The influence of Japanese art of the Edo Period on the visual arts of late 19th century France is well documented by art historians. In Renegade Edo and Paris, currently on view at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, curator Xiaojin Wu brings together masterworks from both countries that are rarely shown together. She takes us on a deep dive into the sociological conditions in two emerging world capitals on opposite sides of the globe, inviting us to look beneath the visible similarities in the art.
The Edo Period in Japan was one of peace, prosperity, and social change. In 1603, the Shogun moved the government capital from the imperial city of Kyoto to Edo, present-day Tokyo. Over the next century, Edo grew to a city of one million people, propelled by the influx of wealth and demand for goods and services. Half the population was merchants, artisans, and entertainers. Although economically prosperous, in Japan’s rigid social structure they were low class. Lacking political power and security, these chonin or townspeople adopted a hedonistic lifestyle of transient pleasures: ukiyo, the floating world. In that world, Kabuki actors were celebrities and “pleasure women” were fashion icons. In contrast to the conservative imperial court, the street style of Edo was modern and bold.
Woodblock prints captured this burgeoning urban culture. Publishers, artists, block carvers and printers collaborated to mass produce prints that were affordable to, and widely collected by the new middle class. These ukiyo-e prints broke with tradition in style and subject matter: urban landscapes, ordinary people, popular entertainers and pleasure women are rendered in dynamic compositions of bright flat colors and bold lines.
The Edo Period and the reign of the shoguns ended with the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Western nations broke Japan’s self-imposed isolation. Japanese art and consumer goods began arriving in Europe and North America, sparking japonisme, a craze for all things Japanese. A seminal event was the Exposition des Maîtres Japonais (Exhibition of the Japanese Masters) in Paris in 1890. Among the thousand-plus works on view were many ukiyo-e prints. French visual artists adopted the Japanese subjects and stylistic conventions in their work.
France’s Third Republic was established in 1870 around the same time as the Meiji Restoration. The end of the monarchy led to a period of stability. Already an industrial hub, Paris became a center of intellectual, technological, and cultural innovation. These conditions fostered the growth of a prosperous middle class including scientists, engineers, artisans, and entrepreneurs whose tastes veered away from those of the old aristocracy. As in the floating world of Edo, Parisian popular culture celebrated bourgeois pastimes while cabaret singers and dancers became the new celebrities.
Lithography was introduced in Europe in the 19th century as an advertising medium. Unlike earlier printing technologies, the technique allows the artist to draw directly on the printing plate with oil-based media like crayons or paint, producing images as fresh and spontaneous as freehand drawings. Cabaret owners commissioned Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and other artists to create event posters that portrayed leading entertainers and lively, sometimes suggestive scenes inside the venues. The posters incorporated design elements of ukiyo-e like asymmetric compositions, tightly cropped images, silhouettes, and reflections. Their artistry elevated lithograph prints to a collectible art form.
The exhibition is organized in four sections. Japanese works hang in the same galleries as the French pieces that they influenced. In the introductory gallery, a pair of screens depict panoramas of urban life in Edo. Posters of Paris landmarks include the Divan Japonais, a café and music venue that had imitation-Japanese décor. Henri Rivière’s book of lithographs, “Thirty-Six Views of the Eiffel Tower” (1902) is a tribute to Katsushika Hokusai’s portfolio of woodblock prints, “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji” (1830-32). Selections from both works are on display.
“Entertainment: Shitamachi and Montmartre” takes us into the theaters and cabarets of the two cities. Toulouse-Lautrec’s “Moulin Rouge: La Goulue” (1891) and “The Englishman at the Moulin Rouge” (1892) are scenes inside the storied cabaret. The foreground and background figures in profile reference works like Utagawa Yoshitora’s “Fashionable Spring Moon” (ca. 1847-52), in which silhouettes of a dancer and musicians background a trio of bustling waitresses.
“Celebrity Culture” brings together iconic portraits of famous Kabuki actors and French cabaret performers. Katsukawa Shunshō and Katsukawa Shunei both portray Ichikawa Danjūrō V in two of his famous roles. He can be recognized by his long nose and red costume printed with his family crest. In poster illustrations, Toulouse-Lautrec featured singer Yvette Guilbert’s exaggerated posture and trademark long black gloves. Cabaret singer and owner Aristide Bruant was known for his wide-brimmed black hat and red scarf.
In contrast, women of the “Pleasure Quarters” were viewed quite differently by the two societies. In Edo, geisha, who were skilled musicians, dancers, and calligraphers, and yūjo or “play women” plied their trade in the gated and sanctioned Yoshiwara district. In prints by Kitagawa Utamaro, these women appear idealized and refined, beautifully groomed and fashionably dressed. French prostitutes were less reputable. In prints from Toulouse-Lautrec’s album “Elles” (She), they look like the everyday world-weary women that they were.
The exhibition catalog includes an essay on the floating world of Edo and commentary on the show’s organizing themes by Xiaojin Wu, former curator of Japanese and Korean Art at the Seattle Art Museum. Mary Weaver Chapin, curator of prints and drawings at the Portland Art Museum contributes an essay on Bohemian Paris and Toulouse-Lautrec. In both the catalog and the exhibition, the art is organized and presented in a way that illuminates the historical parallels underlying the visual connections, providing a fresh context in which to view these works.
Renegade Edo and Paris is at the Seattle Asian Art Museum through December 3. Information at 206.654.3100 or seattleartmuseum.org.