Japan, France, and East-West Aesthetics: French Literature, 1867-2000

By Jan Walsh Hokenson | Go to book overview

Introduction: The Shock of Encounter

THE PAINTERS' DISCOVERY OF THE JAPANESE PRINTS IN PARIS

ALTHOUGH THE FACTS OF TIME AND PLACE HAVE RECEDED INTO LEGEND, like many historical records of the birth of Modernism, it is certain that a packet of Japanese prints arrived in Paris around 1860 and instantly created a widening wave of amazement, incredulity, and exhilaration. The shock of encounter was so great, and the moment so crucial, that fifty years later painters and writers were still disputing its lore. The most persistent legend has it that japonisme was born in a Paris engraver's studio in the Spring of 1856, when Félix Bracquemond opened a crate of ceramics from the Far East, only to discover that they were wrapped in a sheaf of Hokusai prints. Astonished and exultant, he immediately showed them to his friends Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, James Whistler, Camille Pissarro, the painters who were to form the avant-garde of the next decade.1 Although known to a few specialists before 1840, the Japanese woodcut prints had "arrived" in Europe with Bracquemond's discovery, and would change the course of Western art.2

Art historians have long recognized the extraordinary impact of this encounter. Defining the pivotal role of the Japanese print in the development of French Impressionism, Klaus Berger, Siegfried Wichmann, Gabriel Weisberg, Elisa Evett, and others have shown that the new Japanese aesthetic arrived at a moment of crisis in Western painting (it seemed to Renoir that the Impressionists' dissolving of realistic surfaces through the play of light had become merely mechanical, until he saw the prints: "I had come to the end of Impressionism…. I was in a blind alley," quoted in Berger, Japonisme, 2). Literary scholars, however, have paid little attention to the French writers' intimate involvements in this process of EastWest aesthetic change. The writers too chafed at anemic academic formulas and exulted at the fresh possibilities opened by Japanese art, in literature as in painting. Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Emile Zola, the Goncourt brothers, Stéphane Mallarmé, Joris-Karl Huysmans all wrote about this new Japanese art. The youngest among them experimented with the new aesthetic in their own work.

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Japan, France, and East-West Aesthetics: French Literature, 1867-2000
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page 3
  • Contents 7
  • List of Illustrations 9
  • Acknowledgments 11
  • Introduction: The Shock of Encounter 13
  • I toward a New Aesthetic in the West 37
  • 1: Convergence of Painters and Writers 39
  • 2: Naturalist and Fin-De-Siècle Configurations 69
  • 3: Symbolism and Japoniste Contexts 120
  • II: Modernist Configurations 177
  • 4: Designs in Contrastive Aesthetics 179
  • 5: The Japoniste Poetics of Early Modernism 225
  • 6: The Samurais of Modernism 276
  • Part III: Rethinking the Occident Via Japan 329
  • 7: The Counter-Discourse of Japan 331
  • 8: Merging East-West Aesthetics 376
  • Epilogue 408
  • Notes 421
  • Bibliography 489
  • Index 509
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