Tag Archives: Japonism

J. A. M. Whistler – Symphony in White no 2 (The Little White Girl)

16 Feb

It’s impossible not to love this painting; it has a meditative, dreamy aura, wistful lady wearing a beautifully painted white dress, and delicate pink flowers, hinting at Whistler’s appreciation of Japanese art and culture.

1864-james-abbot-mcneill-whistler-symphony-in-white-no-2-the-little-white-girlJames Abbot McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White no 2 (The Little White Girl), 1864

Model for this ‘little white girl’ was an Irish beauty Joanna Hiffernan, a muse, model and a lover not only to Whistler but to Gustave Courbet as well, most famously in his painting ‘Sleep.’ Whistler’s biographers wrote of her: “She was not only beautiful. She was intelligent, she was sympathetic. She gave Whistler the constant companionship he could not do without.” Here, in Symphony in White no 2, Whistler painted her leaning against the mantelpiece in their love nest; a house they shared in Lindsey Row in Chelsea. She’s holding a Japanese fan in her hand. It’s interesting to note the ring on her left hand, but they were not married. There’s something ethereal about her; dressed in white gown that touches the ground, with long hair and a sad look in her eyes; she seems melancholic and detached from everything at the same time, as if she’s not really here, but is just passing through life without touching it, not allowing the harshness of reality to taint that beautiful whiteness of her muslin dress. If you close your eyes, you can imagine her slowly and elegantly walking across the room, then standing by the fireplace, her small hand barely touching the mantelpiece, while the other gently holds a fan. She is a silent Victorian woman living on the border of dreams and reality, like Millais’ Mariana, wrapped in the loneliness of her birdcage, longing for the imagined excitement of the real life out there. Or not. Perhaps she’s so engulfed in the sweetness of her daydreams and contemplation and doesn’t even walk to live the ‘real life’. At the same time, she knows that ‘dreams always end, they don’t rise up just descend’*, and this thought is the source of the wistfulness of her gaze that Whistler has so beautifully captured.

Here we see the typical elements of Japanese culture that can be found in many 19th century paintings; pink flowers, a fan, porcelain vase. Influence of Japanese Ukiyo-e prints, which were immensely popular at the time, is visible in the composition as well; you see how the picture looks like it’s cut on the ends, her wide sleeve on the left, pink azaleas at the bottom and her hand and the vase in the upper part of the painting. That’s something you don’t see in paintings of Academic Realism. Whistler is even said to have introduced Rossetti to Japanese art as a matter of fact.

Beautiful delicate pink azaleas are almost protruding into the composition, leaning their pink blossoms and delicate little leaves, as if they’re ready to listen to her sorrows and comfort her. ‘Don’t be sad, spring will soon come, and your woes will be gone‘, they seem to whisper. Joanna ignores them, her face turned away from the viewer. It’s the mirror which reveals the sadness and wistfulness of her gaze, and also the seascape that’s opposite the fireplace. She seems to be thinking:

I am weary of days and hours,

Blown buds of barren flowers,

Desires and dreams and powers,

And everything but sleep.” (Swinburne)

Perhaps the most beautiful part of the painting, besides the flowers, is her dress which is painted in soft, almost transparent brushstrokes. Its gentle, dreamy appeal is contrasted with the strict, geometrical line of the fireplace. White is the hardest colours to paint, but Whistler shows a complete mastery over it, and the painting deserves its title ‘symphony’, for it is indeed a symphony in whites. In one painting below, Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Mrs Frances Leyland, whose beauty arrives from the subtlety of colours, you’ll see that mastery of white again, and the dress seems to flow effortlessly, like a river, decorated with the flowers that also serve as an interior decoration; it’s hard to say where reality ends and dream start because the more I look at these gorgeous studies in white, the more I am drawn into this ethereal, delicate world that Whistler has created, using just his brush and colours, not magic.

James Abbot McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was an American artist, but after coming to England in 1859, he never returned to his homeland again, but instead divided his time between London and Paris, and nurtured friendships with other artists and writers on the each side of the Channel; Gaultier, Swinburne, Manet and Courbet to name a few. Whistler is famous for promoting ‘art for art’s sake philosophy’, and enraging Ruskin who emphasised the social, moralistic role of art. He was also known for giving his paintings musical names, such as ‘Symphony’ or ‘Nocturne’, which sometimes enraged the critics, but still fascinates the lovers of his art, myself included.

This painting, with Joanna’s ghost-like reflection in the mirror, inspired Swinburne to write these verses:

Glad, but not flushed with gladness,

Since joys go by;

Sad, but not bent with sadness,

Since sorrows die;

Deep in the gleaming glass

She sees all past things pass,

And all sweet life that was lie down and lie.

The critics have drawn a parallel between this painting and Ingres’ Portrait of Louise de Broglie, Countess d’Haussonville from 1845, which also has a lady standing by the mirror. Similar meditative mood, delicate whiteness, and touch of the East, can be found in many of Whistler’s paintings, here are a few:

1862-james-abbott-mcneill-whistler-symphony-in-white-no-1-the-white-girl-girl-is-joanne-hiffernanJames Abbott McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, 1862 (Note: model is Joanna again)

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834 - 1903) Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Mrs Frances Leyland, 1872-1873 oil on canvas 77 1/8 in. x 40 1/4 in. (195.9 cm x 102.24 cm) Henry Clay Frick Bequest. Accession number: 1916.1.133James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Mrs Frances Leyland, 1872-1873

1863-65-james-abbott-mcneill-whistler-le-princesse-du-pays-de-la-porcelaineJames Abbott McNeill Whistler, Le Princesse du Pays de la Porcelaine, 1863-65

My interest in these paintings arose because of my longing for Spring, so here’s a beautiful haiku poem for the season that’s upon us. Spring, I am anxiously awaiting you, please come quickly!

In these spring days,
when tranquil light encompasses
the four directions,
why do the blossoms scatter
with such uneasy hearts?” (Ki no Tomonori, c. 850-c. 904)

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

Van Gogh – Japonaiserie

16 Aug

Lately I’ve been interested in Japanese culture and van Gogh’s paintings inspired by Japanese art instantly came to my mind. Still, the Impressionists were influenced by the Japanese culture even before van Gogh which shows how the Japanese art and culture was thrilling and inspirational for western world, that is, western artists.

1887. The Courtesan (after Eisen) - van Gogh1887. The Courtesan (after Eisen) – Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh’s interest in Japanese art flourished when he came in contact with Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints which previously inspired many Impressionists including Monet, Manet and Degas and some Post-Impressionists as well, such as Gauguin. During the centuries Japan was a secluded country but in 1854. Japan re-opened trade with the west and Japanese arts including fans, porcelains and woodcuts became available to the west market, especially France and the Netherlands. In 1868. Japan ended a long period of isolation and started importing products from the west as well such as photography and printing techniques. It was at that time that other Japanese products were imported as well, and all the sudden, gorgeous textiles, bronzes, cloisonne enamels and other arts came to Europe where they soon became popular. Japanese art proved to be a whole new world for the artists, and as early as the 1860s, painters such as James Tissot and James McNeill Whistler were seen painting ladies dressed in lavishing kimonos in vibrant colours that simply evoke the enchanting eastern spirit.

Van Gogh first became interested in Japanese art in 1885. when he used some ukiyo-e print to decorate the walls of his studio in Antwerp. Particular Japanese prints can be seen in the background of his paintings such as Portrait of Pere Tanguy. In 1886. Vincent arrived in Paris and soon embraced Japonism, which was, at that time, a fashion among artists as the Impressionists were greatly interested in ukiyo-e prints. Although van Gogh was initially influenced by great masters in Netherlands, coming to Paris meant that he’d be exposed to Impressionism, Symbolism, Pointillism and Japanese art as well. His circle of friends in Paris included many other Post-Impressionist artists; Camille Pissaro, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Gauguin, Emile Bernard, Paul Signac and others.

Japanese artists that particularly interested van Gogh were Hiroshige and Hokusai, both for the subject matter and the flat style of colour. He loved the vibrant colours, the distinctive cropping of their composition, bold and assertive outlines, absent or unusual perspective and flat colour application. He wrote in a letter to his brother in 1888. ‘‘About staying in the south, even if it’s more expensive — Look, we love Japanese painting, we’ve experienced its influence — all the Impressionists have that in common — [so why not go to Japan], in other words, to what is the equivalent of Japan, the south? So I believe that the future of the new art still lies in the south after all.” adding ”All my work is based to some extent on Japanese art…” Van Gogh studied Japanese ukiyo-e print in detail, making the copies of two of the Hiroshige prints. He also admired not only the art, but Japanese culture and natural and simple approach to life and things around them. What a beautiful, poetic thing he said “Just think of that; isn’t it almost a new religion that these Japanese teach us, who are so simple and live in nature as if they themselves were flowers?” Adding how studying Japanese art makes him cheerful and happier person “And we wouldn’t be able to study Japanese art, it seems to me, without becoming much happier and more cheerful, and it makes us return to nature, despite our education and our work in a world of convention.”

van gogh1On the left: Plum Park in Kameido (1857) by Hiroshige, On the right Flowering Plum Tree (after Hiroshige) (1887) by van Gogh

van gogh 2

On the left: Sudden Shower over Shin-Ōhashi bridge and Atake (1857) by Hiroshige, On the right: The Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige) (1887) by van Gogh

1875. claude monet- Madame Monet in a Japanese Costume1875. Madame Monet in a Japanese Costume – Claude Monet

1864. James Tissot, La Japonaise au bain1864. James Tissot, La Japonaise au bain

1863. James McNeill Whistler, The Princess from the Land of Porcelain1863. James McNeill Whistler, The Princess from the Land of Porcelain

1894. George Hendrik Breitner - Girl in a White Kimono1894. George Hendrik Breitner – Girl in a White Kimono

1892. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec lithograph poster1892. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec lithograph poster