In art, Blog, Design, History

Or the excitement of meeting Japanese art


This is the first blog for a month – our excuse is a visit to Japan, where we absorbed ideas and inspirations from both historic and contemporary Japanese art and design. We became creatively excited about what we saw and devotees of ‘Japonism’.

Our excitement mirrored the excitement Europeans had when Japanese art made its reappearance in the West in the mid-nineteenth century. Within a few years the influence of the rediscovery was being felt throughout the visual and decorative arts.

A Japanese print showing three men, probably Commander Anan, Commodore Perry and Captain Adams. The text being read may be President Fillmore’s letter to Emperor of Japan.

Commodore Perry

On July 8, 1853, American Commodore Matthew Perry led four ships into Tokyo Bay harbour. His mission, successfully accomplished, was to force the Japanese into reopening their country to allow the use of Japanese ports by American ships. Further negotiations on trade took longer, but when Japanese officials learned of how the British had compelled the opening to China by the use of force, they signed the commercial Harris Treaty in 1858. Where the Americans had gone, the Europeans followed and a flood of Japanese products soon found their way into the West.

It was over two hundred years since the Japanese Shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu, had issued the 1635 edicts that essentially closed Japan to all foreigners and prevented Japanese from leaving –  the culmination of a period of deepening suspicion of the West and of missionaries in particular. In all that time the mystery that was Japan had increased and, when Japanese brilliance exploded onto Western art markets, the impact was rapid and widespread. Artefacts as diverse as textiles, ceramics, paper fans and prints were bought in large quantities.


Artists were challenged by the different ideas they saw of perspective and composition, in particular in the Ukiyoe or ‘floating world’ woodblock prints, which became, and remain, hugely popular in Europe. Artists and designers alike wanted to explore the Japanese use of line and motif and the often reverential treatment of nature. This fascination was seen was seen in the work of artists and designers as diverse as Manet in the 1860s, Van Gogh in the 1880s and Charles Rennie Mackintosh in the early 1900s. Commercial design was influenced. The term “Japonism” was coined to describe works made in Europe and the U.S. that incorporated aesthetic principles from the fresh new imagery that adorned such imported goods and that were produced to satisfy the new Western hunger for such items.  Close copying was acceptable. An early famous example is the use by Frederic Boucheron, on an enamel inkstand, of an image of Mount Fuji and a man fishing – both taken from an 1831 Hokusai print. Imitation was also. Victorian furniture was sometimes stained to make the wood black to imitate Japanese lacquer. Interpretation increasingly occurred, so, for example, Japanese circular ‘mon’ motifs and the simplicity of Japanese forms influenced a more geometric approach to pattern and style.

Arthur Lasenby Liberty opened Liberty’s on Oxford Street in 1875 and specialised in selling goods imported from the East. His success was based on, and fed, the Victorian appetite for all things Japanese. From the 1880s, the store commissioned works from significant designers such as Christopher Dresser and E.W. Godwin which ensured a quality in the interpretation of Japanese art for the British market. Liberty was able to visit Japan in 1889. His customers settled for a piece of Japan in their dining rooms.


Hokusai, View of Mount Fuji

Van Gogh

Writing in the Guardian recently, Jonathan Jones comments that “There is plenty of evidence that the European artists who laid the foundations of modernism were obsessed with the images of Hokusai, Hiroshige and the other masters who took woodblock printing to a zenith of sophistication in 18th and early 19th century Japan.” He cites evidence in the pictures of Manet and Whistler, but is particularly interested in Van Gogh, in the light of a current exhibition ‘Van Gogh and Japan’ at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. His conclusion is that Van Gogh failed to achieve the calm of his Japanese forebears, but, in his personal turmoil, produced more interesting art. His evidence is particularly the copy Van Gogh made of Hiroshige’s ‘Plum Estate, Kameido’ (1857). Hiroshige places a black tree in the immediate foreground, blocking off much of the view behind. This, along with another similar print, was copied by Vincent van Gogh, but, according to Jones, in Van Gogh’s hands the painting transforms so, for example, “the black lines of rain that form a cool curtain of rain” in the original, become “violent, sinister, oppressive”. The attraction of the Japanese originals to many, of course, remain their calm, Zen influenced approach. You can compare the two images and read the Jonathan Jones article here:


Charles Rennie Mackintosh

Little recognised in his lifetime, Mackintosh is now recognised as a major designer and architect; the recent fire in the Mackintosh designed Glasgow Art School was seen as a major cultural disaster. In his work, Mackintosh was much influenced by Japan and, in turn, influenced Art Nouveau and the Vienna Secession. The first picture below shows a door from The Hill House in Helensburgh, completed in 1904 for the publisher Walter Blackie; the influence of Japanese simplicity of form and the use of black against a plain wall is clearly seen. The second shows furniture, decorative panels and light fittings from the Ingram Street Tearooms, designed by Mackintosh in 1900-1912. These can be seen in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow and show the influence of Japanese screen architecture and a lightness of form in contrast to much Edwardian domestic design.




A brief summary of the influence of Japanese art on British design, which I found helpful, can be found on the V and A website: www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/s/style-guide-influence-of-japan/. More on The Hill House can be read on the National Trust for Scotland website: www.nts.org.uk/Property/The-Hill-House




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