In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry brought fleets into Edo Bay and forcibly opened Japan to international trade. This opening would forever alter art history, as European and American artists and designers caught onto the japonisme trend and infused their works with Japanese techniques, styles and tropes.
San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum holds the traveling exhibition “Looking East,” a star-studded collection that explores how Japan inspired Western artists, predominantly during the Meiji period. With more than 170 pieces, “Looking East” boasts the beautiful artwork of phenomenal impressionist and post-impressionist painters such as Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Monet and Mary Cassatt.
“Looking East” ambitiously explores four primary themes: “Women as Artists and Subjects,” “The New City Life,” “Nature and Decorative Arts” and “New Approaches to Landscape.” The exhibition includes the Japanese artists who provided inspiration, but its emphasis centers on Western masterpieces.
“Women as Artists and Subjects” presents fashion, domestic life and gender roles as they are shaped by imagined Japanese culture. Two notable pieces are Mary Cassatt’s “Maternal Caress” and “Under the Horse Chestnut Tree.” Although Cassatt applies her characteristically defined brush strokes in “Maternal Caress,” she uses a flattened plane — a technique often used in Japanese composition — in order to heighten focus on her subjects.
Cassatt’s pieces also develop the intimacy between a mother and her child, a theme more up front in Japanese artwork. Western artists did not typically reveal maternal physical affection, such as kissing and breast feeding. Juxtaposed with Cassatt’s works are Kikukawa Eizan’s “Otome” and “Evening Bell of Mii Temple.” These woodblock prints are both subdued and sensual, the artist known for his sophisticated bijin-ga, or prints of beautiful women.
“The New City Life” tells a tale of modernity as it illuminates the dialogue of Japanese aesthetics and rapid Western industrialization. This cultural exchange most clearly manifests itself in a collection of Western advertisements and magazine covers that feature Japanese styles such as calligraphic strokes, bold letters and flattened colors. “The New City Life” also includes Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s “Jane Avril,” a minimalistic lithograph that depicts the titular dancer. Toulouse-Lautrec borrows bold calligraphic, animating techniques from Katsushika Hokusai’s collections of sketches called manga — precursors to contemporary comics sharing the same name.
The last two sections, “Nature and Decorative Arts” and “New Approaches to Landscapes,” feature works by artists such as Claude Monet, Henri Matisse and Edvard Munch. Western artists interpreted Japanese aesthetics as somewhat organic and unprocessed by the modern world. Jeweler Lucien Falize even claimed that “the art of Japan leads us to return to nature.”
Monet loved Japanese artwork and owned more than 200 Japanese prints. He was undoubtedly — and perhaps objectionably — a Japanophile to the extent that he even dressed up his wife in a blond wig and a kimono.
The French impressionist’s “The Water Lily Pond” is deservedly iconic for its ethereal composition. The painting focuses on an arched bridge with a verdant, calming backdrop of droopy, textured plant life and a pond of pink lilies.
The famous oil painting is put into conversation with works by artists such as Kitagawa Utamaro, Utagawa Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai. It is particularly resonant with Utagawa’s “Bamboo Yard, Kyobashi Bridge,” a woodblock print composed of a gorgeous darkening-blue gradient of sky and water, as well as a familiar vantage point that focuses on an arched bridge.
Beautiful artwork aside, it is hard to ignore the elephant in the room. Even in title alone, “Looking East” treads the fine line between cultural inspiration and appropriation. It treats lightly Western imperialism and Oriental fetishism. While the exhibition attributes credit where credit is due, it feels cursory in its attribution to Japanese artists, who are primarily defined by their connection with Western art.
To be fair, “Looking East” seems cognizant of these tensions. At the very least, it sheds light on the conversation between two different cultures and makes evident the international influence of Asian art. If anything, one should visit the exhibition for its wide range of beautiful artwork and the challenging ideas it evokes.
“Looking East” will be on display at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco until Feb. 7.