The Ukiyo-e celebration in European masterpieces. Japanism as a model of coexistence.

The European success of Japanese art and culture was, as we already said in When everything began, supported by the most interesting creative minds of the period. Generally, Japanism affected the western culture through a gradual contamination but, while Japanese traditions conditioned art in its expression, many European artists used to collect ukiyo-e woodblock prints just as a mark of respect and admiration. Artists like Édouard Manet and Vincent Van Gogh, in fact, did more than integrate Japanese artistic approach into their personal language. Consistently with their esteem for ukiyo-e, they chose to illustrate the presence of Japanese art in their ordinary life.

Fig. 1 Édouard Manet, Portrait of Émile Zola, 1868.

Fig. 2 Utagawa Kuniaki II, “Il lottatore di sumo Ônaruto Nadaemon della provincia di Awa”, 1860.

When, in 1868, Manet portrayed Émile Zola (Fig. 1), the Edo period was drawing to an end. However, it was twelve years later than the “discovery” of the Hokusai Manga, so Japanism was at its own peak in Europe. The artist, already in conflict with the academic world, decided to present the French intellectual with a portrait. Zola, indeed, was an active supporter of the painter and never failed to uphold him, also publicly. Manet used his atelier in rue Guyot as location for the pose sessions, during which the set was assembled to emphasize Zola’s personality and interests. The central position of the book, probably L’Histoire des Peintres by Charles Blanc, and the presence of the pen and the inkwell, in fact, identify Zola with the profession of writer. In the background, we can easily see a sketch of Manet’s Olympia and a reproduction, made by Francisco Goya, of Velásquez’s The Triumph of Bacchus.

Fig. 3 Utagawa Hiroshige, Bird on Camellia Branch, Edo period.

Everything seems so compliant with traditional aesthetics and habits: a renowned intellectual focused on his work, surrounded by occidental masters. But, the characterization of the location let us find traces of the cultural contamination caused by Japanism. In particular, we can recognize, behind Zola, an ukiyo-e print and an Eastern vertical screen. The ukiyo-e woodblock print, in which is clear the portrait of a sumo wrestler, is attributable to Utagawa Kuniaki II (Fig. 2), while the screen reproduces a genre typical of ukiyo-e: kachōga (illustrations of flowers, birds and insects), of which Hiroshige was the main performer (Fig. 3). The choice to put Japanese art and decorations next to Western ones was a strong stance. Manet and Zola decided to equalize European and Japanese masters to make formally explicit the importance of exotic influences in their work. Europe was living a profound change and the birth of magazines like Le Japon artistique (1888) was going to confirm the role of Japan in that transition.