Japan tourism is booming – and the Fascination Japan still arises from its foreignness and the peculiarity of its culture. With Japan being seen as so different from the “West”, a Japanese influence on highlights of European art, works by artists such as Monet, Van Gogh or Klimt, surprises.

The exhibit “Fascination Japan. Monet. Van Gogh. Klimt.” in the Bank Austria Art Forum Vienna (running from October 10, 2018 to January 20, 2019) explores just these influences.

It makes for a nice example of the potential for “microexploration” leading to a deeper familiarity with the world, as well.

After all, it is easy to find some point of contact with Japanese art and culture nowadays, in Japan or indirectly. All the more often, however, such contact remains superficial.

At the same time, it has become easy to immerse oneself more deeply in a topic and develop a greater understanding of the background of such points of contact.

Like with this exhibit…

Katsushika Hokusai. 36 Views of Mount Fuji: The Wave at Kanagawa

Katsushika Hokusai. 36 Views of Mount Fuji: The Wave at Kanagawa. © MAK/Georg Mayer [Used with permission]

Japan and the (European) World

When Japan (again) opened itself to the world, presenting itself at the World Exhibitions of Paris 1867 and Vienna 1873 (as seen in the World Museum Vienna), it must have been more than a little exotic. Hardly anything was known about the country; there had not been any contact for a long time.

Even just between those two World Exhibitions, people became much more aware of Japan. And Japanese became better at presenting their country…

In 1867, Japan had been a “pink elephant”; visitors to the Paris World Exhibition of that year came away not quite knowing what to make of the country.

Still, one only has to get to 1872, a mere five years later, to find the critic Philippe Burty talk of “japonisme.” European art collectors and traders had already begun to travel to Japan to buy up art; a brisk trade developed.

Alfred Stevens, The Japanese Parisienne

Alfred Stevens, The Japanese Parisienne. 1872. © Musée des Beaux-Arts de La Boverie, Lüttich [Used with permission]

At the World Exhibition in Vienna, 1873, Japan was already seen as part of the civilized world. Or at least, as an exotic other that had something different but valuable  to offer to the modern world. And that struggled mightily to join the ranks of the civilized countries.

Back in Paris again in 1878 for another World Exhibition there, people talked of “japomanie“, a passion and mania around Japan.

Japanese Influence on European Art(ist)s

That passion had wide influence on European artists.

To just mention a few that I can immediately recognize:

Édouard Manet (with whom the shift from realism to impressionism is strongly connected).

Impressionists such as Edgar Degas and Claude Monet.

Edgar Degas, Dancing Lesson

Edgar Degas, Dancing Lesson. Ca. 1873. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran
Collection (William A. Clark Collection)

Post-Impressionists like Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin.

Expressionists, among them Edvard Munch, Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee.

Works of all these artists were influenced by japonisme and are presented in the exhibiton “Fascination Japan.

In Austria, this contact also left its traces. Egon Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka were inspired by it, as was Josef Hoffmann (known for his works as part of the Wiener Werkstätte artist collective).

Once you have learned of the connection between Japanese art and the works of Josef Hoffmann, for example, some influences become quite easy to recognize.

These are just the connections and points of view that I find particularly interesting chances for microexploration:

Here are connections that surround us, in things we have some familiarity with. Connections that are somewhat surprising as long as we don’t know about them.

And connections that become recognizable and all the more interesting just as soon as we acquire some more knowledge about them, become aware of them – and thus, expand our personal understanding of the world.