Saturday, December 4, 2010

Japanesque: The influence of Japanese art on the west

Dow's teaching inspired many artists to study Japanese design and create Japanese themed woodcuts.  Their work reflected Arts and Crafts theories which encouraged artists in a hands on approach and to make work that was both decorative and useful. When I went to see the show at the Legion, I've started at various points in the exhibit because there is so much art work and each piece is so mesmerizing that I would burn out long before I reached the last gallery. The show is organized chronologically so the first gallery is the Japanese print, the middle galleries are European artists who were influenced by Japanese prints and the last gallery showcases the work of Dow and his students. What is astonishing is how fresh these prints look today, unlike some of the other artistic "fads" of the early 20th century,

Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, Moonflower and Hawkmoth, 1917–1918. Color woodcut on Japanese paper, 22.7 °— 20.1 cm (815⁄16 °— 715⁄16 in.)

Alice Ravenel Huger Smith was a well known, South Carolina based artist. For a short period, from 1917 to 1919, she produced woodcuts that successfully combined the Japanese aesthetic with flora and fauna in settings of the South Carolina low country. On many of them, including Moonflower and Hawkmoth, she used a red seal in the shape of a stylized double S-curve, an obvious reference to her last name but also suggestive of Charleston’s location at the confluence of two rivers.

Frances Hammel Gearhart, After the Rain, 1919. Color woodcut, 22.4 °— 16.5 cm

In Southern California, the sisters May and Edna Gearhart returned to Pasadena in the 1910s after studying with Dow in New York at Teachers College. Pasadena was by then home to an active art community.  May and Edna were joined by their sister Frances to hear Dow lecture in Los Angeles in 1911 and may have been visitors to the studio he maintained there for a month during his first western sojourn. By 1919 May was living and sharing a studio with Frances, the Gearhart sister who truly took up the color woodcut and excelled in its production. (May was an innovator in color etching, and her subjects and compositions also reveal Dow’s influence.)

These are just a few artists among the many in this generation. who looked to Japan for technical inspiration but to their own stunning and diverse California landscape for subject matter. They were joined by others who came west for the landscape, the climate, and also for the prospects offered in burgeoning art communities before and after World War I.

Helen Hyde studied briefly in Paris, from 1891 to 1894 before returning to her native San Francisco where she discovered Chinatown and began using that as a subject for her etchings. In 1899, at age thirty-one, she sailed to Japan for the first time and was immediately taken with its people and culture. Fenollosa, who was working there on a history of ukiyo-e, probably directed her attention to color woodcuts; she later met in Tokyo the Austrian artist Emil Orlik (1870–1932), who provided her with her first tools and showed her how to cut wooden blocks.

Between 1902 and 1910 Hyde designed woodcuts that would later be carved and printed by Japanese craftsmen in her employ in the traditional system of Japanese print production. She was a resident of Tokyo then, living in a home that was outfitted with a studio and filled with a large collection of Japanese textiles that she used to dress her models.


Hyde’s Moon Bridge at Kameido of 1914  is another direct quotation of a Japanese artist’s design—Hiroshige’s depiction of the same bridge in Precincts of the Tenjin Shrine at Kameido , complete with flowering wisteria branches. Hyde exhibited her prints in galleries across the United States and enjoyed widespread recognition and commercial success. Among other honors, her prints were awarded a bronze medal at the 1915 Panama- Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.

Bertha Lum, A Rainy Twilight, 1905. Color woodcut on Japanese paper, 16.7 × 24.2 cm


By the 1930's the increasing conflicts between the United States and Japan had caused things Japanese, including art and design, to fall out of favor. In the post-war period, Western artists looked to Zen calligraphy and spontaneous brush painting for inspiration. The spontaneous nature of Zen painting and the emphasis on gesture and "the now" were more in tune with the prevailing artistic zeitgeist.

 Frank Morley Fletcher, California 2—Mount Shasta, 1932. Color woodcut on Japanese paper,
28.8 × 40.6 cm (115⁄16 × 16 in.)


But for more than seventy years, from 18670 through the first decades of the twentieth century, the color wood cut exerted a huge influence on Western art. From Manet, though Van Gogh and Gauguin to Arthur Dow and his followers and even today with contemporary master Tom Killion,  Japanese art has catalyzed innovations and explorations in modern art.

All images @ Legion of Honor/California State Archives
Information from the catalog for the exhibit: Japaneseque. The Japanese Print in the Era of Impressionism by Karin Breuer
Exhibit at the Legion through January 9, 2011
Legion of Honor

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