Art & Craft, Japanese Aesthetics

Fabrics, Japan and Impressionism

The montage below features 2 self-portraits from 2 great artists, made in 1650. On the left, it’s from Nicolas Poussin, a master of the French painting in the 17th century. And on the right, the portrait of Iwasa Matabei, considered as a master of Japanese woodblock printing. The differences are obvious.

2 centuries later, the situation did not really change. On the left, a self-portrait from Gustave Courbet, made in 1842. On the right, a woodblock print from Utagawa Hiroshige, made by his friend, the painter Kunisada Utagawa. Both are from the same period, and in the same vein as their elders. And always so different from each other.

From the end of the 19th century, everything completely changes, whether in France or in Japan.

In fact, from 1853, Japan is under strong pressure -diplomatic, commercial and military- to open their borders to the rest of the world. The change is ratified in 1854, with the Treaty of Kanagawa. Japon leaves era called “Edo”, to enter into era “Meiji”.

At the end of the 19th century, in France, after the romantic ((Delacroix, Géricault, …) and realist (Corot, Courbet, …), start impressionism and “art nouveau”. Whether we talk about Degas, Pissaro, Monet, Van Gogh, Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, or Gauguin, they were all influenced by the Japanese art of woodblock print, indeed so different.

Here an example with this print from Hiroshige (one of the 53 stations of du tōkaidō), where the construction is so different from our classical rules, with this big and cropped tree trunk at the forefront, its inclined trees … and where we can wonder: what is it about?

There are plenty of examples. Here are 3 pairs: the irises from Hokusai and Van Gogh, the great wave from Hokusai and the  “bec du Hoc” (the beak of the hook) from Seurat; an actory of Kabuki from Toyokuni and a portrait of Adele, from Klimt.


There are, of course, differences due to the technique (on one side, oil painting on canvas, and on the other, woodblock print with water colors on paper). But beyond those difference, here is what bought Japanase woodblock print to occidental painting:

  • flat colors
  • unusual perspectives
  • simple views on day to day (instead of exceptional / rare moments, people, ….)
  • a reduced depth of field (often flat)
  • the low, even often,  the absence of light contrast
  • neat, clean, black outilines
  • the use of slopes (classical example = inclined trees), and of diagonals
  • the absence of subject (re. the unity of time, place and action). A classical example within Japanese prints is people looking in different directions
  • a different color palette
  • non mathematical constructions.

Regarding maths, the classical painting had a geometric approach. What is not the case in Japan (re. gardens, bouquets of flowers, …. and even in the shop window nowadays), where:

  • there is no perspective;
  • there is no symetry (but a balance). Indeed, nature and life are not symetrical.
  • the elements are not proportional. Either to emphasize a detail. Or to make the object more obvious, more present, nicer … or the opposite. Or because it generates movement. Etc.

In short, in the Japanese way of drawing / painting, several aspects matter more than geometry: emotion, intention, movement, clarity, instant, nature, …. A way that the Impressionists will adopt, adapt, use. And this was a revolution, after few centuries without major evolution.

In the painting from Gauguin below, we find the diagonal, the flat colors, the absence of shadow (and of light contrast), the simplicity, ….

Of course, things did not move only in one direction. As an example, this painting from Kuroda Seiki, a Japanese painter who was influenced the the European Impressionism at the end of the 19th century. And just near it, a Japanese woodblock print with European perspective.

And what about the fabrics?

The nasturtiums from Caillebottes, or the blooming almond trees from Van Gogh look like the fabrics used for kimonos. Like the sea from Maurice Denis looks like a classical Japanese pattern called karakusa (arabesque), with a color palette that could be Japanese.

The Japanese graphical and pictural beauty can of course be found on the fabrics. Namely those for kimonos.

Hoping this was interesting to read

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