From Ukiyo-e to Lautrec’s posters. Japanism as a model of coexistence. [3/4]

Ten years later than La Japanaise, by Claude Monet, the ukiyo-e language inspired the art of Lautrec. In 1888, in fact, the emerging artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec painted the Portrait of Lily Grenier (Fig. 1). The reference to Monet’s work is evident: the kimono, once again, is the heart of the canvas. The presence of a traditional Japanese garment is, as already said in the previous articles, a proof of the cultural contamination caused by Japanism. However, the Portrait of Lily Grenier is essential also to analyze the stylistic influence of Japanese art in Lautrec’s painting approach.

Fig. 1 Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, Portrait of Lily Grenier, 1888.

Fig. 2 Utagawa Hiroshige, Kogane Plain in Shimôsa Province, from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, 1858.

While the kimono appears just like an iconographic homage to Eastern culture, the color arrangement and the composition are the result of a precise study of ukiyo-e. The oblique position of the woman, for example, derives from Hiroshige’s prints, in which the foreground subjects are usually placed laterally or partially cut off (Fig. 2). Moreover, the choice to paint a colorful and detailed background is an innovation considering the traditional habit to use dark tones to emphasize the portrayed figure. The importance of the background is typical of ukiyo-e and many Japanese masters like Hokusai used to dedicate their prints to background elements, like in the well-known Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji series.

The stylistic influence of ukiyo-e is even more explicit in Lautrec’s posters. The artist, who is known worldwide for his iconic bills, found his artistic way in a revolutionary creative approach. Distancing himself from Romantic legacy and Naturalist limitations, Lautrec was fascinated by Japanese xylography. The reproducibility of the work is just one of the many common points between the “images of the floating world” and his graphic production. The French artist, in fact, took inspiration from ukiyo-e both iconographically and technically. The desire to narrate the ordinary life of prostitutes, or to portray beautiful and famous women, is common in Utamaro’s work (Fig. 3, 4). In addition, the two-dimensionality, the chromatic uniformity and the value of lines are ukiyo-e’s peculiarities.

Fig. 3 H. Toulouse-Lautrec, Divan Japonais, 1892-93; Fig. 4 Kitagawa Utamaro, The Chiyozuru Teahouse - Orise, 1794-95.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was probably the main Japanism performer, he explored every dimension of ukiyo-e art and was a constant supporter of Eastern culture. His devotion to Japanese masters led him to reproduce graphically various sketches of Hokusai. There are not many formal publications about that but, analyzing Hokusai Manga and Lautrec posters, we have found some credible connections between their illustrations (Fig. 5-8) . The “Lautrec experience” teach us how precious, and stimulating, a cultural exchange can be. His work, in fact, is now an iconographic proof of the benefits of that kind of creative twist and shows the potentiality of open-mindedness.

Fig. 5 H. Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril, 1893; Fig. 6 Katsushika Hokusai, Hokusai Manga - dance positions (detail), 1814-1878.

Fig. 7 H. Toulouse-Lautrec,"Brothers Marco - Alle Folies Bergère" , from "Le Rire" n.59, 1895; Fig. 8 Katsushika Hokusai, Hokusai Manga - sumo wrestlers (detail), 1814-1878.