Tag Archives: Japanese art

James Abbott McNeill Whistler – Harmony in Grey and Green

6 Feb

“A fallen blossom
Returning to the branch?
It was a butterfly.”

(Moritake)

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander, 1872-1874

Whistler painted quite a few ladies in white gowns, but those ladies usually have a look of melancholy or wistfulness on their gentle faces. The little girl appears to be showing off her clothes, her white stockings, her black satin slippers, her hat with a large feather, all the way to her dazzlingly white muslin gown, but as our gaze slowly moves up, we see a pale face with pouting lips and a distant gaze that doesn’t speak of joy or rapture. This little girl however looks rather moody, hiding her anger because she isn’t allowed to express it. But how can someone dressed in such a pretty gown be so moody? How can someone posing for an artist not have cheeks blushing from thrill and rapture? This dolly isn’t a typical melancholy muse as Joanna Hiffernan was; Whistler’s lover and companion who posed for his Symphony in White no 2 and some other paintings. This little girl is Miss Cicely Alexander, a daughter of a banker that Whistler met because of their mutual interest in Oriental art, and she was eight years old when this unfortunate sitting took place. More than one sitting naturally. It took the pedantic Whistler more than seventy sittings to paint everything just as he had envisioned it. He didn’t seem to take Miss Cicely’s feelings into consideration and despite the lyrical beauty of the portrait, it didn’t remain in good memory for the little girl. This is what she had to say about the sittings: “I’m afraid I rather considered that I was a victim all through the sittings, or rather standings, for he never let me change my position, and I believe I sometimes used to stand for hours at a time. I know I used to get very tired and cross, and often finished the day in tears.

That’s why she looks moody! Why, wouldn’t you be moody and angry yourself, if you had to stand still for a long time and not be able to play with dolls or joke around with your friends or siblings. Sitting for Whistler surely made her feel like Sisyphus carrying that huge stone to the top of the hill over and over again; a never ending pursuit…  which did have its ending after all. And the result is a very dreamy painting that continues Whistler’s tradition of portraits of wistful ladies inspired by Japonism. In this portrait, hints of Japan come in form of bright curious daisies on the right and a few butterflies that desperately want to escape the canvas. I really love how the tall daisies seem to be leaning towards the girl, as if they are trying to comfort her; “shhh little girl, don’t cry, that Mr Whistler may be awfully demanding but the painting will be a dream once finished”. The daisies are such prophets and they were right. Whistler’s eccentricity, love for l’art pour l’art philosophy and his pedantic approach to his art truly shine through in this portrait. He paid meticulous attention to all the aspects of the setting, especially the colours because he wanted to achieve a palette of muted shades, white and greys. The carpet and the walls are in many shades of grey while Miss Cicely shines in white like a resplendent white flower. The carpet was order made and that gorgeous muslin dress was designed by Whistler and made especially for Miss Cicely to wear in this portrait. He even made sure the family find the right muslin, as a dandy he would know the fabrics!

I really love all of Whistler’s harmonies and symphonies and their balanced colour palettes, dreamy ambients and pretty wistful sitters. For a long time my favourite was The Little White Girl, and perhaps it still is, but I feel that in this portrait Whistler achieved the minimalism of colours and space that he so loved in Japanese art; the background isn’t cluttered with fur carpets or fireplaces, it is just that meditative grey that stretches on and on, the mood of infinity broken only by that black line which somewhat reminds me of a canvas by Rothko, and the canvas is a little bit elongated which brings to mind the ukiyo-e prints and the formats they used. When I look at this portrait for a long time, at first I hear silence but then I hear quiet music emerging, an echo of the daisies’ laughter, and a sound of flute carried on by the butterflies chasing each other around the moody girl in white… Oh, how she wishes she could join them!

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Japanese Prints – Cherry Blossoms and Moonshine

13 Feb

Watching the rain of soft pink petals of cherry blossoms, against the night sky and magical moonshine – must be one of the most profound occupations one could possibly indulge in.

1852-ukiyo-e-painting-from-the-tale-of-genji-chapter-20-hana-no-en-under-the-cherry-blossoms-by-artist-kunisada-1852Utagawa Kunisada, Ukiyo-e painting from The Tale of Genji, Chapter 8 ‘Hana no En’, Under the Cherry Blossoms, 1852

It’s winter in the real world, but it’s spring in this Ukiyo-e print. Spring: the sweetest time of the year – a time when nature offers its lushness and greenness to all souls sensitive towards its beauty, a time when even the dullest of people may find in their souls a newly awaken dreamy sentiments. Yellow bridge, court ladies in vibrant silks and lavishing kimonos. Flowers everywhere; in the sky, in their hair, on their fabrics. Large and white, the full moon is low on the horizon. Cherry tree protrudes in the composition, giving the false impression of haughtiness. Like a beautiful woman showing off her figure and shining pearls around her neck, this cherry tree stretches out its branches, one might think heavy from all those lush pink blossoms, but no – their petals are as light and delicate as the moonshine which caresses them, and their beauty is as pure as the first snow.

The most intense beauty hides in the upper right corner: dark night sky becomes darker, cherry blossoms turn a more vibrant pink, and then a rain of the gorgeous pink petals, observed by the moon, shining with stillness. There’s still chillness in spring nights, but perhaps there’s a soft warm wind announcing the Summer days. What gentleness – petals touching the porcelain skin and elaborate hairstyles of the ladies. One holds a fan, while the other tries to catch the blossoms in her golden basket – how very wise, for the next day they all might be gone, and the awareness of that transient beauty is what stirs the soul.

As you all know, ‘Hanami’ or the custom of watching cherry or plum blossoms is a very important thing in Japan, but what I find even more exciting is ‘yozakura’ (‘night sakura’); watching the cherry blossoms at night. Then, for the occasion, the trees are decorated with brightly coloured paper lanterns. Oh, how magical would it be to sit silently and admire the cherry blossoms at night, with someone who’d appreciate their beauty as much as I would. Then, I would speak nothing, think nothing, just allow myself to be fully immersed in that beauty, and these beautiful verses written by Matsuo Basho centuries ago, would come to my mind:

There is nothing you can

see that is not a flower; there

is nothing you can think that

is not the moon.

Utagawa Kunisada, Yozakura Cherry Blossom at Night, 1848. Oban triptych, photo found here.

Kunisada (1786-1864) was an Edo period artist whose Ukiyo-e prints reflect the culture of Japan just prior to its opening to the West. In his own time, he was more popular that Hiroshige and Hokusai. Stylistically, he follows the realistic approach of his teacher Toyokuni, and was specially interested in portraying kabuki actors (those prints are known as ‘Yakusha-e’) and making ‘Bijin-ga’ – pictures of beautiful women, usually courtesans, but occasionally girls from bourgeois households. This particular woodcut shows the scene from Murasaki’s novel ‘The Tale of Genji’, that is, from the Chapter 8 which is titled ‘The Festival of the Cherry Blossoms’ and you can read it here.

‘sleepless night —

the moon becomes

more familiar.‘(*)

Japanese Ukiyo-e Prints

26 Jun

Ukiyo-e is a genre of woodblock prints that flourished in the Edo period (1603-1867). Term ‘Ukiyo-e’ literally means ‘pictures of the floating world‘ as it was meant to describe the hedonistic lifestyle of the merchant class that benefited from the rapid economical growth in Edo (modern Tokyo). Merchant class, previously at the bottom of the social order, now had enough wealth to indulge in all sorts of pleasures; from kabuki theatre to services of courtesans and geishas. Courtesan culture also flourished in Edo period, and male wanderers could find a refined female company in the ‘pleasure quarter’. On the other hand, geishas are female entertainers and hostesses, skilled in different areas such as calligraphy or dance. Courtesans were describes as ‘colourful flowers’ while geisha women were called ‘willows’ because of their subtlety, strength, and grace. In addition to all this, merchant class had enough money to afford a new art or design items, depends on how you look at it. I suppose some people really appreciated the beauty of Ukiyo-e prints while others merely enjoyed having them on the wall.

Ukiyo-e prints have a wide range of subjects and styles, depending on the artist and on the time period. The pictures below are my personal favourites, though I’ve also wanted to present you the variety of these artworks and Japanese culture. Woman Bathing Under Flowers is perhaps my top-favourite. However, as a true European my mind instantly compares these works with European artworks of the time. I mean, some of these works were created in the early nineteenth century – the same years that Jane Austen’s novels were written. It’s so exciting to encounter a different era, a different culture, if not in person, than through these lavishing woodblock prints – overwhelmingly simplistic, but dynamic, colourful, scenes from the world gone by.

The great diversity that excites me, and I hope you too, can be traced through the work of the various artists – from the famous Hokusai’s waves or Hiroshige’s nocturnal landscapes to Keisai Eisen’s ‘beautiful women’, Sharaku’s kabuki actors, Torii Kiyonaga’s mystical night scenes, to my personal favourite – Utagawa Toyokuni who, as you can see, focused on everyday scenes, especially women’s activities – bathing, applying makeup, calming hair, strolling in the rain (probably worried for the hairstyle), playing with dogs or cats, dancing or showing off in front of your friends – typical activities of the modern women. It seems like time changes, but people, their worries, fears and passions usually stay the same. Imagine, Utagawa Kunisada’s beauties in the print ‘Autumn moon over Miho’ admired the very same moon we see today.

I must add that Ukiyo-e prints were hugely influential on European art, especially on the Impressionists and Postimpressionist such as Vincent van Gogh who admired some of Hokusai’s prints and also the Japanese way of living.

 

Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) - Woman Bathing Under Flowers. Ukiyo-e woodblock print, 18001800. Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) – Woman Bathing Under Flowers, Ukiyo-e woodblock print

Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) - Woman in Rain with Umbrella.  Ukiyo-e woodblock print, 18001800. Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) – Woman in Rain with Umbrella

 

Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) - Komachi at Sekidera ca.1810, from the series Modern Girls as Seven Komachica. 1810. Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) – Komachi at Sekidera, from the series ‘Modern Girls as Seven Komachi’

Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) - Woman Holding a Cat, Ukiyo-e woodblock print, 18001800. Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) – Woman Holding a Cat

Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) - Kaoru of the Sugata-Ebiya, kamuro Nioi and Tomeki. Ukiyo-e, 18001800. Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) – Kaoru of the Sugata-Ebiya, Kamuro Nioi and Tomeki

Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) - Beauty under Maple and Ginkgo Leaves, 18111811. Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825) – Beauty under Maple and Ginkgo Leaves

Youshuu Chikanobu (1838-1912), Picture of the Hell CourtesanYoushuu Chikanobu (1838-1912), Picture of the Hell Courtesan

Woman Applying Cosmetics, early 19th century, Korii KoyinagaKorii Koyinaga – Woman Applying Cosmetics, early 19th century

Woman washing her hair with an attendant, Mid 18th century, Katsukawa ShunsuiWoman washing her hair with an attendant, Mid 18th century, Katsukawa Shunsui

Two women gazing at the reflection of the moon, Early 19th century , Kubo ShunmanTwo women gazing at the reflection of the moon, Early 19th century , Kubo Shunman

Seven classes of women. Color and gold on silk.  Early 19th century, Japan, Artist - Utagawa ToyohiroSeven classes of women. Color and gold on silk. Early 19th century, Utagawa Toyohiro

A Leopard Drawn from Life- Kunimaro, 1860, Japan1860. A Leopard Drawn from Life – Kunimaro

Beauties in the Snow By Utamaro Kitagawa, JapanBeauties in the Snow By Utamaro Kitagawa (1753-1806)

1796-99. The Courtesan Ichikawa of the Matsuba Establishment - Utamaro1796-99 The Courtesan Ichikawa of the Matsuba Establishment – Utamaro

1797. Hairdresser from the series Twelve types of women's handicraft - Utamaro1797 Hairdresser from the series Twelve types of women’s handicraft – Utamaro

1800s Katsushika Hokusai - Courtesan asleepLate 18th/early 19th century, Katsushika Hokusai – Courtesan asleep

1767. Two Lovers Beneath an Umbrella in the Snow - Suzuki Harunobu1767 Two Lovers Beneath an Umbrella in the Snow – Suzuki Harunobu

1794. The actor Otani Oniji II as Yakko Edobei - Sharaku1794 The actor Otani Oniji II as Yakko Edobei – Sharaku

1820. Hokusai - Still Life1820 Hokusai – Still Life

1826-33. The Great Wave off Kanagawa, Hokusai's most famous print, the first in the series 36 Views of Mount Fuji1826-33 The Great Wave off Kanagawa, Hokusai’s most famous print

1857 Sudden shower over Shin-Ohashi bridge and Atake – Hiroshige

1857 The Plum Garden in Kameido – Hiroshige

1830s Utagawa Kunisada - Autumn moon over Miho1830s Utagawa Kunisada – Autumn moon over Miho

1858. Hiroshige - The Sea at Satta, Suruga Province, from the series 'Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji'1858 Hiroshige – The Sea at Satta, Suruga Province, from the series ‘Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji’

1834. Hiroshige - Full Moon over a Mountain Landscape1834 Hiroshige – Full Moon over a Mountain Landscape

1834. Hiroshige - Heavy Rain on a Pine Tree1834 Hiroshige – Heavy Rain on a Pine Tree

Gustav Klimt – Magical Kaleidoscope

8 Mar

Affirmation of Expressionism in the early years of the twentieth century denoted the end of Gustav Klimt’s ‘Golden phase‘. The audience had moved on, and Klimt’s ‘golden femme fatales’ were outdated, and powerless against the works of Edvard Munch and Henri Matisse which, when presented at the exhibition in 1909, astonished the viewers with their overwhelming scope of expression. Raw energy, despair and passion woven into the works of Expressionists were overpowering.

1913. The Virgin, Gustav Klimt1913. The Virgin – Klimt

Upon traveling to Paris in late 1909 Klimt discovered the works of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and the Fauvists which motivated him to reinvent his own style, a magical kaleidoscope of colours, shapes and patterns influenced by Japanese art; this was the last splendor of Klimt’s art before the end; the end of his life, the end of La Belle Epoque, the end of Vienna he had known.

For a fresh start Klimt decided to tone down the ornamentation, which sometimes made the subject appear lifeless and meaningless next to the rich background, and this enabled him to find new ways to express himself. A whole new world of abstract motifs, patterns and colours opened up for him. Another thing that influenced him, and many many artist before, was Japanese art. He spent his afternoons reading in his library, absorbed by the books about Ukiyo-e prints and Japanese art in general. Gustav Klimt first became acquainted with Japanese woodblock or Ukiyo-e prints in 1873. at the Weltausstellung (World Fair). This fascination with Japanese art was something that plenty of intellectuals and artists at that time shared. Klimt collected Ukiyo-e prints and other Japanese objects, and it greatly influenced his drawing skills, and encouraged his exploration of perspectives.

Klimt’s enchantment with Japanese art is most evident in his paintings such as Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II, Portrait of Baroness Elisabeth Bachofen-Echt, and Portrait of Friederike Maria Beer, all of which have a pyramidal composition, and a massive amount of ornaments, all fresh, vivid and exuberant, plenty of birds, animals and oriental figures in the background. While looking at these paintings, it is impossible not to think of Monet’s ‘La Japonaise (Camille Monet Wearing a Kimono)‘ or perhaps van Gogh’s ‘La Pere Tanguy‘, and not see where Klimt found his inspiration.

1914. Portrait of Baroness Elisabeth Bachofen-Echt - Klimt1914. Portrait of Baroness Elisabeth Bachofen-Echt

1912. Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II - Gustav Klimt1912. Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II

Word kaleidoscope means ‘observation of beautiful forms’, and by watching these magnificent paintings one does nothing else but observe those vivid colours full of life, those backgrounds so rich they could be paintings themselves, and then those ladies that almost blended into the opulent background, perhaps belonging to that other world more than the one they are painted in. These are not Klimt’s seductive femme fatales from the beggining of the century, these ladies are tamed, dreamy and lost.

Another interesting painting that belongs to the same time and style period is The Virgin (Die Jungfrau) painted in 1913. Scene is allegorical, but the influence of Japanese art is evident in every brush stroke; flatness of the surface, vivid colours and all those different swirls, circles and flowers amalgamated, the line between the dresses and the background being unclear. Still, the painting explores Klimt’s foremost interest; a girl becoming a woman, with all the emotional awakening that comes with it. All those pale figures, even paler in contrast with the rousing colours, are united and mingled in a kaleidoscope of colours and patterns, from the mystical purple decorated with swirls and some orange flowers that look as if they came from one of Klimt’s landscapes, to the ecstatic yellow colour that rules the backdrop.

1916. Portrait of Friederike Maria Beer - Klimt1916. Portrait of Friederike Maria Beer

1913-14. Portrait of Eugenia Primavesi - Klimt1913-14. Portrait of Eugenia Primavesi

1917-18. Gustav Klimt - Dame mit Fächer - Klimt1917-18. Gustav Klimt – Dame mit Fächer (Lady with a Fan)

1916-17. Girlfriends or Two Women Friends - Klimt1916-17. Girlfriends or Two Women Friends