THE importance of Japanese art to modern European painters in the second half of the 19th century, and especially to the impressionists and their contemporaries, is well known. Manet’s portrait of Emile Zola (1868), for example, includes a Japanese screen and a Japanese print on the programmatic pinboard in the background, alongside a reproduction of Velazquez, his most fundamental reference, and another of his own Olympia (1863).
Less well known is the fact the prints in question, woodblock images of everyday life, mostly in Edo (Tokyo) and the pleasure district of Yoshiwara, were a popular art form that ranked far below classic ink painting; and that these images had already assimilated influences from the West. What gives the ukiyo-e prints their peculiar mixture of vividness and artificiality is in fact the way that European ideas of perspective have been integrated into a decorative idiom of flat patterns and fields of colour.
Japan’s relations with the West have always been complicated and often dramatic. The earliest exchanges go back to the 16th and 17th centuries, when Japanese painting includes many images of Dutch and Portuguese merchants, with their peculiar costumes, monstrously long noses and bushy whiskers. By the middle of the 17th century, however, the country had been largely closed to foreigners and continued in a state of enforced segregation until the arrival of the American fleet in 1853.
Suddenly — and all the more surprisingly for such a deeply traditional culture — everything changed. The emperor, who had been reduced to a ceremonial role, resumed control of the government in what became known as the Meiji Restoration (1868). A process of radical modernisation began, including identifying and systematically imitating the most successful models of modern organisation: thus the army was reformed along German lines and the navy followed the example of the Royal Navy.
By 1902, the British government signed an alliance with Japan, and in 1905 its confidence was vindicated when the Japanese destroyed the entire Russian fleet at the battle of Tsushima. (The admiral echoed Lord Nelson’s words at Trafalgar before launching the attack: ‘‘ Japan expects every man to do his duty.’’) Little did Britain imagine its own colonies in the East would be the object of devastating attacks not much more than a generation later.
The opening of Japan to the West — not just in a passive sense but in the form of a very active engagement — naturally favoured cultural exchanges as well. This was a time when European authors and scholars, from Lafcadio Hearn to Ernest Fenollosa, began to write about Japanese society, art and civilisation. Japanese travelled to the West, and Japanese language and literature began to be studied abroad for the first time since the early Jesuit works of the baroque period.
Unfortunately it’s no longer possible to see Japan in Sydney, an exhibition devoted to prints, including examples of the traditional ukiyo-e style, as well as Australian works influenced by the Japanese, modernist European prints and Japanese prints influenced in turn by European modernism. It was forced to close prematurely as a result of water damage to the University of Sydney’s Bridgeof-Sighs style War Memorial Gallery, but is relevant to this discussion.
Japan in Sydney was conceived as a tribute to Arthur Sadler (1882-1970), who became the second incumbent of the chair of oriental studies at the University of Sydney (1922-47) after 13 years teaching in Japan. One of the things that stood out in the exhibition was the contrast between the extremely painstaking process of ukiyo-e printing, which involves many separate blocks to achieve subtle colour effects, and the single impression that is the basis of the European print, whether woodblock, engraving or etching; even when different techniques are used together, such as etching, drypoint and aquatint, they are all combined on a single plate and printed simultaneously.
One of the few exceptions in the classic period of European printmaking is the chiaroscuro woodcut, but it remains almost an oddity; multiple plates do not become common until the development of colour lithography. Accordingly, Australian printmakers influenced by the Japanese generally still rely on a single impression, even if, like Margaret Preston, they hand-colour them afterwards. Hence the originality of the modernist British linocuts that use multiple blocks to compose sophisticated colour effects, imitated in their turn by Japanese