Japonisme: Cultural Crossings Between Japan and the West

by Lionel Lambourne
Japan, which closed its doors on the world after 1639, left the catflap of Deshima open to Dutch merchants, so specialists on both sides could trade through it for two centuries. The material west imported low-bulk luxuries - porcelain, lacquer, a plant or two; the immaterial east imported no-bulk information. The Japanese, who were curious to the point of learning Dutch, synthesised an understanding of the wide world from which they were barred, investigating perspective, astronomy, blood circulation; their European counterparts merely envisaged an extension of China where the vases were tinged orange.
Yet by the time Commodore Matthew Perry and his black dragon ships entered Yedo bay in the 1850s to open the floating kingdom forcibly to trade with the US (globalisation in a modern sense - sign here or we fire), the western world was changing. Perry's dragons were, after all, steamships, from a west mechanising as fast as the coal could be extracted, while Japan's isolation had preserved it as a reservation of unique aesthetics and pre-industrial craft techniques. Its products, including artworks so cheap as never to have been worth transit through Deshima, were dispatched via the new treaty ports to western customers - no longer the odd aristo collecting curios, but a different market created by industralisation. Factory provision of basic goods to the more middling folk of the 1850s and 60s left them with surplus income to squander on exotic acquisitions, while cheap printing encouraged the dissemination of treatises on design and art. Possibly because of photography, and certainly because of boredom with a classicism that had prevailed for a century, the eyes of the era were looking for images that startled.

Enter, writes Lionel Lambourne, the woodblock print. Quantities of original artworks could be had at moderate prices; the architect EW Godwin, who lived in Bristol, had them straight off the boat and up on his walls as early as 1862, and Edmond and Jules de Goncourt in Paris didn't lag far behind. Prints proposed an alternative both to school-of-fine-arts Hellenism and the hearty mock-medievalism of the Pre-Raphaelites. They had the power to precipitate modern visuals. Consider JM Whistler's Caprice in Purple and Gold, painted in 1864: Whistler arranged his model in a floating-world pose among a cargo of Japonaiserie, prints supplemented with screens and kimonos in the persimmon tones of a Kyoto palette, but the picture's real surprise was his changed viewpoint. He was not standing at an easel; he had dropped nearer to the floor - the feet of a folding chair amble on to the canvas at angles hardly before seen in western art.
As prints, and, even better, the 15 volumes of Hokusai's Manga (woodblocked sketches from life), passed between artists in France, Britain and America for the next 30 years, each recalibrated his or her focal length. Degas suddenly saw nudes not as Greek statues, but as Hokusai had caught them, awkward in a bathhouse. Van Gogh went so far as to shave his head and paint his eyes at a slant for a self-portrait in homage to a bonze (Japanese priest).

Monet wrote that without the prints no one would have dared to "juxtapose a roof which was bright red, a wall which was white, a green poplar, a yellow road", implying that impressionism, post-impressionism and fauvism, in colour and calculatedly loose composition, came ashore with the Yokohama cargoes. They set free the graphic spirits of Jules Chéret and Toulouse-Lautrec in the 1880s when lithography and urban advertisements together invented the poster: the lettering in a Lautrec is released from the alphabet into new life as an ideograph.

Of course, as Lambourne slyly describes, western creatives seized upon what they wanted in Japan. The French identified with the melancholy gaiety of the pleasure quarters, from the Goncourts amused by erotic scrolls to that odious racist Pierre Loti, who constructed a sneer of a novel, Madame Chrysanthème, out of a liaison with a teen concubine. The more sympathetic Madame Butterfly story was adapted from fact by an American lawyer, and made into an Italian libretto because Puccini needed a Japanese theme to beat his rival Mascagni, who had composed an opera that opened near Mount Fuji and climaxed in a sewer beneath a Tokyo brothel.
For Americans such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Japanese architecture and gardens became models for the watered, windowed, wooden US house. For the English, the appreciation of things Japanese had snob value. The child of an aesthetic movement home was raised among Meiji paraphernalia, and learned to read from Walter Crane books that illustrated the same. Mother shopped at the oriental emporium of Arthur Liberty, and all the family went to see Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado, with its synchronised fan-flapping choreographed by a teahouse girl from a "Japanese village" exhibition in Hyde Park. (Mike Leigh's movie Topsy-Turvy, about the staging of The Mikado, has perfect pitch for this Punch mode of Japonisme.)

Now and again among tourists who sailed in search of quaintness under the cherry blossom, talents reached Japan and loved it for what it really was, or at least for what it had really been. Lambourne is properly fond of the potter Bernard Leach, "courier between east and west"; of Lafcadio Hearn, an inspired interpreter of Japan after naturalisation as Yakumo Koizumi (nothing in the ghostliest kabuki plays is chillier than his collection of spook stories, Kwaidan); and of Rudyard Kipling, who grasped, five minutes after arrival, that the Japanese were using their imported information to industrialise - "they would make cloisonné by machinery in another 20 years and build black factories instead of gardens."

Lambourne gives less consideration to reverse creative understanding. He mocks as "hilarious" prints of western cities, probably derived from a tattered back number of the Illustrated London News, that circulated in Japan post-1855, but they did capture exactly the desire to be somewhere thrillingly other, as travel ads now do. And the book's single most striking image, which vibrated in my brain long after its vistas of wisteria had faded, was a very late print cut by the artist Kokyo immediately after a Russian flagship had been blown up by a Japanese destroyer at Port Arthur in 1903.

It was hawked in Japan's streets the following week to a public avid for topical information: searchlights, explosions, uniformed matelots clanging over metal ships, a vision of modernity racing through swell, its spume rendered traditionally as the outlined absence of ink. I kept looking at a detail of the print, splashed across a double-page with a vertical strip reserved for the chapter title. The white spaces and narrow columns of the book's layout (beautifully done, like a catalogue for a fantasy exhibition with no insurance restrictions) are in fact its ultimate commentary on Japan's revision of western sight. They were once novel shocks from some imported album by, say, Hiroshige. Now they are the design norm.

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