Japonisme: East-West Renaissance in the Late 19th Century

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Ranging across the arts--painting, literature, theater--this essay explores the different phases of and attitudes toward the assimilation of Japanese aesthetics and practice in late 19th-century Britain and France. Focus is on the way that Japonisme underlaid the various movements that constitute Modernism.

The late 19th century was a time expanding of frontiers for many European nations, and England in particular was engaged in extending its gaze outward. In terms of political and socioeconomic practices, this centrifugal thrust had a negative character, whereby British Imperialism took the form of "colonizing" a vast array of "others"--chiefly Africa and India. Viewed in terms of the arts, however, this tendency to look elsewhere had a more positive character, signifying both a discontent with the Greco-Roman principles that had governed European art and an interest in developing new modes and styles of representation. Although the acquisitive impulse was still operative, here the competition branched out into questions of which art form might best be able to translate another culture, and since it was primarily the visual arts of other cultures which first attracted attention, the more theoretical issue became one of whether and how the visual arts might be translated into a verbal medium.

One of the most fascinating examples of this interarts and intercultural phenomenon was Japonisme--the term conventionally used to describe the influence of Japan on late 19th-century European art and life. Indeed, according to art historian Gabriel P. Weisberg, Japonisme can be seen as a type of "East-West Renaissance.... a latter-day example of the kind of cultural diffusion which occurred during the Renaissance, when the excitement of classical discoveries stimulated imitation and veneration" (Japonisme 43). As Weisberg explains, the term Japonisme was itself originally coined in 1872 by a French art critic, Philippe Burty, to "designate a new field of study--artistic, historic and ethnographic" (xi) which would present a more systematic and comprehensive approach to the newly discovered Japanese art. Current interest in the area has similarly stressed the need for a "comprehensive, global view" (Wichmann 13), and in doing so has also emphasized the need for attention both to its manifold aspects and its distinctive character. Nor is it merely a historic interest that has fueled the current interest in Japonisme but rather the growing perception that by helping to free the Western artistic mentality from the constraints of its naturalistic and academic conventions, the influence of Japanese aesthetics acted as a dynamic force behind the various innovative and interarts movements of the late 19th century which collectively served to constitute Modernism.

As a way of contributing to this kind of research, my purpose in the following essay is to explore further the attraction to and challenges posed by Japanese art in the later part of the 19th century, particularly in Britain. Beginning first with a general cultural/historical overview of Japonisme, I will then examine the various attempts in the visual arts to incorporate Japanese pictorial techniques and designs; in turn, I will survey some of the differing reactions to Japanese aesthetics and practice on the part of various 19th-century artists and commentators, and then go on to discuss the impact of Japanese art on representative novelists and poets. Finally, I will turn to the theatrical arts, with a view to suggesting that drama might well be the art form most capable of assimilating the art of another culture and that in any case it was "the stage" that most registered the impact of Japonisme as a whole. Within this general framework, I will be ranging widely across the period and the different art forms, for one of the most intriguing things about Japonisme--and possibly the reason why it had such an energizing effect--was the frequently contradictory responses its various facets occasioned, just as at times even a single artist reflected opposing views in his/her assimilation and adaptation of Japanese aesthetics and motifs. …

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