Toulouse-Lautrec peers at Japan

In 1858, Japan, which had been a closed country for 300 years, started trading again with the outside world - and Japanese art started taking on some Western conventions. It also began depicting some of the foreigners who were now coming to live in Japan, housed in an obscure fishing village called Yokohama.

The dress and behavior of these foreigners astonished Japanese eyes. The artists were intrigued by strange sartorial exotica like trousers, frock coats, crinolines, and top hats. The way they recorded Western faces - emphasizing features like long, sharp noses - borders on caricature. Such images of foreigners were in great demand, so it is likely that, as with the traditional Ukiyo-e Japanese prints, these "Yokohama-e" woodcuts sometimes found their way into Western collections.

The West was even more fascinated by everything Japanese than the Japanese were by things Western. The last 40 years of the 19th century saw artist after artist - as well as potters, furniture designers, architects - inspired by Japanese art. The trend, named Japonisme, did not stop in the 20th century.

No artist adapted Japanese art to his own ends with more wit and affectionate irony than Toulouse-Lautrec. This 1891 portrait of his friend (the Montmartre art-photographer Paul Sescau), in which the man-of-the-world is shown looking at a Japanese scroll, suggests a Western take on the Japanese prints of top-hatted Western foreigners with sharp profiles. Lautrec hints at a certain absurdity involved in cultural differences.

Although it is a portrait, not a caricature, Lautrec could be a mischievous caricaturist. His portrayals of Parisian life often have a sardonic undertone. A similar portrait of a Dr. Bourges made the same year has him standing near the same scroll, but not looking at it. Both portraits were painted, in fact, in the artist's studio. The scroll is a kind of prop. But Sescau does seem to gaze appreciatively at it - playing the connoisseur perhaps. It is also apparent that Lautrec increased the height of the picture by adding to its foot. It is as though he had consciously decided to echo the format of the scroll and ape Japanese composition.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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