‘Le Japon Artistique’ charts cultural currents from East to West & back

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[Tom Biederbeck] In the 19th century, European artists became enthralled by the long Japanese tradition of woodblock prints — including the famed ukiyo-e, “pictures of the floating world” — eventually sparking the Art Nouveau movement. Le Japon Artistique: Japanese Floral Pattern Design in the Art Nouveau Era is a new release from Chronicle Books that handsomely depicts this fascinating episode in artistic cross-pollination.

While Western artists (Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas and others) had been searching out these printed works even before Japan’s opening to the world after centuries of self-imposed isolation, what’s broadly known as the Meiji era brought much greater exposure to the Japanese master artists. In particular, their depictions of plant forms in sinuous lines, arrayed on characteristic flattened color planes, later played an enormous role in works of the Art Nouveau period. It was in part an expression of Japonisme, the mania for all things Japanese in Europe at the time.

Most Le Japon Artistique is a selection of key works by Japanese masters. While contemplating these images by themselves allows the linkages to emerge, a lucid and helpful introductory essay by Rachel Saunders (of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) provides background and context for the exchange of artistry. By noting that the term art nouveau was first applied to Japanese works in the mid-19th century, she illustrates the force of Japanese traditions in the genesis of Art Nouveau. A liberating influence for Western artists, she observes, was the “perceived lack of distinction between the fine and decorative arts” in Japan. This was critical to the Art Nouveau movement, which sought to bring artistic expression into all aspects of everyday life.

Encountering Art Nouveau, Japanese artists were at first taken aback by the extent to which their forms had been appropriated. But it wasn’t long before a European-style school of crafts and design had been established there, even employing European text- and pattern-books. What Saunders terms the “circularity of the situation” resulted in the evolution of new Japanese pattern styles that in fact outlasted the short-lived Art Nouveau period in the West.

From its Japanese stab binding (espcially appropriate, given the subject matter) to its lovely reproductions of classic woodblock prints by important Japanese artists, Le Japon Artistique illustrates cultural cross-currents during an era that continues to absorb, and deserve, our attention. This book will be valued by anyone with an interest in Japanese woodblock art, floral patterns or the history of art. And its design makes it a fine gift for discerning collectors of art books.

A summarized version of this post was published by Felt & Wire Aug. 2. At reader request, the full article appears today.

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