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« Amateur Sociology | Main | Gym Observations »

January 09, 2008

Oh, Those Copycat Japanese

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

When I was younger, Japan had the reputation of not being innovative. It copied this, that and other things from Western sources. This is understandable, given the Meiji Restoration and the Westernization it entailed. By the 1970s, the Japanese had pretty well assimilated Western technology and acquired a new reputation as innovators, particularly in the realm of consumer products.

In art, Japan never had a copycat image. Rather, Japanese influence was strongly felt in late 19th century Europe, mostly in term of certain compositional practices and in the use of flat or nearly-flat areas of color.

When I toured Claude Monet's house in Giverny, I was surprised to see wall after wall covered with small, framed Japanese prints.

However, Japanese artists did try to copy Western art, even in the years of isolation. A recently-closed exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum, in cooperation with the Kobe City Museum, presented Japanese paintings, maps and other artifacts that drew heavily on Western examples brought by Dutch traders to their Nagasaki compound during that era.

Below are some images from the Seattle Art Museum web site, furnished to it courtesy of the Kobe City Museum. Note the use of linear perspective, oil paints and other Western touches.





Since the 18th and early 19th centuries many Japanese artists were influenced by or even wholly converted to Western-style painting. But I thought you might find these early examples interesting.



posted by Donald at January 9, 2008


Fascinating stuff, this is the first time I've seen work that strikingly western in composition.

Gotta say though, the first one looks almost like a Christian Gaijin Daruma portrait.

Posted by: Spike Gomes on January 9, 2008 2:38 PM

I believe even Hokusai was influenced by Western art, though the influence seems much less than in the examples you've given, Donald.

Posted by: PatrickH on January 9, 2008 3:00 PM

That's some fun work. We usually think of the influence coming this way from there, so it's fun to see the effect of the reverse. Weird, isn't it? Still, there's often something really wonderful that comes from when East and West mix and marry.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 9, 2008 6:31 PM

Slightly a propos: Friedrich von Blowhard turned up this nifty blog devoted to Japonisme.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 9, 2008 6:46 PM

I don't think it's exactly true that Japanese art lacked linear perspective before its contact with Western art, though it is true that the perspective it developed was different, more in tune with that of the Chinese.

What Japanese painting had lacked, and what Japan's painters did learn from the West, was a sense of the volume of the objects it portrayed, achieved in Western art by "modelling" - the use of light and shade combined with perspective to achieve the feeling of objects occupying real space and having a weight of their own. Of course, that kind of modelling was exactly what many modern Western painters were trying to lose in the late 19th century, so they turned to Japanese painting to see how it could be done.

Posted by: alias clio on January 9, 2008 7:01 PM

One of Japan's greatest strengths is the ability to copy without losing originality -- to incorporate foreign techniques into their culture without any seeming insecurity or defensiveness. This has paid off for them again and again.

Posted by: mq on January 11, 2008 5:13 PM

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