IN­SIDE OUT

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Christo­pher Allen

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

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