japonisme: change & exchange

06 December 2006

change & exchange

No great artist ever sees things as they really are. If he did, he would cease to be an artist. Take an example from our own day. I know that you are fond of Japanese things. Now, do you really imagine that the Japanese people, as they are presented to us in art, have any existence? If you do, you have never understood Japanese art at all. The Japanese people are the deliberate self-conscious creation of certain individual artists. If you set a picture by Hokusai, or Hokkei, or any of the great native painters, beside a real Japanese gentleman or lady, you will see that there is not the slightest resemblance between them. The actual people who live in Japan are not unlike the general run of English people; that is to say, they are extremely commonplace, and have nothing curious or extraordinary about them.

In fact the whole of Japan is a pure invention. There is no such country, there are no such people. One of our most charming painters [whistler] went recently to the Land of the Chrysanthemum in the foolish hope of seeing the Japanese. All he saw, all he had the chance of painting, were a few lanterns and some fans. He was quite unable to discover the inhabitants, as his delightful exhibition at Messrs. Dowdeswell's Gallery showed only too well. He did not know that the Japanese people are, as I have said, simply a mode of style, an exquisite fancy of art. And so, if you desire to see a Japanese effect, you will not behave like a tourist and go to Tokio. On the contrary, you will stay at home and steep yourself in the work of certain Japanese artists, and then, when you have absorbed the spirit of their style, and caught their imaginative manner of vision, you will go some afternoon and sit in the Park or stroll down Piccadilly, and if you cannot see an absolutely Japanese effect there, you will not see it anywhere.
Oscar Wilde (1882)

Japan is more than just fancy but Wilde's senti- ments capture the mystique that surrounds the subject. When Americans first learned about Japan in the mid-19th century, it must have seemed a very peculiar place indeed. Nearly everything about the Japanese culture and lifestyle was a novelty and a complete enigma. Travelers to Japan, both then and now, attempted to discover the things which made Japan tick. Edward Said wrote in his book Orientalism that westerners have perceived the Orient through generations of enduring stereotype and even today there is an abundant literature by supposed experts on how to understand Japan and its people.*

"I feel an irresistible desire to wander, and go to Japan, where I will pass my youth, sitting under an almond tree, drinking almond tea out of a blue cup, and looking at a landscape without perspective" - Oscar Wilde (1882)

another tricky thing is.... even the "experts" nowadays can't tell, apparently, what the japanese made for themselves, and what they made strictly for expert. not just in prints, but in crafts as well, much of what we see in the aesthetic movement are reflections of japanese crafts that were designed specifically, and exclusively, for western markets.

we are fortunate, if we like this stuff. companies such as bradbury & bradbury have made many original wallpapers available again, beautifully. other companies as well are

reproducing papers, fabrics, furniture, and then, of course, there are the antiques. much is accessible through arts & crafts home.

the upper right image is a godwin upholstery design for liberty & co., below it is a b & b wallpaper sample; the plates examples are wedgewood. even the most sophisticated of travellers still found it difficult to remember that china and japan were quite distinct nations. therefore, you saw "chinoiserie" china patterns named mikado.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great photographs... this is a great blog.

06 December, 2006 12:02  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

thank you so much, jcr--that's terrific to hear.


06 December, 2006 13:26  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

America was also enthrawled by Oscar Wilde, but who would be! lol ;)

I, unfortunately, have not visited Japan, I suppose I enjoy it much as Mr Wilde prescibes, but then I'm an artist.


08 December, 2006 06:30  

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hi, and thanks so much for stopping by. i spend all too much time thinking my own thoughts about this stuff, so please tell me yours. i thrive on the exchange!

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