Monday, 14 December 2015


Part 1

Edgar Degas - The Bath (1886)

If you have been following this blog in recent months you will have seen how I have been looking at the impact Japanese art at the turn of the 20th century had on great Modernists painters, including Degas and Monet.

This time I want to look at the work of Toulouse Lautrec

Of the three great painters under discussion, Lautrec is perhaps the one who most readily absorbed the impact Japanese art made on French artists after 1858

Let's start with what he is perhaps best known for - his posters

Undoubtedly, Lautrec was a hugely innovative artist whose style, immediately recognisable then as now, seems to be the product of innate genius

That is only partly true!

Like many other major artists of this period, Lautrec was exposed to an influx of Japanese art, especially coloured woodcuts and prints

 Katsushika Hokusai 1814-78

What Lautrec recognised immediately was the absolute freedom with which these Japanese artists drew their figures - revealing an entirely new (to French art, at least) repertoire of intimate, spontaneous actions and postures from everyday life

At this time Lautrec deliberately immersed himself in the demi-monde of Momartre, largely to escape the constraints of polite, bourgeois Parisian life

This, together with new forms of expressiveness derived from Japanese art, transformed his graphic work

There is a ebullience to these drawings but in each case the actual forms are inspired by Japanese precedents directly applied to the circus acrobats or dancers he loved to draw

The figure in the middle of the illustration below is by  Hokusai. The acrobat on the left is by Seurat and the one on the right by Lautrec

He took from these woodcuts not only new gestures but also ways of expressing, in graphic form, human emotion. The figure on the right (below) is by Toshusai Sharaku (1794) 

In so doing Lautrec acquired a remarkable economy of line, clearly evident - for example - in his early studies for his poster featuring the singer Aristide Bruant. The figure on the left (below) is by Katsukawa Shunko (1784)

This resulted in one of Lautrec's most celebrated posters, first printed in 1893

This influence extended also into his non-commercial work - his paintings and crayon drawings of the prostitutes and dancers he befriended at the Moulin Rouge

These works are amongst his finest, remarkable for both their expressiveness and the freedom with which they are executed

This wonderful crayon study of the dancer Jane Avril reveals Lautrec's stunning technique. The spontaneity of his line and the brave use of colour - particularly the reds in this example - are astonishing

Even though he had clearly mastered Japanese graphic techniques Lautrec still drew on Japanese art for new compositions - like this detail (above) from his poster Reine de joie of 1892

 Isoda Koryusai (1775)

The result again is a graphic design that is economical, bold but hugely expressive: 

It is clear by now, I hope, that Toulouse Lautrec was greatly influenced by Japanese art at the end of the 19th Century - as were many other major French artists

Although I suspect that this photograph of Lautrec in Japanese costume is very 'tongue-in-cheek' there is no denying the profound influence Japanese art had on his development as an artist

That, combined with his natural genius, produced some of the most expressive works in the history of modern art

Part 2

Earlier I looked at the impact Japanese art had on the work of Lautrec.

Edgar Degas - The Bath (1886)

This week I would like to look at the art of Vincent Van Gogh in that context

Self-portrait with bandaged ear (detail) - 1889

Those of us who admire Van Gogh's work would assume, not unreasonably, that the above painting was the unique creation of a singular genius

We would be wrong!

Van Gogh, like other great artists of his period, was profoundly influenced by Japanese art flooding into Europe after 1858

Totoya Hokkri (1856)

Japanese art not only opened up entirely new subject areas for Western practitioners but introduced new techniques which artists like Van Gogh, Lautrec and, later, the creators of Art Nouveau readily embraced

Kung Hsien - Tree beside river (1684)

Both Vincent Van Gogh and his brother Theo (then an art dealer working in London) had access to literally hundreds of prints from Japan

Van Gogh greedily absorbed both the forms and colours of the work of Hokusai, Kuniyoshi, Utamaro and other Japanese masters - to the extent that he began to see Arles (where he now lived) as a Japanese landscape in itself!

"For my part", he wrote, " I don't need Japanese pictures here, for I am always telling myself that here I am in Japan. Which means I have only to open my eyes and paint what is right in front of me, if I think it effective".

He began his absorption of Japanese art by faithfully copying works (mostly colour prints/woodcuts) that he came across

Ando Hiroshige (1856-58)                   Van Gogh (1886-88)

This was not just a matter of shape and construction but colour. The colours we associate with Van Gogh in Arles are not necessarily, therefore, the colours of Provence but something uniquely Japanese

Van Gogh - Promenade at Arles (1888)

Similarly, the way Van Gogh now used his brush was entirely derived from the 'line and dot' technique traditionally used by Japanese artists. These techniques, themselves derived from earlier traditions in China, were entirely new to the West

Katsushinka Hokusai (detail) 1834

For example, Van Gogh experimented in both landscape and tree forms, copying the Japanese masters while at the same time closely observing the flora and fauna of the countryside around the town of Arles

Van Gogh - Large Tree (1888)

This is evident in the series of tree forms he painted, using the traditional Japanese brush which he also mastered. The examples given here are made with a Japanese reed pen

Van Gogh - Orchard in Provence (1888)

What Van Gogh also grasped was the Oriental notion that the essence of a tree or plant was not necessarily its external form but some kind of conceptual notion of 'tree' or 'plant'

To be 'true' to that aspect was more important than mere verisimilitude

Kung Hsien - Marsh landscape (detail) 1684

These - and other related studies from the Japanese masters - radically transformed the art  of Vincent Van Gogh and, inevitably, our own notions of what constitutes beauty and expressiveness in Western art

It is worth adding, perhaps, that these borrowings do not diminish Van Gogh's status as an artist. It takes a genius to accomodate new techniques so effectively and to create works that retain one's 'signature' so effecively

Van Gogh - Boats of Saintes-Maries (detail) 1888


The illustrations for this article are taken from Japonsisme by Siegfried Wichmann, published by Thames and Hudson (1981)

To look at the wide range of art books published by Thames and Hudson, click on the link below:

Mike Healey

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