Monet, Gauguin, van Gogh ... Japanese Inspirations

Between 1633 and 1639, Japan implemented a series of edicts that effectively ended any engagement with the rest of the world. For over 200 years, this policy of deliberate isolationism, known as sakoku, was enforced with great effort. Although it certainly wasn’t ironclad in design – Japan still had some rapport outside of its borders – it was nevertheless remarkably successful.
This was much to the chagrin of foreign powers. They saw commercial value in trading with the country and so it was that in the end greed triumphed over integrity, respect. In 1853, the Black Ships of US commodore Matthew Perry arrived on the shores of Japan. They first asked, then demanded and forced the Japanese government to open its ports.
Needless to say, this changed the course of the country’s history forever and marked the beginning of its transition to a more modern way of life. One of the consequences of this was a sudden surge in western interest in all things Japanese, including its culture. In France especially, artists were inspired.
It is this enthusiasm that forms the main theme of a new exhibition at the Museum Folkwang in Essen, Germany, which surveys how European art was transformed by the distinct aesthetics and motifs of Japanese art between 1860 and 1910.
“The artists’ fascination for the Far Eastern country is evident in many respects: their works portray artefacts and commodities imported from Japan; they appropriate Japanese pictorial subjects to depict their own European environment; and incorporate the formal language of the Japanese colour woodcut,” the museum outlines.
“In combination with their own pictorial traditions and their respective times, it was this very internalisation of the Japanese stylistic devices that instilled creative processes in the artists, out of which they developed diverse forms of artistic expression that exerted an influence far into the twentieth century.”
Monet, Gauguin, van Gogh … Japanese Inspirations is an intriguing examination at the ways in which Japonisme, as it is known, added new lines of thought and expression to avant-garde styles of art, which were already beginning to offer the world entirely different and at times incomprehensible visuals. An exotic vocabulary, as the Museum Folkwang puts it, was emerging.
Major works by European luminaries – which have been loaned by international museums and private collectors – are presented alongside colour woodcuts and artefacts by their Japanese equivalents, delivering a stirring and captivating dialogue between east and west.
Monet, Gauguin, van Gogh … Japanese Inspirations at the Museum Folkwang in Essen, Germany, runs until January 18th 2015.
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