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Exhibition explores the influence of Japan on Western art luminaries including Monet and Van Gogh
Utagawa Hiroshige I. Mariko [written "Maruko"]: Famous Tea Shop, first state, from the series Fifty-three Stations of the Tôkaidô Road, also known as the First Tôkaidô or Great Tôkaidô, ca. 1833–34. Woodblock print, 9 13/16 x 14 13/16 in. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, 11.30162. Photograph © 2014 MFA, Boston.
NASHVILLE, TN.- Looking East: Western Artists and the Allure of Japan, at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts from January 31 through May 11, 2014, celebrates the cultural and aesthetic influences of Japanese art and culture on the Western imagination in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The traveling exhibition, premiering at the Frist Center, reveals aspects of the fruitful encounter by presenting works and objects by influential Japanese artists alongside those of Western luminaries including Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas, John La Farge, Claude Monet, Edvard Munch, Alfred Stieglitz, Vincent van Gogh, Frank Lloyd Wright, among many others. The Frist Center is the first venue on a six-city international tour.

Drawn from and organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston—world-renowned for their distinguished Japanese, American, and European collections from this period—Looking East comprises more than 170 objects, including paintings, prints, drawings, decorative arts, textiles, and arms and armor.

Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces such as Postman Joseph Roulin (1888) by van Gogh and Under the Horse-Chestnut Tree (1895) by Cassatt reveal direct connections to Japanese works created between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. “There have only been a few exhibitions on this subject, and it is exciting to be the first venue for this one,” says Frist Center Curator Trinita Kennedy. “We look forward to exploring this important moment of artistic exchange between Japan and the West.”

When Japan opened its ports to international trade in the 1850s and emerged from centuries of self-imposed isolation, an obsession for all things Japanese set in among European and North American collectors, artists, and designers. The phenomenon, dubbed japonisme by the Parisian critic Philippe Burty in 1872, created a radical shift in Western tastes towards Japanese artistic principles, and is evident in major movements including Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and Art Nouveau. Many Western artists first learned about Japanese aesthetics and subject matter through color woodblock prints known as ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the floating world” that typically depicted scenes of Kabuki theater, redlight districts, and other fashionable and fleeting pleasures. “Artists were eager to demonstrate their curiosity about the wider world and Japan was particularly appealing,” says Ms. Kennedy. “Everything about Japan—from the way people dressed and ate and how artists looked at the world—would have been novel to Western artists.”

Looking East is organized into five segments starting with an introductory section followed by the themes of city life, women, nature, and landscapes. For each thematic subject, Japanese objects are paired with American or European works to represent a particular stylistic or technical influence. For example, regarding landscapes, “Instead of using shadows to create convincing three-dimensional forms, the Japanese employed contrasts in color, the repetition of shapes, and a focus on essential features to animate views of such iconic sites as Mount Fuji,” says Ms. Kennedy. “A number of these pictorial devices became part of the Western repertoire.”

Signaling their own cosmopolitanism, Western artists staged their compositions with elegant oriental props. Japanese fans, kimonos, lanterns, screens, umbrellas, and vases, for example, are noticeably represented in French paintings of the period. “The French Impressionist Claude Monet looked to his collection of more than 200 Japanese prints as a source of inspiration, and even based the gardens at his country home in Giverny, France, on ukiyo-e landscapes,” explains Ms. Kennedy. Characteristic Japanese flora and fauna motifs such as chrysanthemums and butterflies are also incorporated in Western decorative arts as seen in this exhibition’s elaborately decorated inkstand (1876) by the French designer Paul Legrand. The japonisme influence also extended to architecture, furniture design, and book illustrations, examples of which are also on view.

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