Sunday, 1 January 2012

Degas and Japonisme

Degas and Japonisme

Edgar Degas Dancers with double base (1887)

It is easy to assume that the above iconic painting by Edgar Degas was entirely original in form and content and yet close examination of his sources reveals that he owed a great deal to Japanese art of an earlier century

Indeed, the impact of Japan on Western art from the middle of the 19th century was profound, and not just on Degas

After 1858, when Japan first opened its doors to the West, a wealth of visual information from Japanese ceramics, metalwork, architecture, print-making and painting flooded into Europe, bringing with it electrifying new ideas of composition, colour and design

Edgar Degas The bath 1886
Lautrec, Van Gogh and Degas were amongst the great European artists most influenced by these new ideas

In western Europe, figure painting was both rigid and formal, whereby subjects were represented in stiff, stately poses as befit their social status

Gustave Courbet was perhaps the first French artist to break these conventions. Others quickly followed, not least Degas

                                                       Degas                               Hokusai

What Japanese art did was to rid Europe of gestural conformism and open up figures from everyday life

Degas himself was most influenced by Hokusai whose prints explored the intimate, domestic actions - for example - of women washing or combing their hair

Katsushika Hokusai
Such vivid depiction of common, primary human gestures was not thought proper for an artist in Europe

Degas, 1886
These new postures influence other art forms.

A striking example is the way in which women of fashion were depicted, as in this elegant colour woodcut by Kitagawa Utamaro (1804)

Compare that with this porcelain figure (below) by Joseph Wackerle (1907) and one can see the direct impact Japanese art was having on French commercial art of the period

The French in particular embraced Japanese art and artifacts whole-heartedly, this passion underpinning much of the so-called innovations of Art Nouveau. Van Gogh and his brother Theo (an art dealer in London) both collected Japanese woodcuts, as did Toulouse-Lautrec

Toulouse-Lautrec, 1892

This is such a fascinating  topic that I should like to return to it again sometime soon in this blog - looking perhaps at the way Van Gogh’s graphic technique was derived entirely from Japanese pen-and-ink drawings and how Lautrec’s magnificent posters drew extensively on the work of Oriental masters such as Hokusai, Koryusai and Utamaro

Isoda Koryusai, 1775
Come back soon if you share my interest in the way Modernism itself was shaped

Lautrec 1892

Mike Healey

Illustrations for this article were taken from Siegfried Wichmann's Japonisme, published by Thames and Hudson (1999)

If you would like to see more of Degas' work, click on the YouTube link below:


No comments: