“If you absolutely must … find an affiliation for me, put me with the Japanese of old: the refinement of their taste has always appealed to me, and I approve of the suggestions of their aesthetic, which evokes the presence by the shadow, the whole by the fragment.”
In this portion of an interview published in the June 1909 issue of the Gazette des beaux-arts, Claude Monet expresses his devotion to, and feeling of allegiance with, the art of Japan. Monet was hardly alone in his interest – among the many Western artists who came under the thrall of Japanese art in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were Vincent van Gogh, Édouard Manet, Mary Cassatt, Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, James McNeill Whistler, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Their interest, though, was not simply an attraction to the newness, the exoticism one might say, of Japan and its art. There was something deeper at work.
As Karin Breuer relates in her excellent Japanesque: The Japanese Print in the Era of Impressionism, the rise of a prosperous merchant class during the Tokugawa shogunate led to the development of an entertainment subculture that served them, a complex of art and entertainment that came to be known as the “floating world,” or ukiyo. The arts flourished during this time – calligraphy, music, poetry, the tea ceremony, and of course the famous woodblock prints, or ukiyo-e. These prints, which could be produced inexpensively and were designed for a mass audience, depicted famous actors, beautiful women, figures and events from Japanese history and mythology, familiar landscapes from around Japan, and so on. Print collections like Katsushika Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (c. 1830-32) and Utagawa Hiroshige’s series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (1856–59) became vastly popular.
By the 1860s, once Japanese ports were opened to foreign trade during the beginnings of the Meiji restoration, prints and other Japanese items like textiles, screens, and furniture started to become commonplace in Europe. And interest in them was almost immediate, especially in France. Societies and clubs were formed around the appreciation of Japanese art and culture – one formed in 1865 included Degas, Manet, Whistler, Charles Baudelaire, and Émile Zola as members. Critic Philippe Burty coined the word Japonisme in 1872 to describe the influence of Japanese art on the French. Soon Japanese prints were well-known throughout France. Major art dealers sold them by the hundreds, and books, articles, and exhibitions were dedicated to the subject.
Certain standard devices and themes found in Japanese prints were particularly attractive to Western artists. Among them were: an unusually low or high perspective, an original use of color, distinctive decorative patterns on clothing, asymmetrical compositions, strong diagonals, stylization, and the use of silhouettes in the background. Ross King, in his book Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies (which I reviewed here), also points out that subject matter was another area in which the Impressionists and Japanese artists found common ground. “Hiroshige and his contemporaries depicted scenes of modern Japanese life in beautiful but modest surroundings: beside rivers, on bridges, in busy streets, during local festivals, and in teahouses or flowering lakeside gardens.” Monet and his fellow Impressionists, then, felt free to use as their subjects “the simple and analogous vistas in their own world: city streets, riversides, women’s fashions, sailboats, bridges, theaters, and opera houses.”
It’s not known for certain when Monet first encountered Japanese art. He once recalled that he bought a print he discovered by accident in a shop in Le Havre at a teenager in the mid 1850s, while another story says that the first encounter happened in 1871 in Amsterdam, when Monet bought a print he had found used as wrapping paper in a food shop. Critic Théodore Duret, one of the first French writers to take note of Japanese art, met Monet in 1873, an encounter that further fed Monet’s interest in Japan. Monet soon became an enthusiastic collector of Japanese art. His home eventually had on display some 230 woodblock prints. Hokusai was a favorite, and it may have been the latter’s many paintings of flowers that, in part at least, prompted Monet to focus so extensively on the water lilies in the garden at his home in Giverny.
Another part of the European interest in all things Japan was a craze for Japanese gardens. From around the 1890s, Japanese artists as well as Europeans were creating gardens in a Japanese style throughout the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe. It was in 1883 that Monet, Alice Hoschedé (who a few years later became his second wife), and their children settled in a farmhouse in Giverny, about fifty miles from Paris. Several years later, Monet started to renovate his garden there. With Japanese models in mind, he created a large pond, filled it with water lilies, and planted bamboo, willows, and other Japanese species around it.
He also had built the now-famous wooden footbridge depicted in so many of his paintings.
Bridges were also a particular specialty for Utagawa Hiroshige, depicted numerous times in his series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. One that clearly bears some resemblance to Monet’s work is Precincts of the Tenjin Shrine at Kameido.
Another relevant work, this one by Hokusai, is Under the Mannen Bridge at Fukagawa.
One dramatic difference between Monet’s bridge and those depicted by the Japanese artists is the shape of the bridges themselves. The arch of Monet’s bridge is gentle, and the structure both attractive and practical, designed for easy walking and lingering. On the other hand, the bridges that both Hiroshige and Hokusai picture are quite high-arching, the shape almost semi-circular in the case of the Hiroshige. While Japanese artists were not averse to exaggerating some physical characteristics for the sake of a pleasing composition, bridges of the kind that Hiroshige and Hokusai depicted often served, at least in the minds of those that traversed them, as symbolic boundaries between the secular and sacred worlds, or even between the worlds of the living and the dead. One end of the bridge, for instance, might lead to a torii gate and the entrance to a shrine, or perhaps to a cemetery. Therefore, they are sometimes intentionally meant to be difficult to cross, and so have a significant ascent and descent.
Another theme common to both Monet and Hiroshige is snow. They both had a fascination with, and created many depictions of, snowy scenes.
Eliza E. Rathbone, curator of the exhibition Monet, Japonisme, and Effets de Neige, wrote of Monet’s snowscapes: “The Impressionists, and above all Monet, determined to record the complete spectrum: deep snow in brilliant sunshine, creating the bluest of blue shadows; snow under a low, gray winter sky that shrouds nature in a single tonality; landscapes so deep in snow that all details are obscured, evoking a silent world; even snow melting along a country road at sunset; or, perhaps most striking, a sky filled with snow falling.” One great example is A Cart on the Snowy Road at Honfleur.
A print by Hiroshige that might also be compared to Monet’s painting in terms of composition, especially in its lack of symmetry and use of perspective, is Evening View of Saruwaka Street.
The Monet painting most obviously influenced by the art of Japan is La Japonaise, or Madame Monet en costume japonais (1876), which Monet exhibited at the second group show of the Impressionists in 1876.
His first wife Camille-Leonix Doncieux, who had previously also modeled for Renoir, poses in an elaborate kimono, with a variety of fans (uchiwa, or paper fans) filling the background. It’s quite a large painting, 91.25” x 56”. The colors are brilliant. Camille’s skin, however, is very white, not unlike that of a geisha in Japanese prints, while her hair is painted as blonde, perhaps to emphasize her European identity. Although Monet himself was fascinated by Japanese art, it may well be that this particular painting was an ironic commentary on how much of a fad all things Japanese had become in Paris and throughout France. Monet ultimately regarded this painting as “trash.” It must be acknowledged, too, that there is a political, imperialist, some might even say racist element to this painting, and to the entire concept of Japonisme, as a controversy in 2015 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston reminds us.
Along with the thematic and technical alliances between the Impressionists and the Japanese woodblock print artists, there is something more fundamental in why Japonisme became so pervasive among European artists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As was stated before, it was clearly not just the foreign, exotic quality of the work that appealed to Monet and these artists. Part of the modernist aesthetic was the seeking out of alternatives to the received techniques and styles that had dominated European art since the Renaissance (and before). Japanese artists like Hiroshige and Hokusai provided Monet and the rest with really attractive, rigorously-conceived alternatives that could easily be incorporated into their own very individual visions.
Reading: I’ve managed to get somewhat stalled in my reading the last week or two. I’m making good progress in The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories, edited by Jay Rubin, and have spent a few very enjoyable moments, mostly in the evening, slowly making my way through The Big Book of Science Fiction, edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer. Both are quite large books, though, and may not be completed any time soon.
Viewing: A showing on Turner Classic Movies last week of F.W. Murnau’s silent masterpiece Sunrise, the first film he made after moving to America from Germany, got me hooked on Murnau again and led me to a couple of his other films. One was his third American film, City Girl (the second American film, 4 Devils, is, sadly and highly frustratingly, lost), as well as the film he made in Germany immediately before Sunrise, the highly atmospheric Faust. I may well continue with more Murnau, moving forward to his final film, Tabu – he died in a car crash at age forty-two right after completing Tabu – and backward to some of his German films, like Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh), Herr Tartüff (Tartuffe), and perhaps even a tenth-or-so viewing of the classic Nosferatu.
Listening: My music listening recently continues to be tied to the program note writing I do. Just a couple of days ago, I finished up notes for the next Reno Chamber Orchestra concert, which allowed me to revisit, and write about, favorites like Maurice Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin and the Variations on a Theme of Haydn by Johannes Brahms. Next up are notes for the Reno Philharmonic that will include Antonín Dvořák’s famous “New World” Symphony No. 9.
Blogging: My main post this past week was also inspired by recent program note writing, as I looked at some of the bad reviews received by Pyotr Tchaikovsky over the course of his life. I’ve also finally finished (I think) the article on the connections between Claude Monet’s work and Japanese art that I’ve been considering for many weeks now. That should appear in the next few days, as should a look at Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto, as I get back to the Japanese Literature Challenge I’ve been participating in.
Pondering: I feel myself being pulled in a bunch of different directions lately, and am getting a bit frustrated by my inability to focus on any one thing. There’s the Japanese Literature Challenge. There’s the ongoing program note writing. I’m also making a presentation on “Music and Renaissance Art” in a couple of weeks, and am fairly drowning in facts, dates, names, music, and paintings as I prepare. A couple of potential job offers are floating out there, too. All this and trying to maintain my daily schedule of exercise, meditation, and Japanese language studies are rather overwhelming me. Wish I had a larger, better-functioning brain.
Today’s Wordless Wednesday was suggested by the excellent Dust-to-Digital label … on the 119th anniversary of his birth, ukulele great Roy Smeck plays Anton Rubinstein’s Melody in F major.
“Oh, how difficult it is to make anyone see and feel in music what we see and feel ourselves.”
– Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
I mentioned in my Sunday Salon a week or so ago that I had recently written program notes for upcoming Reno Philharmonic concerts that include Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (performances are this Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, should you be in the Reno area). This caused me to reflect how remarkable it is that artists like Tchaikovsky carry on working, given the quality of the reviews and feedback they have sometimes received.
In the case of the Piano Concerto No. 1, Tchaikovsky had wanted the piece to be given its first performance by his friend Nikolai Rubinstein, who had hired Tchaikovsky right out of college as a professor at the Moscow Conservatory and who conducted several premieres of his works. But when Tchaikovsky played through the Concerto for Rubinstein, what was the reaction? According to Tchaikovsky, “It turned out that my concerto was worthless and unplayable; passages were so fragmented, so clumsy, so badly written that they were beyond rescue; the work itself was bad, vulgar; in places I had stolen from other composers; only two or three pages were worth preserving; the rest must be thrown away or completely rewritten.” Fortunately, Tchaikovsky found a more receptive collaborator in pianist-conductor Hans von Bülow (von Bülow was just about to take off for an American tour, which explains why the Concerto was given its first performance in Boston, of all places).
Another much-loved work, Romeo and Juliet, was said to feature music that “sounds rather like scratching a glass plate with a sharp knife.” Francesca da Rimini, the orchestral tone poem, “is a musical monster” with “ear-flaying horror.” And the conclusion of the Symphony No. 5 “sounds like nothing so much as a horde of demons struggling in a torrent of brandy, the music growing drunker and drunker.” In general, wrote one Vienna critic, Tchaikovsky’s music “scorns logic, wallows in torpor, and time and again, collapses in dissonant convulsions.”
Perhaps the most famous, and withering, scorn was heaped on the now-beloved Violin Concerto. After completing it in a frenzied couple of weeks in March and April of 1878, Tchaikovsky’s plan was to dedicate the Concerto to Leopold Auer, the famous Hungarian violinist and teacher who was also concertmaster of the Imperial Orchestra in St. Petersburg. However, Auer didn’t like the Concerto and refused to play it for many years, although he eventually gave in to its charms (as did Rubinstein, in fact, with the First Piano Concerto). Violinist Adolph Brodsky eventually received the dedication, and it was he that was featured in the work’s first performance in 1881. By all accounts, the performance didn’t go so well. It led to one of the most famously abusive reviews in music history, from the well-known critic Eduard Hanslick. Hanslick described Tchaikovsky as “surely no ordinary talent, but rather, an inflated one, obsessed with posturing as a man of genius, and lacking all discrimination and taste.” Of the Concerto’s solo part, Hanslick wrote that “the violin is no longer played; it is yanked about, it is torn asunder, it is beaten black and blue.” His grand conclusion: “Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto confronts us for the first time with the hideous idea that there may be musical compositions whose stink one can hear.”
According to a survey by Bachtrack, Tchaikovsky came in at #7 in their list of most-often-performed composers of 2018. With 214 recordings listed for his Piano Concerto No. 1 at ArkivMusic.com, as well as 180 each for the Violin Concerto and Romeo and Juliet, it would seem that Tchaikovsky has had the last laugh, although the laughter may have been through a few tears.