Frist Center explores influence of Japan on Western artists

Louis Dumoulin (French), Carp Banners in Kyoto, 1888: Oil on canvas, 18 1/8 x 21 3/8 in., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1986.582. photograph: 2013 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Louis Dumoulin (French), Carp Banners in Kyoto, 1888: Oil on canvas, 18 1/8 x 21 3/8 in., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1986.582.
photograph: 2013 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

‘Looking East: Western Artists and the Allure of Japan’ celebrates the cultural and aesthetic influences of Japanese art and culture on the Western imagination in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Premiering at the Frist Center, this traveling exhibition reveals aspects of the fruitful exchange by presenting works and objects by influential Japanese artists alongside those of Western luminaries such as Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas, John La Farge, Claude Monet, Edvard Munch, Alfred Stieglitz, Vincent van Gogh, Frank Lloyd Wright among many others. The exhibition will be on view in the Frist Center for the Visual Arts’ Ingram Gallery from Friday, January 31 through May 11, 2014.

“There have only been a few exhibitions on this subject and it is exciting for the Frist Center to be the first venue for this one,” said Frist Center Curator Trinita Kennedy. “Because of the presence of Japanese companies, Nashville is the perfect place to celebrate this important moment of artistic exchange between East and West.”
The exhibition, which will coincide with the city’s Cherry Blossom Festival, will later be seen throughout Japan and then at the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec and San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum. Drawn from and organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (world renowned for their Japanese, American, and European collections of this period) ‘Looking East’ consists of more than 170 objects, including arms and armor, decorative arts, paintings, prints and drawings, and textiles.

When Japan opened its ports to international trade in the 1850s and emerged from centuries of self-imposed isolation, a craze for all things Japanese set in amongst European and North American collectors, artists and designers. The phenomenon, dubbed japonisme by the Parisian critic Philippe Burty in 1872, created a radical shift in Western tastes toward Japanese aesthetic principles, and is evident in major movements including Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and Art Nouveau. Many Western artists first learned about Japanese aesthetics through color woodblock prints known as ukiyo-e, or ‘pictures of the floating world’ that typically depicted scenes from Kabuki theater, red-light districts and other fashionable and fleeting pleasures.

“Artists were eager to demonstrate their curiosity about the wider world and Japan was particularly appealing,” said Ms. Kennedy. “Everything about Japan, from the way people dressed and ate and how artists looked at the world, would have been novel to Western artists.”

Vincent van Gogh, Postman Joseph Roulin, 1888: Oil on canvas, 32 x 25 3/4 in., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, gift of Robert Treat Paine, 2nd, 35.1982. photograph 2014 MFA, Boston

Vincent van Gogh, Postman Joseph Roulin, 1888: Oil on canvas, 32 x 25 3/4 in., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, gift of Robert Treat Paine, 2nd, 35.1982.
photograph 2014 MFA, Boston

‘Looking East’ is organized into five segments, starting with an introductory section, followed by the themes of city life, women, nature and landscape. For each thematic subject, Japanese objects are paired with American or European works to represent a particular stylistic or technical influence. Signaling their own cosmopolitanism, Western artists staged their compositions with elegant oriental props; Japanese fans, kimonos, lanterns, screens, umbrellas, and vases, for example, are especially common in French paintings.

“The French Impressionist Claude Monet looked to his collection of more than 200 Japanese prints as a source of inspiration, and even based the gardens at his country home in Giverny, France on ukiyo-e landscapes,” said Kennedy. Characteristic Japanese flora and fauna motifs such as chrysanthemums and butterflies are also incorporated in Western decorative arts as seen in this exhibition’s elaborately decorated inkstand (1876) by the French designer Paul Legrand. The japonisme influence even extended to architecture, furniture design and book illustrations, examples of which are also on view in this exhibition.