A virtually bloodless conquest by Western imperialism, the “opening of Japan” in 1853, had many global consequences, one of which is on exhibit now at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum. Opening today, the exhibit “Looking East” has a descriptive subtitle: “How Japan Inspired Monet, Van Gogh, and Other Western Artists.”
When U.S. Navy ships, commanded by Admiral Perry – and followed by British, French, and Dutch naval forces – pried Japan out of centuries of isolation, it signaled the beginning the modern-day two-way flow of people, ideas, and commerce between East and West. The San Francisco exhibit, which features some 170 works of Japanese and Western art from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, deals with only one aspect of this great cultural movement, known as “japonisme,” pairing Japanese art with French works directly inspired by them. Also on exhibit: decorative arts, prints, drawings, and textiles.
San Francisco is the last stop on the national tour of the Boston exhibit curated by Helen Burnham, also the author of the lavish catalog for the show about “an extraordinary moment of cross-cultural exchange.”
Galleries are divided by subject matter, dealing with the depiction of women, city life, nature, and landscape. The taste for Japan was associated early on with female consumers who wore imported silks and decorated their homes with curiosities such as fans and folding screens. Paintings of European beauties in imported kimonos and kimono-like garments were among the first Japan-inspired works of art in the West, starting in the 1860s and 1870s.
An example of direct influence, a virtual copy, is Kikukawa Eizan’s woodblock print of mother and child, next to Mary Stevenson Cassatt’s “Maternal Caress” oil painting.
The 19th century’s burgeoning urban life – with a very different look in Japan and the West – appeared in the rich representation of Japanese ukiyo-e prints (“pictures of the floating world”), making a big impression in the West.
The landscapes of Hokusai and Hiroshige inspired early Impressionists, such as Degas, Manet, and Monet; Post-Impressionists, especially van Gogh; and Art Nouveau artist Toulouse-Lautrec.
The landscape section of “Looking East” compares the fresh, bright colors of Japanese prings with new trends in Western styles, away from the traditional. Hiroshige’s “Bamboo Yards, Kyobashi Bridge” next to Monet’s “The water lily pond” speaks volumes of the rich East-West exchange.
A decade ago, the Honolulu Academy of Art organized “Japan & Paris,” displaying Japanese art along with Impressionists and Postimpressionists serving as inspiration. The exhibit introduced outstanding artists, almost completely unknown in the West, such as Kume Keiichiro, Maeta Kanji, Mitsutani Kunishiro and Yorozu Tesugoro.
“Looking East” is lacking only in providing the “looking West” aspect of art history.