National Museum of Western Art

Japonisme,” an exhibition concerning the Japanese influence on Western art of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is by and large an impressive show. It is exhaustive and exhausting, with an equally comprehensive accompanying catalogue. The initial and most lasting impression is one of overwhelming quantity; there were so many artists and designers working with Japanese motifs during this period, and their work was widely disseminated, both through the printed media and through the mass production of designed goods. What we now call “Japonisme,” as well as those products better labeled “Japonaiserie,” constituted a major fad. This is particularly clear for the years between Whistler’s first experiments in the mid 1860s and the rampant cliché-mongering of the late 1890s, when it would have been difficult to find a major artist who had not dabbled in the art of Japan. Viewed from the current perspective, this fad represents the superficial evidence of more profound underlying change, which may still be in process today. Despite its many strengths, the “Japonisme” exhibition does little to illuminate any but the formal metamorphoses of the period, sticking to a fairly conventional art-historical format and focusing on Japonisme as a style and as an influence.

This exhibition raises a host of troubling questions. When late-19th-century European or American artists were learning to appreciate select examples of traditional Japanese art, what was it they were seeing that they previously could not? To what degree were Japanese motifs merely icons of change? To rephrase the question, were they learning from Japanese art, or using a new mythology of imagined values to corroborate essentially independent formal intuitions? And now, is it possible that our long exposure to modern art facilitates and reinforces our appreciation for traditional Japanese work?

There are, it seems, alternative approaches to the material that might have better come to grips with the manifold realities upon which the artistic exchange of the period was based, particularly from the standpoint of contemporary Japan—approaches which the curators either failed to recognize or avoided. Another Japonisme exhibition could be formulated using the same work, discarding the superficial groupings used here (“Exoticism” and “From Eclecticism to Modern Art”), and instead rearranging work according to the myths they each embody. Such myths (as articulated in the work of Edward Said and Elise Evett) might include Asia as exotic playground, the Japanese as a people who are close to nature, Japanese art as direct expression based on extraordinary observation, the Japanese artist as innately artistic and eternally childlike—myths joined more recently by those of Zen simplicity and contemplation. The Japan of “Japonisme”—and this is never made explicit in either exhibition or catalogue—was, by definition, machineless, occupying an ontological niche alongside the quasi-medieval of Ruskin, Morris, and Viollet-le-Duc, not too far from the Golden Age of Antiquity. Yet the historical Japan of the same period was already heavily industrialized, urbanized, and Westernized. But the fact is, far too many of the earliest formed myths persist, and, if anything, have become hallowed by time.

The Western fascination with Japanese art is interesting not so much for its stylistic and formal results—ultimately perhaps the least interesting aspect—as for its role in solidifying an important paradigm for the Western avant-garde. The thoroughly Eurocentric late-19th-century West seized upon Japan as a means of grappling with its own identity. That Japan would be defined as essentially alien and inferior (but with redeeming virtues) was never in question. But it was also considered, by and large, a blank slate, onto which any number of experimental values could be projected. The Western obsession with the machine was fully in operation during the period covered by “Japonisme,” and the evaluation of the Japanese by all parties, themselves included, as machineless hastened the subsequent reevaluation of the machine as the primary Western cultural artifact. Rather than appearing to be an alien force, as originally thought, the machine, and machinelike ways of thinking, could be recognized as the West’s most essential characteristic.

This exhibition succeeds best at exploring “Japonisme” as a field of art-historical specialization, and at presenting a wealth of raw material from which to draw one’s own conclusions. Ultimately, the exhibition presents a vivid history of misunderstanding—willful, fantastic, enjoyable; on the surface, a fictitious backdrop for unfettering the 19th-century imagination; underneath, a paradigm for absorption.

S. Abby Brown