Japonisme in American Graphic Art, 1880–1920
Commodore Matthew Perry’s voyage to Japan in 1853–54 not only reestablished diplomatic and mercantile relations between that country and the West for the first time since the seventeenth century but also opened the floodgates for cultural exchanges that would profoundly affect Western art. In the ensuing decades, Japanese artifacts poured into Europe and America, appearing in exhibitions, import shops, and art collections, as well as in articles and books. Western artists began incorporating Japanese motifs, aesthetics, and artistic techniques into their work—a phenomenon known by the French term “Japonisme.” This widespread fascination with Japan dovetailed with late nineteenth-century artistic developments, including the interest in foreign cultures as well as reformist impulses. Japanese art’s emphasis on beautiful design and hand-craftsmanship, for instance, resonated with the “art for art’s sake” philosophy advocated by the Aesthetic Movement as a remedy for the ills of modern industrial life. Progressive styles such as Impressionism also gained inspiration from Japanese prototypes in revitalizing Western pictorial traditions.
Japonisme in American Graphic Art, 1880–1920 explores the myriad manifestations of Japonisme in a selection of rarely seen American works on paper from the Brooklyn Museum’s permanent collection. Concurrent with the so-called Japan craze in America was a renewed interest in graphic arts: as watercolor, pastel, etching, and other graphic media came to be appreciated for their artistry and expressivity, they also reflected the impact of Japanese art. Color woodcuts by Hiroshige, Hokusai, Kuniyoshi, and their contemporaries, avidly collected in the West, served as particularly influential models of stylistic and technical innovation for American artists. (Examples of Japanese prints are on view here and in the special exhibition Utagawa: Masters of the Japanese Print, 1770–1900, on the first floor through June 15, 2008.) Inspired by their encounters with the arts of Japan, the artists featured here adopted Japanese subjects and styles, embraced Eastern aesthetic principles, and sometimes even traveled to Japan to study its cultural traditions firsthand. Their resulting works demonstrate the variety and breadth of Japanese influence on American graphic arts at the turn of the twentieth century.
Etching and Its Nineteenth-Century Revival
An etching is a type of print made with a metal plate that has been coated with an acid-proof waxy ground. Using a needle-like tool, the artist incises an image into the ground, and the plate is then bathed in acid that corrodes or “bites” into the plate at the exposed metal lines. Next, the plate is cleaned of its ground, wiped with ink (which fills the bitten grooves of the image), and printed under high pressure onto a sheet of paper.
Etching, a medium previously associated with reproductive and commercial work, gained appreciation in the mid-nineteenth century as an art form of technical complexity and expressive power. With this new esteem, many painters began to experiment with the medium, form professional organizations, and mount exhibitions. The etching revival was under way first in France and England, and by the 1870s in America. Philosophically, this revival also resonated with the Aesthetic Movement’s desire to break down old hierarchies between fine and graphic art.
March 4, 2008
Featuring more than twenty-five rarely seen works on paper from the Brooklyn Museum’s permanent collection, this exhibition explores the impact of Japanese art on the graphic arts of America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During this period, Americans were avidly discovering, studying, and collecting the arts of Japan. Artists were particularly fascinated by these exotic objects and found in them inspiration for revitalizing Western pictorial traditions. James McNeill Whistler, Mary Cassatt, Robert Blum, Winslow Homer, Arthur Wesley Dow, and others began incorporating Japanese motifs, aesthetic principles, and techniques into their own art—a phenomenon known by the French term “Japonisme.”
Japonisme in American Graphic Art, 1880–1920 examines myriad manifestations of Japonisme in a selection of fine etchings, lithographs, watercolors, pastels, and other graphic media created by American artists. James McNeill Whistler, for example, created compositions with dramatic contrasts of blank and filled areas and subtle atmospheric effects. His brand of aesthetics influenced many younger Americans, including Joseph Pennell and Robert Blum. Mary Cassatt was inspired by Japanese prints to create some of her most formally and technically daring color etchings characterized by flattened figures, unmodulated planes of color, and strong linear design. Some artists had an even more direct engagement with the art of Japan. Both Bertha Lum and Helen Hyde spent years living in Japan and studying traditional printing techniques. Their woodcuts were immensely popular during their lifetimes and helped to familiarize American audiences with Japanese styles and subjects.
This exhibition also includes several examples of Japanese art in order to illustrate the characteristics that American artists found so appealing in this art. Japonisme in American Graphic Art, 1880-1920 complements the special exhibition Utagawa: Masters of the Japanese Print, 1770-1900 on view at the Brooklyn Museum from March 21 through June 15, 2008.
Japonisme in American Graphic Art, 1880-1920 is organized by Karen Sherry, Assistant Curator of American Art.