Japanese art has a rich history. There is no question that Japanese culture, scenery, architecture, artists and artworks have profoundly affected other artists globally. From Vincent Van Gogh to Roy Lichtenstein to Claude Monet to Edgar Degas many artists’ works and the art world have been greatly influenced and revolutionized by Japanese culture and art techniques. The great Japanese ukiyo-e print maker Katsushika Hokusai’s beautiful piece, “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” (1830-31), had a tremendous affect on the art world and Western modernism. It was artworks and techniques like these used by the Japanese that made the rest of the world sit up and pay attention. It is essential to take a look at Japan’s art history and its influence globally to see how Japanese artists continue to be a force in the art world today.  

Katsushika Hokusai’s piece, “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” (1830-31), one of the most recognizable ukiyo-e prints to this day.

Katsushika Hokusai’s piece, “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” (1830-31), one of the most recognizable ukiyo-e prints to this day.

 

Where “Japonisme” began

First coined by the French art critic and collector, Phillipe Burty in 1872, “Japonisme” is the study of Japanese art and artistic talent. Prior to this time Japan’s art and its techniques were isolated from the rest of world not only by geography but also by the Japanese cultural inclination towards isolation. It was only in 1853 that Japan reopened their ports to trade with the West. Soon after, a tidal wave of foreign imports from Japan graced the shores of Europe so that “Japonisme” could ground its roots and blossom. Included in these new imports arriving to Europe was the Japanese woodblock prints made by the masters of ukiyo-e school. Once discovered by other artists, particularly the French and Americans, these new prints were a revelation and a catalyst to transforming impressionist and post-impressionist art.  

Woodblock print "Otsu" (1840) by Japanese artist, Utagawa Hiroshige, created during the Edo period. 

Woodblock print "Otsu" (1840) by Japanese artist, Utagawa Hiroshige, created during the Edo period. 

In particular it was the Exposition Universelle that opened in Paris in 1867 that revealed to the French artists for the first time the Japanese printmaking techniques and ukiyo-e prints. Prior to the introduction of ukiyo-e prints most artists depicted subjects that were either biblical or classical. Ukiyo-e prints broke this pattern by introducing and glorifying scenes of every day life. Ukiyo-e prints usually feature prominent outlines, diagonal postures and areas of flat, vibrant color. Shadows in ukiyo-e prints are usually omitted altogether. Ukiyo-e prints demonstrated to the French artists that:

 “Simple, transitory, everyday subjects from “the floating world” could be presented in appealingly decorative ways.” – MET.

Edgar Degas's artwork "The Tub" (1886) shows a composition heavily influenced by Japanese artists prints. 

Edgar Degas's artwork "The Tub" (1886) shows a composition heavily influenced by Japanese artists prints. 

Artists in attendance at the exposition included Claude Monet and Edgar Degas. They became some of the earliest collectors of Japanese art in France. Upon discovery, both of these artists were enlightened and heavily influenced by the new Japanese art and techniques in front of them. The Japanese prints influenced Monet’s own art but also his lifestyle. Monet designed his own garden in Giverny, France after a Japanese print, including everything from bamboo to arcing bridges.  Claude Monet acquired 250 Japanese prints, which he also displayed in his house in Giverny. Edgar Degas absorbed more of the Japanese aesthetic and composition. He was inspired by the Japanese:

 “…elongated pictorial formats, asymmetrical compositions, aerial perspective, spaces emptied of all but abstract elements of color and line, and a focus on singularly decorative motifs.” – MET.

By embedding the fundamentals of Japanese art into his artworks, Degas was able to intensify the originality in his paintings.

 

“Japonisme” today and the Japanese artists making a statement

As we now can see, the art by late nineteenth century Japanese artists laid down the foundation and was a catalyst for modern art as we know it today. Japanese art continues to have international respect and cultural uniqueness in the modern industrial age due to its diversity, complexity and the avante garde ideas and imagery. The art being produced in Japan today is very different from the traditional ukiyo-e prints. It takes time for the Western world to get accustomed with new styles from some Japanese artists, as the imagery is very unconventional and may not immediately be understood by Western audiences. However, once art critics, dealers and collectors realize the power of these artworks they fast become global sensations.

Japanese artist Yayoi Kusuma photographed beside one of her iconic pumpkin sculptures. 

Japanese artist Yayoi Kusuma photographed beside one of her iconic pumpkin sculptures. 

A few Japanese artists that are making waves in the international art scene today are Yayoi Kusuma, Takashi Murakami and Rei Kawakubo. Yayoi Kusuma is an eccentric Japanese artist and is considered one of the most important living Japanese artists today. Kusuma is known for working with a variety of media including her polka dot paintings, sculptures and gorgeous installation art. She also has a partnership with the world-renowned French fashion house Louis Vuitton. One of her current exhibitions not to be missed is “Yayoi Kusuma: My Eternal Soul” which is on at The National Art Center Tokyo from February 22 – May 22, 2017 and includes 132 paintings.

Sculptural clothes by Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo now on view at the MET in the “Rei Kawakubo/Commes des Garçons: Art of the In-Between” Exhibition. 

Sculptural clothes by Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo now on view at the MET in the “Rei Kawakubo/Commes des Garçons: Art of the In-Between” Exhibition. 

Another artist making impressions on the international art scene is Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo, who currently has an exhibition on at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from May 4 – September 4, 2017 entitled “Rei Kawakubo/Commes des Garçons: Art of the In-Between”. The exhibition features 120 garments and focuses on Kawakubo’s avante garde ideas and the duality between art and clothing. This if the first exhibition put on by the MET of a living designer since the Yves Saint Laurent show in 1983 and shows Kawakubo’s immense influence today.

"The World of Sphere" (2003) painting by Takashi Murakami in collaboration with French fashion brand Louis Vuitton.

"The World of Sphere" (2003) painting by Takashi Murakami in collaboration with French fashion brand Louis Vuitton.

Finally Japanese artist, Takashi Murakami, has fast become one of Japan’s most visible and important living artists today. Murakami’s influence within Japan is often compared to Andy Warhol’s influence on the United States. Murakami combines traditional Japanese painting with Western influences showcasing the:

“…otaku lifestyle (juvenile culture obsessed with toys, anime, and video games) and commercial retail spaces with museums and other public venues—Murakami’s work is recognized for its ambition, polish, and fine execution.” – The Broad

  Murakami’s style is unlike any American artists today. This has intrigued art critics, dealers and collectors from all over the world and solidified Japan on the map of the contemporary art world. Don’t miss Murakami’s exhibition opening June 6, 2017 through to September 24, 2017 at MCA Chicago entitled “The Octopus Eats Its Own Legs”. This exhibition will showcase brand new artworks by Murakami along with artworks completed by the artist in the 1980s.