Before the Art Nouveau period had taken its grasp on European Art, a drastic change was taking place within the European Nations. The industrial revolution had taken place, opening up for highly commercialized civilizations with a major emphasis on production. The period between the 18th to the 19th century witnessed the progression from the romanticism movement, to the realism movement, to impressionism, and into the Art Nouveau period. Throughout this time, the idea of the artist and the ‘work’ had shifted dramatically, corresponding significantly with the culture of the time.
To understand the culture means to understand the art, and by the mid 19th century, a major shift had taken place in countries like France, where the burgeoning middle class suddenly money and spending was at its highest. With the Art Nouveau period came a thirst for something new. When the Japanese finally opened up their borders to foreign trade, that something was finally found.
There is no doubt to the significance of Japanese art on the Art Nouveau period. French audiences heavily sought after the Ukiyo-e woodblocks for their unique style on the print technique, which had become very prominent in the French Culture. In a time where French prints and posters were dominated by Western visuals and society, the Japanese prints represented a culture that seemed pure, untainted by time. Artists such as Katsushika Hokusai and Kitagawa Utamaro became icons of the Japonism movement, with their depictions of edo-period life. The style that was brought over revolutionized the graphics world. It introduced a composition of space that was based around flat color and crisp lines. This deviation from the one-point perspective can be seen in many works, including Toulouse-Lautrec’s poster for the nightclub Le Divan Japonais.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Divan Japonais, c.1892-93
With a more flat area of color and asymmetrical composition, it is very reminiscent of Utimaro’s “Woman Playing with the Mirror” c. 1796, even within the characters expressions.
Kitagawa Utamaro, Women playing with the mirror, 1797
This sense of Japanese movement and expression is translated along with the erotic nature of art that was becoming apparent in the Art Nouveau period. A lot of Hokusai’s art involving humans contained high level of eroticism, such as his piece “The Adonis Plant (Fukujusô)” c. 1815.
Katsushika Hokusai, The Adonis Plant (Fukujusô), 1815
This portrayal of the erotic had made its way into Art Nouveau work, shown in the work of Gustav Klimt. His piece “Beethoven Frieze” c.1901, reveals a level of eroticism, shown through the expressions of the nude woman.
Gustav Klimt, Beethoven Frieze, 1901
In a culture so heavily transformed by the Industrial Revolution, the introduction of Japanese woodprints must have come as a refreshing backtrack. From a culture that was changing so fast, the Japanese culture, with its traditional practices and unique style represented the exotic new. With a large theme of the art Nouveau period stemming from breaking tradition, the influence of the Japanese works seems ironic yet fitting. It was a style they had never witnessed before, with a clear divide in the western and eastern transformation of art. In this way, the Japonism that took place in France couldn’t have taken place at a better time. But with the movement out of romanticism and the opening of Japanese borders, it seemed it was meant to be.