Without the Japanese printmaker Hokusai, Impressionism might never have happened. Jason Farago examines the moment when European art started turning Japanese.

In the beginning was the wave. The blue and white tsunami, ascending from the left of the composition like a massive claw, descends pitilessly on Mount Fuji – the most august mountain in Japan, turned in Katsushika Hokusai’s vision into a small and vulnerable hillock. Under the Wave off Kanagawa, one of Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, has been an icon of Japan since the print was first struck in 1830–31, yet it forms part of a complex global network of art, commerce, and politics. Its intense blue comes from Hokusai’s pioneering use of Prussian Blue ink – a foreign pigment, imported, probably via China, from England or Germany. The wave, from the beginning, stretched beyond Japan. Soon, it would crash over Europe.

This week the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, home to the greatest collection of Japanese art outside Japan, opens a giant retrospective of the art of Hokusai, showcasing his indispensible woodblock prints of the genre we call ukiyo-e, or ‘images of the floating world’. It’s the second Hokusai retrospective in under a year; last autumn, the wait to see the artist’s two-part mega-show at the Grand Palais in Paris stretched to two hours or more. American and French audiences adore Hokusai – and have for centuries. He is, after all, not only one of the great figures of Japanese art, but a father figure of much of Western modernism. Without Hokusai, there might have been no Impressionism – and the global art world we today take for granted might look very different indeed.

Fine print

Hokusai’s prints didn’t find their way to the West until after the artist’s death in 1849. During his lifetime Japan was still subject to sakoku, the longstanding policy that forbade foreigners from entering and Japanese from leaving, on penalty of death. But in the 1850s, with the arrival of the ‘black ships’ of the American navy under Matthew Perry, Japan gave up its isolationist policies – and officers and diplomats, then artists and collectors, discovered Japanese woodblock printing. In Japan, Hokusai was seen as vulgar, beneath the consideration of the imperial literati. In the West, his delineation of space with color and line, rather than via one-point perspective, would have revolutionary impact.

Both the style and the subject matter of ukiyo-e prints appealed to young artists like Félix Bracquemond, one of the first French artists to be seduced by Japan. Yet the Japanese prints traveling to the West in the first years after Perry were contemporary artworks, rather than the slightly earlier masterpieces of Hokusai, Hiroshige, and Utamaro. Many of the prints that arrived were used as wrapping paper for commercial goods. Everything changed on 1 April, 1867, when the Exposition Universelle opened on the Champ de Mars, the massive Paris marching grounds that now lies in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. It featured, for the first time, a Japanese pavilion – and its showcase of ukiyo-e prints revealed the depth of Japanese printmaking to French artists for the first time.

Claude Monet went, we know, and soon enough Monet had acquired 250 Japanese prints, including 23 by Hokusai, which covered the walls of his house in Giverny in the north of France. Monet’s series of grainstacks and poplars, of Rouen Cathedral and Waterloo Bridge, owe a great deal to Hokusai’s earlier experiments of depicting a single subject over dozens of images. The influence ran from Monet’s art into his life. His wife wore a kimono around the house. His garden at Giverny is modeled directly after a Japanese print, right down to the arcing bridge and bamboo.

Other artists were influenced less by Hokusai’s landscapes than by his renderings of human forms. Edgar Degas, especially, found in Hokusai’s manga – his thousands of sketches of fish, sumo wrestlers, geisha, and everyday city-dwellers – the inspiration for his drastic depictions of women in fin-de-siècle Paris. His dancers, backs curved and faces in profile, display some characteristics of Japanese portraiture, but one sees the influence of Hokusai especially in Degas’s bathers: both artists were uncommonly interested in women’s private, rather than public, appearances. Degas’ pastel The Tub, from 1866 and now at the Musée d’Orsay, is a proudly two-dimensional composition with heavy debts to ukiyo-e. And his etching of Mary Cassatt at the Louvre quotes directly from Hokusai’s manga: Cassatt has shifted her weight to one leg, while the woman whose pose she imitates is being dragged off by a wild horse.

That Degas etching reveals another influence of Hokusai and other printmakers: they elevated the reputation of graphic arts in France, and made printmaking into a more respectable medium for fine artists. “Seriously, you must not miss it,” Cassatt wrote to her fellow artist Berthe Morisot on the occasion of a Japanese prints exhibition. “You who want to make colour prints, you couldn't imagine anything more beautiful… You must see the Japanese — come as soon as you can.” Her modern printmaking coincided almost exactly with the arrival of Japanese art in France, and no one embraced the two as passionately as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Though he started as a painter, Lautrec soon moved almost exclusively to prints and posters.

His poster for the Divan Japonais, a Paris nightclub decorated with bamboo and paper lanterns, shows the cancan dancer Jane Avril in severe, Orientalised profile. Lautrec’s fascination with ukiyo-e was social as much as formal. The large panels of solid colour that recur in Lautrec’s prints and posters derive from the example of Hokusai and other Japanese artists. But just as much, ukiyo-e prints showed Lautrec that louche life – teahouses, restaurants, brothels – could be the stuff of art.

Rising in the East

It’s worth recalling that what brought Hokusai and other ukiyo-e printmakers to the attention of Monet, Degas, Cassatt, and Lautrec were trade deals, on uneven terms, between Japan and the West. France and other industrial powers were thriving; Japan was in upheaval, as the shogunate gave way to the Meiji Restoration. So the exchange was uneven from the start, economically and culturally as well. Japan, in the Japoniste imagination, was a country preserved in amber – unchanged over its two-and-a-half centuries of isolation. It was a place where daily life still had the beauty and the purity that industrialisation had blasted from European society. Few western artists were interested in the full depth of Japanese art – the monumental sculpture, the Chinese-influenced painting, the Buddhist reliquaries. Their interest, rather, was more like that of the American naval officer in Puccini’s opera Madam Butterfly: in love with a girl in Nagasaki, but never in doubt that he holds the power in their unequal relationship.

By 1905, however, when the Imperial Army thumped to victory in the Russo-Japanese War, that fantasy could no longer hold. The Japan of the early 20th Century was a world power, a modern empire, and suddenly not so easy to imagine as a fairy land of beautiful women in communion with nature. Japan retained its aesthetic reputation for elegance, harmony, and simplicity for Westerners of the early 20th Century – the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, for one, was a huge Japanophile and a major ukiyo-e collector. But it is no coincidence that Picasso, Braque, Rousseau, and other French artists who came of age after Japonisme turned to Africa (and to a lesser extent Oceania) to fulfill their primitivist fantasies. Breaking free of the rigours of Western representation, as the Impressionists began to do and as the Cubists may indeed have required a gaze onto worlds beyond Europe. But the one thing they could not stand was when the people of those worlds gazed back.

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