Friday, 21 October 2016

Japanese Prints, Henri Joly and the Amateur Scholars.

The current show at the Toshidama Gallery is in honour of the amateur orientalist, scholar and Japanese art enthusiast, Henri Louis Joly. Joly was one of many amateur collectors and members of an enthusiastic circle of Europeans and Americans who were active at the turn of the nineteenth century. These early pioneers, not quite academics, came after the early fanatical explosion of interest in all things Japanese that followed the relaxation of trade restrictions in the early 1860’s. A series of huge ‘blockbuster’ international exhibitions followed that opening of Japan - not always welcomed in Japan itself -  in Paris, in 1867 and in London in 1862. In music and the visual arts and those of design… especially the English designer Christopher Dresser, the 1870’s and 1880’s were the time of most interest in all things Japanese.

Claude Monet La Japonaise. 1876
It was during this time that the impressionists - van Gogh, Degas, Lautrec, Manet and so on - were using ukiyo-e as the foundation for the radical shifts in composition and drawing that were to characterise early experiments in modernism, the picture plane and the revolution of realism and symbolism that would come to dominate all western art of the twentieth century.

Kunisada:  Iwai Kumesaburô III, as Seigen, from the series Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road. 1852

In fact, the craze for Japonisme was waning by the 1880’s in Europe and a little later than that in the United States. Nevertheless, its aesthetic impact had been felt and the now commonplace intervention of Japanese art and design, its functionality and sparseness had already been felt. Later in coming to the west was Japanese scholarship. In the arts this was an issue because of the differences in how we in the west had traditionally categorised ‘made things’ - more or less into high or low culture - in other words, a table lamp was a designed object and of ‘low culture’,  a sculpture of a young woman was art and thence ‘high culture’. The Japanese made no such comparison. The phrase ‘fine art’ was only introduced to the Japanese in 1873; the Japanese had no parallel terminology. Lacquers were lacquers; tea bowls were tea bowls; sword fittings were sword fittings; temple carvings were temple carvings. The Japanese had to adapt to western ideas that clearly distinguished between ‘fine’ and ‘applied’ arts, this clear definition meant different things to the Japanese than it did to westerners.

Tiffany Coffeepot with Dragonflies c1870's

The Japanese, after the revolution, were enthusiastic to export their culture and their manufactured goods, falling in readily with whatever ‘template’ that the west chose to impose upon their exported goods. Hence it was that ukiyo-e, woodblock prints, quickly became categorised as fine art and therefore high culture. Upon this categorisation there was obviously a need to impose specialism, authorship, connoisseurship, and academic rigour. Ironically, something which the Japanese themselves had not before made any attempt to do themselves. I am reminded here of the great American abstract expressionist painter Barnett Newman, who, in bafflement at critical responses to his work commented that criticism was to him what ornithology must be to the birds.

‘Acceptable’ Japanese Prints. Two Lovers Hishikawa Moronobu (1694)

So it was that scholars started to assemble an order in which the products of the new wave of Japanese culture could be properly arranged, defined and effectively monetised. Societies for the appreciation of Japanese art were formed, books were published and journals were started up by enthusiastic scholars, amateur antiquarians and society ladies. Dealers were on hand to supply this new market for quality Japanese high art in London, Paris and New York. With no accurate guide to Tokugawa culture, these art historians imposed a wholly inappropriate set of values on the new discipline, effectively borrowing from Greek, renaissance and classical disciplines in order to create a taxonomy for Japanese woodblock prints, starting with Moronobu and Kiyonobu and the 18th century archaic artists and working through the century, culminating in Shunsho and Utamaro… disdaining anything later than 1800 as decadent or vulgar… an exact template of the class ridden and wholly lamentable art appreciation of western Europe of the previous century. This outlook persists to this day in sale rooms and museums although there is a softening of academic attitudes to nineteenth century works by Kuniyoshi and Hiroshige and others.

Kuniyoshi. Soga Gorô Outside the Shôji of Yoshimori, 1842

There were of course guides needed to navigate the scholars and dealers the collectors and enthusiasts, through the novel and unusual culture of Japan… which brings us to our guide in the current show at the Toshidama Gallery, Henri Louis Joly. Joly was one such enthusiast… typical in a way of his type. Joli was of French origin, but an internationalist who settled in London. Born in 1876, he had no grounding in the arts, being qualified as an electrical engineer and chemist. His enthusiasm for the art of Japan was based in the metallurgy of the components of Japanese swords. His obituary is a compendium of those activities that so typify ‘Edwardian London’ and its scholarly demi-mondes… The Japan Society TransactionsBulletin de la Societe Franco-Japonais de Paris. He was a member of the Council of the Japan Society and the China Society, but his real legacy is the enormous and still fundamentally useful Legend in Japanese ArtA Description of Historical Episodes, Legendary Characters, Folklore, Myths, Religious Symbolism; Illustrated in the Arts of Japan,  a mammoth 730 pages of accurate accounts of the primary (and not so common) traditional Japanese mythologies, histories and legends. The book was published in 1908 and was last published in 1967. Good copies of the very fine 1967 version are available for around $100 although a great many go for more of that. The pdf of the original 1908 copy is widely available online.

Kunisada; Winter (Fuyu), from the series Four Seasons of Genji.1858

The opening of the introduction says much for the issues touched upon above…

OLD JAPAN is now so common an expression that one may easily forget how short a period of time, barely two score years, separates us from the era of two-sworded warriors, whose legends and popular beliefs are fast becoming forgotten, hidden or eradicated by the influence of Western civilization.

The Western World from which Old Japan kept aloof for so many centuries, was almost taken by surprise, when in 1868, the drastic changes following the restoration of Meiji, led the Japanese to part with the bulk of their arms, armour, and smaller objects of attire, which were as rapidly secured by European and American curio hunters. For it must be admitted that at the very beginning collectors of Japanese works of art looked upon them more as curios, interesting for their quaint or humorous side, and for the perfection of their most minute details than from any other point of view. Collections were made, chiefly composed of pretty pieces, the style of which was in its mignardise almost on a level with the attractive graces of European eighteenth century work ; and to the influence of this taste is probably due the weakness of the modern Japanese work with which the market is now flooded.

These two brief passages, written in the second decade of the twentieth century are revealing of the very problems that have beset western appreciation of Japanese art for one hundred years. The exoticism which at first clouded any appreciation of Japanese art at all, followed by the taxonomy that rated those things (by chance) that looked archaic over those things that appeared to be mannered… an appreciation that without question raised the antique above the merely aged.

The difficulty though with which Japanese antiquarians like Joly faced even then is illustrated by this passage from the introduction… a sentiment that I am aware of even in Japanese friends today;

Much has been done of late years in Japan to prevent the total loss of the old traditions and to keep the details and meaning of the old customs from falling entirely into oblivion ; but the present generation, in its thirst for Western knowledge often over- shoots the mark, and studiously affects ignorance of the fashions of life, and of the beliefs of its predecessors. The European inquirer is repeatedly baffled in his quest by evasive answers, which either conceal a real ignorance, under the cloak of contempt for old ways, or are prompted by a suspicion that the inquirer credits his friends with an actual belief in exploded superstitions. The day may yet come, however, when the younger generation will regret this attitude, when folk-lore societies will find it as difficult as they do in Europe to gather and interpret the scattered remnants of the ancient ways.

Utagawa Kunisada/Toyokuni III (1786-1865)

Aside from these comments which are in any case that of the prevailing mood of the times, the work is an astonishing compendium of legend, history and myth. Hundreds of entries cover the bulk of the subjects that will appear again and again in Japanese art and culture. It is true also, that Joly was closer in time to the oral traditions and commonplace recitation of these stories than we are today and his work enjoys a plain speaking and refreshingly uncluttered retelling. Toshidama Gallery has tried in the current show to use as much as possible Joly’s commentaries on the stories behind the prints. For a man who did so much to promote Japanese culture a century ago, his voice is still fresh in the internet savvy world of today. I shall let Joly have the last word though on Japanese ukiyo-e, and their artistic and above all cultural importance.

The development of the Ukioye school of popular colour printing, whose productions, even though we see in them masterpieces of drawing, colour and technique, were despised by the contemporary educated classes, introduced further means for the glorification of the heroes and the dissemination of the propagation of legends and traditions, the playwright's imaginative efforts, besides the immortalisation of actors, geishas and professional beauties. If we wish to study the themes selected by the Japanese artist, or to find a faithful survey of old customs, it is to these prints that we must turn for our information.

Kunichika. Kabuki actor Nakamura Shikan and a "namazu" (Cat fish) dancing in front of him. 1866.

Legend in Japanese Art, Henri Joly and Japanese Prints is at the Toshidama Gallery from 21st October 2016.

Henri Joly’s book Legend in Japanese Art may be downloaded for free or browsed online here. Also there are further essays on Japanese prints and Japanese culture to be found on our Wordpress site.