did not flaunt wealth or opulence, they flaunted labor.  Henry Cole was able to coordinate, transport, and classify the art of the world in just over a year.  He was able to publicize it to attract over 6 million viewers.  And, he was able to make it an experience such that its success led to two more global exhibitions in Paris and New York in the following years.  This exhibition was a testament to the new potential of the working class.  It was this class that was beginning to create a kind of global cultural encyclopedia for the public.

So, we have a tumultuous Europe that was looking to tie in other cultures to its understanding of the world.  This led to art that was less academic, and more experimental.  One of these forms of experimentation is now known as Impressionism.   Degas, Monet, van Gogh, Cezanne, Renior, Manet are some of the big names that make up the movement.  As seems to often be the case with the arts, these painters didn’t get the classification as “Impressionists” until after their hay day.  While they were producing art, they were focused on exploring new ideas about color and light, not on fulfilling the “Impressionist” identity.  It is important to understand that the artists were not seeking to be a certain kind of painter, they were seeking to deepen their artistic understandings.  The latter objective allows one to more clearly understand how Japanese art fits into the movement. I want to look at two images (see below):

Wisdom, Impression, Sentiment, Kuroda Seiki, 1897

Blossoming Almond Tree, van Gogh, 1890

Through increased trading, Japanese prints were flooding into Europe.  Often times the goods coming into Europe from Japan were packaged with newsprint from Japan that contained popular images. As is evident by the lack of background, focus on the linear, crisp colors, and subject matter being nature, van Goghs painting is heavily inspired by the Japanese style at the time.  The composition is also zoomed in and asymmetrical, which is characteristic of “kacho”, or Japanese flower and bird, pictures.  See the image below to make comparisons for yourself.  This image was one of the over 400 Japanese woodblock prints that van Gogh and his brother collected.

Three Beauties, Utagawa Kunisada, 1786-1865

By looking at the image by Seiki, I would like to fold in another concept to complicate the idea of Japanese influence on Impressionism.  This other concept is Orientalism.  This is by no means a simple concept, and to unpack it would require much more than I will ever touch upon.  To get the full picture, one must read the disciplines founding father, Edward Said.  Nonetheless, Orientalism, very basically, is the study of how the West viewed, and came to understand the East.  The West however can never fully understand the East because they are understanding the Eastern culture through Western standards, a set of standards that does not match Eastern culture.  Therefore, any conclusions made based on these standards are null and void.  When I first viewed the Seiki piece, my initial reaction was “Wow, that looks so Western.”  The fact that the women were nude, that the bodies themselves seem to be more solid and stocky then what is usually portrayed in Japanese prints at the time, and the simple fact that it was painted in oil made this image feel Western.  Looking at a few examples of 19th century Japanese figurative art at the time (below), one may question, how did Seiki produce a visual image so radically different from that which was the norm?  During this time, the West was a global power, one that warranted competition.  The East wanted to be able to compete with them.  One way in which they could do this was through the way they envisioned and presented themselves through their art.  While Seiki honored the Japanese visual tradition in her choice to include a vacant background, a series-like composition and inner processes (sentiment, for example, is something very personal), she also utilized Western techniques to prove her cultures similar strength to the West.  It seems as though she is saying that the Japanese could be as physically solid as the West, and sophisticated enough to realistically portray the nude, the Western-accepted pinnacle of artistic ability.

This constant back and forth gaze between the East and the West, the West and the East, and its implications for how well each one saw the other, brings me to finally conclude how Japan could have potentially sustained the Impressionist movement.  The Impressionists looked to Japan for inspiration, for newness, for something different that could give them a way to experiment with the hectic ideas being produced in a modernizing Europe.  Yet, it was this very process of modernization that gave the Europeans Japanese prints (they were transferred via the increasingly wide and open trade routes).  Then, these very same routes took the European art to Japan.  Japan, seeing the West as ever growing wanted to consume those things that characterized the Western culture.  Their interest fueled the economic exchange between the East and the West, and more specifically, was the major source of demand for impressionist images.  So ironically enough, the Wests interpretation of the East, however flawed, was their international identity.  As they grew to be a world power, their goods were desired by the very cultures they were constantly interpreting.  These cultures thus fueled the markets to continue the production and flow of Western images.  I suppose it really is true, what goes around comes around.


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