By Ashley Yeaman
The expeditions of the United States to Japan in the mid-1850s created an increasing appreciation of Japanese culture and arts in the U.S. and the West, which would spark the artistic movement known in the art world today as Japonisme.
Dr. Gabriel Weisburg, professor of art history at the University of Minnesota and Japonisme expert, spoke at the annual Allbritton Art Lecture on Wednesday about the history and lasting influence of the movement.
Dr. Karen Pope, senior lecturer of art history at Baylor, said the event, sponsored by the Allbritton Art Institute of Baylor, was inspired by a new museum exhibit titled “The Orient Expressed: Japan’s Influence on Western Art 1854-1918,” housed at the Koogler McNay Art Museum in San Antonio.
“The proximity of the exhibit inspired this lecture and a special topics course at Baylor this semester: Japan and the West,” Pope said.
Weisburg said Japonisme is important to study because of its encompassing nature.
“Japonisme is an all-pervasive cultural phenomenon [illustrated] in all [art media], seen in new techniques and new art forms,” Weisburg said.
The initial contact with Japan brought about a transformation in art in the West, Weisburg said.
“It was a means of breaking away from out-of-date conventions [in art] to pursue something new,” Weisburg said.
Through early art critics and collectors of Japanese prints and other art objects, Weisburg said Japonisme took hold in the art world but also in general society, influencing trends in fashion and the home.
Artists were copying what they saw, Weisburg said, but the general public was also creating an alternate, romanticized view of Japan, fueled by Western shops selling Japanese collectibles, such as Siefried Bing’s shop in Paris in the late 1800s.
“[Their ideas of Japan] are fantasies rooted in a kind of dream world,” Weisburg said. “They are creating a fantasy world out of objects appealing to the individual.”
An art magazine at the time, Le Japon Artistique “helped people at the time understand what Japan contained,” Weisburg said.
As the Japonisme period continued, Weisburg said artists began to employ the art techniques and aesthetics of Japanese art into their own work, often learning by actually traveling to Japan instead of just seeing what had been brought from Japan to the West.
“Artists began to make an effort to go to Japan,” Weisburg said. “They want to see the real Japan.”
Artists such as Mary Cassatt wanted to “get beyond copying and think about reassessing the ways Japanese design principles could be employed in [their] work,” Weisburg said.
“Everything you see in Japanese art and prints was carried over further into Western art,” Weisburg said.
While the West is being influenced by Japanese art, Japan is experiencing its own transformation of modernization inspired by the West.
“There is a struggle within Japan between the traditional Japanese art and modernization,” Weisburg said. “What’s going to win out? It’s still a battle.”
The Woodlands sophomore Sarah Metzer, who attended the lecture, said the series was eye-opening.
“To be honest, I didn’t know much about Japanese art before the lecture,” Metzer said. “It was interesting to learn how wide-spread its influence was in the West.”
Weisburg said that Japan’s influence on the West and in Western art continues today, an example being the popularity of anime. The Japonisme exhibit will be on display in San Antonio through Jan. 15.