The International Exhibition of 1867 in Paris was the first time Japanese art had been presented to the French public. This instigated a remarkably fruitful relationship between traditional Japanese landscape etching and the nascent Impressionist movement. Philippe Burty, an art critic at the time, coined the term ‘Japonisme’.
This exhibition at the Pinacothèque was ambitiously conceived, for two reasons. Firstly, it presents for the first time in France an extensive exhibition of Utagawa Hiroshige's work, a visionary practitioner of nihiki-e — colour woodblock printing. Hiroshige is an artist who is now being rediscovered, an alleged Leonardo da Vinci of the East. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, in regards to historical-aesthetic reevaluation, is the change in perception this exhibition represents concerning a decisive milestone in European art history at the end of 19th century.
The formal composition, use of colour masses, redefined perspective, emphasis on the capture of 'impression', and ephemeral temporality in Hiroshige’s work served as a touchstone to the Impressionists. From Whistler, Degas, Manet, Monet, Tissot, Fantin-Latour, the art of etching à la japonaise served as constant confrontation and source of inspiration for the Impressionist painters. Paintings such as Degas’ Mrs Camus (1869), Monet’s The Japanese Lady (1876), Cézanne’s series of Sainte-Victoire Mountain (1885-1906), all depict striking similarities with nihiki-e and some critics have gone so far as to call Hiroshige the 'first Impressionist'.
Utagawa Hiroshige, The Maiko, ‘Dancing Girls’ Beach in the Province of Harima The Famous Places in the Sixty-odd Provinces series, 1853/XII, nishiki-e (coloured woodblock print), 36 x 24,1 cm; © Museum Volkenkunde, Leiden, inv. RMV 2494-46.
To this end, the Pincaothèque 2 is running a parallel exhibition of selected works by Van Gogh.
The Dream of Japan exhibition is devised as a comparative study, revealing direct and eminent visual influence of Japanese engraving on the work of Van Gogh. Each oil painting is accompanied by an explanatory scroll. The materials on the scrolls are brief extracts from Van Gogh’s correspondences, followed by a copy of Hiroshige’s colored woodblock prints, displayed below, which subsequently forks into usually two or three black-and-white copies. One copy being a black-and-white plate engraving by Hiroshige, the other a black-and-white copy of Van Gogh’s painting. It is, however, not clear what kind of a copy one has at hand, leaving spectators confronted with similarities between two dissimilar artists. For these scrolls are ambiguous, they do not specify the kind of technique employed by either Hiroshige or Van Gogh and one is left to compare the original oil painting to what could be a pencil sketch, ink brush, charcoal, engraved plate etc. This has two effects: one of further blurring the lines of art history, the other confounding the comparative endeavor.
Van Gogh‘s correspondence testifies to progressive immersion into the work and world of Japanese aesthetics. What at first glance seems to be a personal study, transforms into a devouring fascination. The techniques of etching and meditative perception stem from Zen-Buddhism — Hiroshige himself became later on a Buddhist monk — an effect Van Gogh may have been able to channel in constructing a world composed of a whirlwind of colour, a technical virtue that was extremely important to Van Gogh as well as the other Impressionists. Cézanne once said that colour is the 'place where our brain and the universe meet'.
The elements present throughout Hiroshige’s etchings — precise architectonics of image, photographic stillness, intentionally exaggerated perspective — provided Van Gogh an opportunity to distill his visual delirium, and anchor the momentum of the object within the visual representation. Hiroshige’s designs for etching plates were pioneering and stunning: his etchings recall surrealist motifs (a piece of a melon attached to a tree, an atrophied turtle hanging by a rope in the air) and advertising-style (restaurant’s large-ideograms dot the foreground). He is a photographer before the arrival of photography.
Vincent van Gogh, Pine Trees at Sunset, December 1889, oil on canvas, 91,5 x 72 cm., Signed on the lower right part : Vincent; © Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, the Netherlands.
As Katsushika Hokusai’s persevering examinations of Mount Fuji, Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, may have instigated a perceptive turn in Cézanne’ s contemplative approach to landscape painting, so, if not more, the discovery of Hiroshige’s pictorial composition launched a seismic shift in Van Gogh’s visual language. Hiroshige provided a visual scaffold on which to hang fragile sheaths of juxtaposed colour vibrations: a matrix for the mental landscapes of Vincent’s mind. Restellini remarks: “By entering that world, Van Gogh went one step further, so far unperceived, in his neurosis. He was to make of that fantasized Japan a refuge, a dreamed up reality, transpose himself into it with an intensity furthermore exacerbated by his psychic troubles.”
Hiroshige thus completes a double function: as a cartographer of the previously imagined landscapes of Japan, and a sensei to the Impressionists.
(Image on top: Utagawa Hiroshige, A Priest Asking Directions from Some Locals The Sixty-nine Stations along the Kisokaid! series, 1838-1842, nishiki-e (coloured woodblock print), dim. max. 25,1 x 35,5 cm.; © Museum Volkenkunde, Leiden, inv. RMV 2751-56.)