You might be familiar with Japanese-French fusion in culinary terms, but who knew that those two countries are also connected in art history? During the early 19th century, Japanese artworks such as fans, silks, kimonos, and prints began trickling into France, where they inspired significant changes in French art – a topic on which Maggie Bryan ’15 is becoming something of an expert.
This summer, under the guidance of Assistant Professor of Art History Peggy Wang, Bryan is researching how impressionist and post-impressionist French painters were influenced by the woodblock prints of Utagawa Hiroshige, Katsushika Hokusai, and other Japanese artists. A double major in French and Art History, Bryan has had a unique advantage in conducting research for this project, since she has been able to glean information from texts written in French as well as in English.
Last fall Bryan studied abroad at the Université de Bordeaux 3 and took a class on science, art, et archéologie, during which she gave a presentation analyzing the pigments used in Japanese woodblock prints. Her professor found her presentation interesting and noted that students don’t usually present on Asian art in the French-centered curriculum. “It may have been a backward compliment,” Bryan said, “but the project definitely gave me some background on Japanese art to jumpstart my research.” Currently supported by a Surdna Foundation Research Fellowship, Bryan hopes to turn her summer research into an honors project in the coming year.
The Japanese works she is focusing on were created from original drawings transferred to translucent paper and from there to woodblocks, where the negative space was chiseled away and the areas to be colored were left intact. A piece of paper pressed on an inked woodblock became a print. The influence of such works on French art occurred on two levels, Bryan explained. The more superficial of the two is known as japonaiserie, in which artists were drawn to exotic Japanese motifs such as fans and gardens. For example, many of Claude Monet’s early paintings of water lilies feature an arced, Japanese-inspired bridge that he had built in his famous Giverny gardens. Prints of Japanese women inspired Edgar Degas, an early collector of Japanese art in France, whose iconic paintings of dancers and nudes drew from the perspective and poses of Japanese woodblocks.
“If you insist on forcing me into an affiliation with anyone else for the good of a cause, then compare me with the old Japanese masters; their exquisite taste has always delighted me, and I like the suggestive quality of their aesthetic, which evokes presence by the shadow and the whole by a part.” –Claude Monet
The second influence was stylistic, and is referred to as japonisme. The woodblock prints’ bold lines and colors drew the eye of Monet, Vincent Van Gogh, Emile Bernard, Paul Gaugin, and other French artists. They saw these Japanese prints as having “captured the feeling of the landscape, rather than what it looked like exactly,” Bryan said – which inspired a new direction in these French artists’ work.
The new color theory and perspectives introduced through Japanese art were a major contributor to the development of French impressionism – which got its official name in 1874, when art critic Louis Leroy accused a sunrise painting by Monet of being an “impression” or sketch as opposed to a finished painting. Some French artists, notably Monet and Van Gogh, openly acknowledged the direct influence of Japanese woodblock prints on their work. Other French impressionists, such as Paul Cezanne, denied inspiration by Japanese art – but were nonetheless influenced by their French contemporaries who were incorporating Japanese stylistic elements into their paintings.
Japonisme represents the first non-western artistic influence on French art that went deeper than “the allure of the exotic,” Bryan says. Given that many movements in European art were based on revivals of previous western art movements – for example, the revival of classical art during the Renaissance – Bryan is interested in what the profound influence of japonisme on Western art can tell us about the political climate between Japan and France at the time, the translation of Japanese culture into a Western context and the resulting biases, and the role of art in cross-cultural communication.
“If we study Japanese art, we see a man who is undoubtedly wise, philosophic and intelligent, who spends his time how? In studying the distance between the earth and the moon? No… He studies a single blade of grass…this blade of grass leads him to draw every plant and then the seasons, the wide aspects of the countryside, then animals, then the human figure. So he passes his life, and life is too short to do the whole.” – Van Gogh, in an 1887 letter to his brother Theo
To see what other Bowdoin students are up to this summer, check out this interactive map by Nina Underman ’15.