IN 1870, THE FRENCH artist Henri Fantin-Latour created a painting that aimed not to amuse or inspire but to disturb. An intellectual lauded for his floral still lifes, he had spiritually aligned himself with the group of radical young artists soon to be known as the Impressionists, who worked and lived in the grimy Batignolles neighborhood in Paris’s 17th Arrondissement and were reviled by critics. Fantin-Latour assembled a coterie of them in a fantasized group portrait, which he titled “A Studio in the Batignolles”: Édouard Manet, the acknowledged leader, was depicted at the easel, painting the critic Zacharie Astruc, as Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and the novelist Émile Zola looked on. To signal to the establishment that they were to be taken seriously, Fantin-Latour rendered them in muted gray or black frock coats, with somber beards and impassive expressions, but that was not the only provocation. Featured prominently on a table to the left was a large, highly detailed spherical vase by the French ceramist Laurent Bouvier, done in the Japanese style, its surface detailed with broad-leaf osmanthus branches and camellias fired in shades of peach and gold.
The vase’s starring role was a nod toward France’s burgeoning love affair with all things Japanese, as well as an admiring acknowledgment of Japonisme, the French interpretation of that culture’s aesthetics. But it wasn’t just the colors, shapes and crafts of Japan that Paris had become entranced by. It was the Japanese idea that objects — vases, dishware, vanity boxes and other items theretofore considered strictly utilitarian — were themselves art. This was the beginning of a radical shift in how France would come to view all art.
SCHOLARS HAVE long argued that Impressionism and Post-Impressionism might never have emerged at all had the American Commodore Matthew C. Perry not sailed into Edo Bay, Japan, in 1853, armed with a squadron of Navy ships. For 214 years, Japan had adhered to a strict policy of sakoku (“closed country”), fending off any foreign nation — especially convoys from an increasingly frustrated and curious West — that tried to open its borders. The sole Western exception was a small, heavily regulated Dutch trading colony, Dejima, located on an island near Nagasaki, in the country’s southwest. Perry’s arrival forced the nation to sign a treaty with the United States in 1854 granting access to two ports, and commercial treaties with the United States and Europe soon followed. Nearly overnight, Japan’s myriad goods became accessible to the West. But it was not only artists like Edgar Degas, Vincent van Gogh and Mary Cassat who were moved by artworks such as Katsushika Hokusai’s and Utagawa Hiroshige’s early 19th-century ukiyo-e woodblock prints. Western decorative arts, at the time awash in fussy Renaissance Revival, were also transformed by the extraordinary antiques — from porcelain vessels to iron swords and tiny carved ivory netsuke toggles meant to dangle from a kimono’s obi belt — that flowed in through the harbor at Le Havre, France.
Japonisme, a term coined by the critic Philippe Burty in 1872, quickly became one of France’s most enduring aesthetic movements. For more than 40 years, it inspired the furthest reaches of the design world: tea sets by Hermès, silver and cloisonné centerpieces by Boucheron, embellishments for the trunk maker Louis Vuitton, lacquer dressing screens by the Irish-born, Paris-based architect and designer Eileen Gray, jeweled brooches by Lucien Gaillard, glass by René Lalique and wallpaper designed by the legendary Art Deco interior designer Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann. It also morphed into two aesthetic movements in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Art Nouveau and Art Deco, often erroneously thought to have been entirely creations of the West but in reality impossible without previous exposure to Japanese art and design. “They have taught us,” the jeweler Lucien Falize once said of the Japanese, “the poetry of this world.”
The French obsession with Japanese culture and art, which resulted in one of the most fecund creative periods Europe has ever known, was a dense brew of appropriation, commerce and respect. For the archipelago itself, Perry’s incursion was tumultuous, sparking a decade of internecine violence that left Japan’s economic infrastructure in chaos (ending only with the Meiji Restoration in 1868), and exposing the weaknesses of the Japanese navy — one that the country spent the next several decades correcting, eventually embarking on its own colonialist reign — but that didn’t much concern the French. Their country was in the midst of annexing much of Northern Africa and Southeast Asia; they were fascinated that the Tokugawa shogunate, still in power, had thus far resisted European takeover. “The French were drawn to the seclusion of Japan; it appealed to their sense of exclusivity,” says the art historian Gabriel P. Weisberg, a professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota and the managing editor of the Journal of Japonisme. “They saw strength but also restraint in the Japanese, and they were driven to combine those elements with French tradition and make something new.” The Chinese had for centuries developed a robust trading relationship with Europe that had long influenced French design — 18th-century craftsmen often made “Oriental” chests of drawers and elaborate lacquered items for castles and chateaus, inspired by a mishmash of exotic Far East fantasies that included Burmese, Middle Eastern and Indian influences — but Japanese art was a revelation. Chinese objects, with their gilding, dark woods and carved dragons, were a precursor of the baroque exuberance of the Rococo period (and the development, in the 1700s, of a Chinese-inspired French design called Chinoiserie, which produced an avalanche of densely decorated blue-and-white porcelain vessels and gold-rimmed statuettes of delicate maidens), but Japan’s airier design codes and the culture’s veneration of its master artisans became a harbinger of 20th-century Modernism. Subtly but swiftly, European art’s Christian subtext was replaced by Shintoism’s reverence for the natural world — a philosophy in which everything from mountains to humans possessed spiritual energy — as well as the circles of Zen Buddhist calligraphy that represented enlightenment or imperfection.
For the French, who still determined Western aesthetics, Japan’s opening was fortuitous: They were ready for a new way of seeing. The neo-Classical perfectionism epitomized in the 19th century by the painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, a style perpetuated by rigid training at academies such as the École des Beaux-Arts, was becoming passé. Portraits of aristocrats and heroic battle scenes, however spectacularly rendered, began to seem retrograde as the empire of Napoleon III gave way to the Third Republic, and the middle class expanded. The ukiyo-e, which used simple techniques to depict everyday people at leisure — sitting at the sea’s edge or strolling through a field — seemed modern in comparison. And Japanese decorative arts, which captured fleeting moments (a leaping carp, a blossom carried on the wind) in ceramic or enamel inspired a new sort of freedom. “Everything changed after France was exposed to Japan and ran it through the French sensibility,” says Béatrice Quette, the curator of Asian collections at Paris’s Musée des Arts Décoratifs, an institution founded in 1882, at the height of Japonisme. “French design — France, really — was never quite the same.”
THE IMPRESSIONISTS LIKED to claim that it was they alone who “discovered” the Japanese masters, they who realized the importance of their use of bright colors, odd perspective, flat planes and off-kilter composition, which ultimately liberated them from the strictures of hyperrealism — and that is mostly how art history has recorded it. But while the painters and collectors may have asserted dominion over Japanese art as it entered Europe, it was, in fact, the decorative artisans who initially made something new of it.
The French painter and printmaker Félix Bracquemond reportedly first encountered the ukiyo-e master Hokusai’s prints in 1856, at the shop of his printer, Auguste Delâtre, who showed Bracquemond a legendary manga series the artist had completed four decades earlier. Perhaps used as packing material to protect a shipment of Japanese porcelain, the block prints in black, gray and pale pink in the style known as kacho-ga, depicted birds in flight, tissue-soft flowers and lacy dragonflies.
For Bracquemond, the Japanese prints represented a fresh visual language for a changing world. He soon sought out other ukiyo-e, including Hiroshige’s 20-print “Grand Series of Fishes” (1830s and ’40s) and the 1848-49 flower-and-bird prints by Katsushika Taito II, using them as source material for what would become one of the earliest expressions of Japonisme. In 1866, Eugène Rousseau, the owner of a ceramics and glass shop in Paris, commissioned Bracquemond to design a tableware service that would be manufactured at Creil-Montereau, just outside Paris. For the service, Bracquemond made etchings from the Japanese prints, assimilating their sense of asymmetry and negative space, which were then anathema to the French. His motifs were transferred onto white Creil-Montereau faience in a complex process that involved laying the cut-out proofs on the ceramic blanks and putting them in the kiln. In the extreme heat, the paper disappeared, leaving only the imprint of the image, which was then painted over in bold colors by artisans and refired. The edges were feathered, from dark to light blue, in the tradition of French and British porcelain of the era. The roughly 100-piece Service Rousseau, on which flora and fauna were so vivid that they almost seemed to be alive — a mallard duckling huddled at the bottom of a gravy boat, for instance — was produced continuously from 1866 until 1938; sold as mix-and-match pieces, another Japanese innovation, it became a signifier of bourgeois attainment. Bracquemond, Fantin-Latour, Burty and the ceramic artist Marc-Louis Solon dressed in imported kimonos and ate with chopsticks from the dishware at the monthly meetings of the Société du Jing-lar, their nine-member Japanese dinner club in Sèvres. With Bracquemond’s set, ceramics — previously considered mere household items — became art, worthy of value and respect. The symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé, who would later inspire Man Ray’s Dadaist photographs and Claude Debussy’s atonal compositions, wrote in 1871 that it was “the most beautiful crockery I have ever known.”
For the French painters, who cultivated the mystique of being a sole auteur, the collaborative method of the Japanese ukiyo-e artists must have seemed odd; one man sketched, another engraved, a third ran the prints and the publisher compiled the volumes, each earning a reputation for his expertise. But this kind of group system, with its network of apprentices and fabricators, was nothing new for decorative artists in the West. The Japanese had little tradition of jewelry, other than hair ornaments, but the minute details and realistic depictions of nature on their decorative objects translated seamlessly into a wholly new pictorial approach for brooches, pendants and dangling earrings inlaid with gems. The French fine jewelry house Chaumet’s connection to Japan began in 1793 when its founder, Marie-Étienne Nitot, helped save the Japanese lacquer box collection of his former patron, Queen Marie Antoinette, two months after she went to the gallows. In the 1860s, the father-and-son team of Alexis and Lucien Falize began to incorporate cloisonné enameling, a technique that originated in Byzantium and developed in China during the Ming dynasty, but was perfected in early 19th-century Japan. Their tiny glass perfume flacons, worn on a chain around the neck, were adorned in enamel with ukiyo-e-inspired scenes of snow-capped mountains or herons in fields of jonquils. The third-generation jeweler Henri Vever of Maison Vever, who in the late 1890s commissioned from Lalique a three-inch-high chrysanthemum brooch with elongated river pearl petals — which remains perhaps the ultimate emblem of Japonisme — became one of the world’s pre-eminent collectors of ukiyo-e, with about 8,000 works, which later went to the Tokyo National Museum.
But it wasn’t just jewelers who embraced Japan’s aesthetic nuances; other craftsmen did as well. The luggage company Louis Vuitton, founded the same year that Japan reopened to the West, also embraced the islands’ ethos, spurred perhaps by an influx of aristocratic Japanese customers, who under sakoku largely had been forbidden to travel. They quickly became Vuitton trunk connoisseurs; the company created one with a built-in 29-piece tea service and, in 1896, introduced its quatrefoil logo, inspired by a Japanese mon, a crest used to represent a family or enterprise.
Émile Hermès, grandson of Thierry, who founded the now-legendary leather goods purveyor as an equestrian harness maker in 1837, was similarly enraptured by Japan during the 1920s and ’30s, collecting a series of pieces, including a gilt leather-mounted portfolio cupboard with Japanese scenes of everyday life, and stirrups from the Edo period shaped like crabs and rabbits. In 1925, Hermès artisans created leather handbags embossed with Japanese floral motifs, and among the house’s first clothing and accessories offerings a few years later were beach sandals, an innovation that was inspired by geta, the wooden clogs traditionally worn with kimonos.
Japonisme’s rise intersected with the earliest experiments in modern marketing, and by the second half of the 19th century, the aesthetic went mainstream, thanks to the monumental Expositions Universelles, the monthslong fairs sponsored by European host countries, including England, Austria and France, at which new things — giant machines, technologies, art — were introduced to the public. The fair schedule imposed a narrative structure on how both French makers and their invited Japanese artisans assimilated the motifs and techniques they saw coming out of Japan, including the metalwork of Shoami Katsuyoshi, who started as a sword fitter and segued into incense burners.
It was because of the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi — the acceptance of imperfection as a kind of perfection of its own — that French craftsmen began to feel at ease with revealing natural blemishes and the mark of their hand. At the Parisian Exposition of 1867, the first in which Japan itself participated, roughly nine million visitors saw not merely examples of work by the most acclaimed ukiyo-e masters and a re-enactment of the tea ceremony along with geishas brought over by the wealthy merchant Shimizu Usaburo but also the Service Rousseau, enameled cranes by the silversmith Christofle and Jardin Japonais, a vibrant hand-blocked scenic wallpaper by the Alsace-based Zuber, which produces the pattern to this day. By the third time Paris hosted the fair, in 1878, the crush of spectators and buyers for the Japonist items, from small vases to thimble-size teacups, was so fierce that everything sold out in the early weeks. The influential critic Ernest Chesneau wrote that Japonisme was “no longer a fashion, it’s infatuation, it’s insanity.”
Much like today’s art fairs, exactly what the public saw was controlled by a powerful network of dealers and influential critics, including Chesneau, Edmond de Goncourt and Louis Gonse, the editor in chief of the Gazette des Beaux-Arts. Japanese antiques entered France by way of shops including Louise Desoye’s Rue de Rivoli store, E. Desoye, which became an informal salon for sharing the aesthetics of Japanese objects populated by the likes of the poet Charles Baudelaire, the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rosetti and the society portraitist James Tissot, whose lavish villa on what would later become Avenue Foch was done up in extravagant Japanese silks dyed with techniques including yuzen (an early Edo-era innovation in which starch is applied around the delicate pattern outlines to prevent the colors from blending), as well as vases that he used as props in paintings including 1869-70’s “Young Women Looking at Japanese Objects.” (Lazily inserting Japanese items into a painting instead of internalizing the ethos was often derided as “Japonaiserie” by critics.) Monet, who once said that Japanese art “evokes presence through shadow, the whole through the fragment,” filled his house in Giverny with woodblock prints and ceramics from E. Desoye; the Japanese-style water garden he created in 1893 that inspired his most well-known series of works — its bridge covered in wisteria, the pond bristling with bamboo and nymphéas blooming through the summer — challenged the stiff formality of French landscapes.
BUT IF THERE WAS a single person who braided together Japanese art, Japonisme and the then-still-nascent Modernism movement, it was the German-born, Paris-based dealer Siegfried Bing. Like his fellow Parisian Paul Durand-Ruel, who brought fame to the Impressionists, and the Italian-American dealer Leo Castelli in New York City some 70 years later, Bing’s taste and ambition created a massive commercial enterprise. His brother, August, lived in Yokohama, where he bought 18th- and 19th-century pieces to sell at Bing’s shops in the Ninth Arrondissement. Marcel Proust marveled over Japanese objects shown to him by his friend Marie Nordlinger, a Bing employee; a young van Gogh acquired hundreds of ukiyo-e, which he used as inspiration for his own work. Convinced that France, even all of humanity, needed to be saved from the decline of quality ushered in by the industrial age, in 1888 Bing debuted Le Japon Artistique, one of the most aesthetically influential magazines ever printed. It ran for 36 monthly issues until 1891, and covered Japanese art and design, as well as poetry, architecture and theater. (The critic Alfred Lequeux wrote that the central runway from the stage into the audience used in Kabuki performances might be the breakthrough that staid French dramatists were looking for.) The publication’s impact was profound: Jewelers, including Louis Cartier, a grandson of the namesake house’s founder, adapted illustrations of wisteria into a series of diamond clusters; in 1906, 15 years after the final issue, Gustav Klimt collected the full run of the magazine.
By then, however, the fervor for Japonisme had dissipated. The wares had become too commercial, their appeal too broad. The Japanese themselves had diluted the grace of their crafts by exporting inferior products made to appeal to Western tastes. In one example of what can be seen either as reverse appropriation or cross-pollination, the early 20th-century Shin-hanga (New Prints) movement incorporated the Impressionist color range and moody use of sun effects and shadow with traditional ukiyo-e subject matter, while the artists of the Sosaku-hanga (Creative Prints) movement of the same time abandoned the collective system of the ukiyo-e, embracing the European practice of a single artist doing the drawing, carving and printing. Though the Japanese had provoked the French at last to question the division between artist and designer and moved them to elevate the contributions of craftsmen, Japanese artists simultaneously internalized the strict hierarchy of European art and the notion of the sole creator.
BY 1895, BING, too, had moved on, taking the design world with him. He transformed his shop on Rue de Provence into Maison de l’Art Nouveau, celebrating an evolving style with clear Japanese antecedents — flora and fauna as subject matter, a sense of shimmering movement, extreme asymmetry — that also reflected the increasing globalization of art and design, and the influence of the British Arts and Crafts movement. With its whiplash curves and polished surfaces of wood and steel, Art Nouveau, which Bing would introduce to the world as the organizer of a pavilion at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris — he died five years later, at 67 — was a perfect vehicle for the lesson he had taken from Japanese and French theorists (including Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, whose writings on form and function would later influence the American Modernist architect Louis Sullivan): that decorative art and design were as important as painting and sculpture.
At the dawn of the 20th century, perhaps the most vivid works that combined Japonisme, Art Nouveau and the impending Art Deco and Modernism movements were those by the furniture designer and architect Eileen Gray. After World War I, she would go on to create some of Modernism’s most iconic forms, including the puffy, tubular 1920s Bibendum chair, but in 1907, when she was 28 and had recently moved to France, she fixated on Japanese lacquer. That year, Gray began a two-decade-long professional relationship with Sugawara Seizo, also in his 20s, a lacquerware expert who had come to work in Paris, like many Japanese craftsmen of that era. Together they created dozens of large folding screens over the years. While fabrication hewed exactly to traditional methods, the designs were nothing like the figurative screens that had come out of Japan, or even the adaptations rendered by the French Japonists. Abstract and geometric, some were made of smaller square lacquered panels connected by a metal armature that could be rotated to form a multidimensional sculpture. According to Ruth Starr, a Japanese art historian at Trinity College Dublin, Gray “was determined to use the purest form of a Japanese medium, no matter how strenuous it was, to create a bridge to the modern.”
Such impulses were put on hold in Europe as World War I escalated, and by the time the conflict was over, the organic flexion and utopian trippiness of Art Nouveau had waned, subsumed in France (and, soon after, the rest of the world) by Art Deco, a sobriquet derived after Paris’s 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes. The style’s futuristic geometry, expressed in the 1930 Chrysler Building and the domed radios that sat in every European home’s parlor, was a tacit acceptance that machines and the unembellished finishes they excelled in creating could no longer be fended off, nor should they be. While the best Art Deco pieces were still crafted by hand, the mark of the maker and all imperfections were eschewed, replaced by glassy surfaces, often in lacquer or chrome. There were still many Asian references, but they tended to be Chinese — dragons, pagodas, foo dogs — rather than Japanese; after the 1911 revolution that demolished imperial rule and created the Republic of China, there was renewed global interest in the culture. A number of French museum shows, including at the Musée Guimet, which opened in 1889 to showcase works from Asia, allowed artisans to see real Chinese art and objects instead of relying on their own idealized Orientalist concoctions. Ocean travel had become far easier than it was following the opening of Japan, and designers, including Louis Cartier, began sending representatives to Asian countries.
But there remained an unspoken sense among such creators that refined, naturalistic elegance was still the province of the Japanese. The early 20th-century dressmaker and costumer Paul Poiret made kimono coats, controversial for their shapelessness, for wealthy bohemians, and couturiers in the 1920s were intrigued with the potential of draped fabrics and looser silhouettes. (Back when Japonisme had swept Paris, women were still stuck in Victorian-era corsetry.) In 1925, the designer Jacques Worth embroidered a dress and cape with a Japanese motif by the Swiss-French artist Jean Dunand, who often worked in lacquer; two years later, Coco Chanel showed her own version, fashioned from lengths of silk crepe knotted at the neck, with a gold chrysanthemum pattern and sleeves that ended in a padded hem, evocative of the fuki, the bottom edge of a kimono. As Western women increasingly entered the public sphere, a market developed for accessories to be worn with these new clothes: lipstick holders, cigarette boxes, powder compacts and tiny jeweled vanity cases that could be worn around the wrist. At Van Cleef & Arpels, some of these were modeled on inro, the small boxes of wood, leather, metal, ivory or paper that Japanese men hung from their obi (kimonos have no pockets) to carry tobacco or medicinal herbs. A 1924 version made of gold, jade and diamonds featured a stylized plant motif on black enamel.
The global spread of Art Deco also provided a coda to the long history of Japanese influence: Now, for the first time, a Western aesthetic — albeit one with roots in the East — ricocheted back to Asia. Just as notable as the Japanese elements that continued to infuse Art Deco was how thoroughly the movement captured Japan; it was regarded not as yet another Western lens on the archipelago but as the truest incarnation of the West itself. Like the flappers (les garçonnes, in France), young Japanese women, called moga, bobbed their hair, smoked cigarettes and listened to jazz, defying the image of the idealized courtesans of early ukiyo-e; around this time, Japan was also closing the circle by increasingly adopting Western-style military practices to realize its own imperial ambitions.
Such tensions can be seen in the Japanese objects of the era: The delicate okimono (decorative pieces) of earlier ages were replaced with sleek ones that nodded to Cubism and the speed of travel, like the streamlined jumping bronze hare made in the 1930s by the artist Torizo Morimura. In a way, this stylistic evolution was not such a leap; many traditional objects had embodied the burnished gleam of Art Deco, with its reliance on chaste lines and polished finishes. But it’s perhaps the 1920-30s mantel clock by the artist Churoku Neya that best encapsulated the hall-of-mirrors relationship between the island nation and the European country captivated by it. Arising from Deco-style dark bronze clouds is a modernist gold-tone moon clock face, its numerals replaced by a ring of stars; in the center, a stylized rabbit — a Japanese symbol of cleverness — is pounding rice cakes in an evocation of the ancient Eastern folk tale of the hare that inhabits that celestial body. As the critic Watanabe Soshu wrote in his manifesto for the Mukei (Formless) movement, which encouraged abstraction in art and craft, “Now is precisely now. This is the act of taking off.” Japan had at last embraced the future, in all its decadent continental glory, just as a generation of French artists and makers had so deeply immersed themselves in the ancient, subversive dream of a floating world. It’s a reminder that what seems new rarely is, and that even strange and enchanted things that come from far away are often, in the end, merely returning home.
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