Cross-cultural currents of art

ONE of the best-known examples of cross-cultural exchange in art is the influence of Japanese wood-block prints on French art. In 1856, the engraver and painter Felix Bracquemond found, in wrapping paper around a shipment of china, prints by the Japanese master Hokusai. These and others that followed were to have explicit and implicit effects on such artists as Degas, Cassatt, Monet, Whistler, and Van Gogh. Even before he arrived in Paris, for example, Vincent Van Gogh had bought Japanese prints in Belgium. In Paris he could find tens of thousands of them available for only a few cents.

In March, 1888, he wrote Emile Bernard from Arles: ``This country seems to me as beautiful as Japan in its limpid atmosphere and gay color effects.'' And to his sister: ``All my work is based to some extent on `Japonaiserie.'''

The painting reproduced on the opposite page is Van Gogh's copy of Hiroshige's ``Plum Tree in Blossom,'' a woodblock print from the Japanese master's series ``One Hundred Views of Edo.'' Van Gogh's calligraphy is inaccurate and purely decorative.

The art currents flowed in both directions, of course, although Westerners know very little about the influence of French art on Japanese painters. In 1853, Admiral Perry and his ``black ships'' opened up the oyster shell of the Japanese islands, which had been shut against foreigners by the Tokugawa shoguns for 200 years.

In 1869, the young Emperor Meiji took back the islands from the shogun and urged his country into modernization to catch up with the United States and Europe in industry and technology. Curiously to us, but logically to the Japanese, European art was linked to science.

The Chinese art which Japan had embraced and modified had, for example, no graphic modeling to differentiate a circle from a sphere. Imagine a government planner in need of a drawing of a machine using ball bearings - circles just wouldn't do.

So the first official school for teaching Western methods of drawing and oil painting, established in 1876, was called the Technical Art School. Regulations decreed that only Westerners could teach and that the students would learn not only the imported style of graphic representations, but also adopt Western modes in eating, dress, and living quarters.

This school was short-lived. Its successor, the Tokyo School of Fine Arts, was established in 1887 with the intent to foster what American Ernest Fenollosa called ``true painting,'' harking back to the splendors of Japanese art of the Nara period of a thousand years earlier.

However, the Japanese artists' thirst for the French style could not be denied. A Western painting section was added to the school, taught by Japanese who had studied in Paris. This proved so popular that by the time Narashige Koide applied for entrance there in 1907, there was no room, and he had to first learn the traditional skills in the Japanese painting section.

By the 1920s, when Koide made his pilgrimage to Paris, many Japanese artists had made the long and expensive voyage. His sojourn was a short one. He professed to have been unimpressed by the art in Paris, and that it had little effect upon his painting. But his painting style did change with a lessening of his previous heavy impasto and a loosening of his brushstroke. His subjects broadened to include still lifes.

At first glance, ``Vegetables on a Table'' does not even hint to us that it was painted by a Japanese artist working in Japan. There are overtones of C'ezanne, Derain, and Matisse. The tipped-up horizontal plane of the tabletop, the emphasis on the ornate curves of its legs, and the strongly patterned floor all suggest that Koide may have visited, or at least seen canvases of, Matisse.

The color scheme is lively; the vegetables sparkle with bright reds, greens, yellows, and a touch of eggplant purple. The subtle shading and blue decorations on the white-glazed pitcher are counterpointed in the border of the rug, while the brightness of the red vegetables is echoed by the central flower motif under the table. The background is a rather solid, intense dark blue. The elongated shape of the painting - which is about 42 by 21 inches - and the artist's favorite long-legged hexagonal table are the most Japanese aspects of the painting. One of the difficulties Japanese artists working in Western modes had was that traditional Japanese houses are not amenable to many paintings or varied shapes.

The traditional method of display was an alcove in the main room reserved for a hanging scroll, with a flower arrangement and, perhaps, a treasured art object on a shelf in front of it. Horizontal paintings were hand scrolls the viewer unrolled before him as he sat. Folding screens and decorated panels for sliding doors paralleled in the Orient the large wall paintings of the West. This painting was commissioned for a Western-style house.

Koide wrote this about still life painting: ``Still lifes are not natural; rather, they are artificial... When you produce a still life - say, a picture of vegetables and fruits on a table - you can freely exchange and arrange them the way you like. But because you are so free, on the other hand, it is sometimes all the more difficult to find the right composition. ... You can choose among an ample variety of compositions, but as far as subjects are concerned, you have to be content with a narrow range of choice.... Occasionally you have nothing but things daily at hand. For example, if you are living in a four-and-a-half mat room on the second floor of a boarding house, all you have is a brown wall, a tea table, a brazier, and a bookcase. Even Matisse would sigh at this sight.''

Today, cross-cultural currents in art flow back and forth ever more swiftly. One can find in Japan abstract painters, neo-realists, Photo-Realists, and all other divisions and varieties present in European and American art. And there still may be found some Japanese artists practicing the traditional methods, and teaching them to Westerners.

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