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The Influence of Japanese Woodblock Prints on The Work of Western Artists

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This essay will examine the influence of Japanese woodblock prints on the work of Western artists. More specifically, this paper will focus on the influence that ukiyo-e woodblock prints had on 3 artists, Belgian cartoonist Hergé, Canadian aboriginal Haida artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas and Dutch Post-Impressionist painter Van Gogh. These artists were chosen because they are all Western artists yet have varied backgrounds and have all clearly been influenced by the Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints. This topic was chosen by me as Japanese art and its influence on western artists is something I am interested in and have incorporated and have been inspired by in my own artwork because something I consider intriguing. I would love to explore and utilize the techniques and aesthetics of Japanese art more in my own work in the future.

Additionally, in my opinion, this topic is worthy of study due to the fact that ukiyo-e woodblock prints had such an evident impact on many western artists’ work and it is important to consider that this may or may not be a case of cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is considered to be a situation of adopting aspects of a culture that is not your own, especially without showing understanding or respect to it and this was and is a major concern and controversy in the art world. (Cambridge English Dictionary, 2018) On the other hand, inspiration is the process that takes place when someone sees or hears or experiences something that causes them to have exciting new ideas or makes them want to create something, usually in art, music or literature. (Oxford Learners Dictionary, 2018) To begin, the name Ukiyo-e means “pictures of the floating world” and it is one of the many genres of Japanese art which thrived from the 17th century too and through the 19th century. The artists who worked in this genre created woodblock prints and paintings of people such as beautiful women, kabuki actors, sumo wrestlers, erotic scenes, and scenery such as settings of historical Japanese events or folk tales and popular landscapes or travel points. (Artsy, 2018)

Some of the most remarkable Japanese artists of the Ukiyo-e genre were considered to be Ando Hiroshige, Katsushika Hokusai, Utagawa Toyokuni III, and Keisai Eisen. (Artsy, 2018) Woodblock printing was originally used back in the 8th century in Japan to distribute texts, particularly Buddhist ones. In 1765, a technological innovation made it possible to create single-sheet prints in a variety of different colors. (The Met, 2018) A name was given to the enthusiasm for Japanese art and design techniques that took over the West when trade with Japan was continued in the 18th century, this was called Japonisme. The impressionist movement was most inspired by the Ukiyo-e genre and impressionist artwork was evidently influenced by certain aspects of these prints such as the flatness, bright colours, and realist depictions. (Artsy, 2018) The 3 artists that I chose were all differently involved with the incorporation of elements of Japanese prints in their art.

Firstly, Georges Prosper Remi was born on 22 May 1907 and died on 3 March 1983 and was known by his pen name Hergé. Hergé was a Belgian cartoonist and artist. His comics were drawn in the “ligne claire” style which he developed. Ligne Claire which is French for “clear line” is a style of drawing. It uses clear lines which all have the same width and no hatching, and contrast is minimized as well. Shadows are usually defined. Additionally, the style often employs strong colors and a mix of cartoonish characters with a realistic background. All of these aspects combined results in comics drawn in a flat aspect. (Wikiwand, 2018) Hergé’s most famous works are The Adventures of Tintin comic book series and this series is considered to be one of the most popular European comics of the 20th century. Today his work still has great influence on cartoonists and comics. (Tintin Wiki, 2018) The second artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas is a Haida and Canadian contemporary artist, author and professional speaker. In the 90s he was introduced to Chinese brush techniques and after that, he started to purposely combine Haida and influences from Asian art into his work and created a form of art called “Haida Manga.” Parts of some of his Haida Manga can be seen below.

Haida Manga is something that mixes North Pacific native symbols and frame lines with the of Asian manga. Haida Manga displays a comical way of learning and being involved in his fight against prejudice and social divisiveness.(Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, 2018) The last artist Vincent Willem van Gogh was born on 30th March 1853 and died on 29 July 1890. Van Gogh was a Dutch Post-Impressionist painter who is considered to be one of the most famous and important figures in the world of western art. Van Gogh created approximately 2,100 artworks which include 860 oil paintings in only around 10 years, most of these in his last two years in France which is where he died. These artworks comprise of landscapes, still, life paintings, portraits, and self-portraits and these are all distinguishable by their bright colors and striking brushwork. (Acrylic Mind, 2018) When trade with Japan began again in 1854, many Europeans fell in love with the culture of Japan in spite of it being completely different from their own Western culture because they considered it new and exotic. Even countries who had yet to become trade partners with Japan waited to see the Japan that was closed for a long time. (Smith, 2018) When the term Japonisme came around Japanese goods became trendy, some of these included fans, kimonos, lacquers, bronzes, silks and woodblock prints. (The Met, 2018) The Impressionist painters and Post-Impressionists such as Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Gauguin were swept away by Japanese woodblock prints. Moreover, when Japan was opened the West was seeking new markets in which to sell their goods but also new markets where they could purchase goods to sell in their own markets. All kinds of Japanese things quickly became not only popular but a good investment for traders. (Weisberg, 2018). This was not the first time that the West got inspired by other cultures to make art, The Neoclassical movement and Orientalism are examples of 2 others.

Additionally, the Japonisme movement was responsible for making some of the biggest alterations to art in the West since the Renaissance period. (Weisberg, 2018) Looking at the Impressionist movement the changes in the art after the trade with Japan resumed are clear, as the styles, techniques, colors and even subjects changed in Impressionist art.Vincent Van Gogh highly admired Japanese woodblock prints and had a huge collection of them. In 1887, he made copies of two prints by Hiroshige who was a famous Ukiyo-e printmaker. The first one was The Bridge in the Rain, he painted the borders with Japanese characters which he saw in other Japanese prints. The second print that Van Gogh copied was the Flowering Plum Tree for which he also created a frame with characters from other prints. The main difference that can be seen in Van Gogh’s copies of Hiroshige’s prints is the difference in color. Van Gogh used more vibrant colors than Hiroshige in order to have a greater contrast in the pieces. Similarly to Hergé, the influences of Japanese prints are evident even in Van Gogh’s latest works that include clear black outlines and cropped images which are typical aspects of Japanese woodblock prints. A quote of interest by Van Gogh is “I envy the Japanese artists for the incredible neat clarity which all their works have. It is never boring and you never get the impression that they work in a hurry. It is as simple as breathing; they draw a figure with a couple of strokes with such unfailing easiness as if it were as easy as buttoning one’s waistcoat.” (Artelino, 2018) Looking at this quote his interest and admiration for Japanese woodblock prints are clear.

Another piece of Van Gogh’s called “Almond Blossom” which shows large blossom branches against a light blue sky, portrays one of Van Gogh’s favorite subjects. Almond trees blossomed in early spring which is why they are considered as a symbol of new life and Van Gogh borrowed the subject, the clear and bold outlines and the placement of the tree from Japanese printmaking. (Van Gogh Museum, 2018) Additionally, Julien-François Tanguy, or Pere (father) Tanguy, as he was called by Van Gogh was a notable character amongst the impressionist artists. He was the owner of an art supply store on Rue Clauzel and he frequently approved paintings as a payment method for purchasing art supplies. The painting below was done by Van Gogh and the affection towards Tanguy is clear through this portrayal. Tanguy is seen seated, turned towards the audience, with a kind smile and his hands clasped together in his lap. Art historians pointed out the fact that Tanguy was placed into a Buddha-like pose and commented that “van Gogh paid homage to the “colour grinder” by turning him into a sort of Japanese sage, placed against a background filled with some of the countless brightly colored Japanese prints that the painter and his brother Theo collected.” (Musee Rodin, Paris 2018) (GalleryIntell, 2018) Some artists admired the lack of a clear background, and some abandoned oil painting techniques in order to emphasize the flatness of Japanese prints. Van Gogh took from the Japanese ukiyo-e prints the richness of color and ended up utilizing the way in which the Japanese placed complementary colors next to each other.

Moreover, Van Gogh moved to Arles which is in the south of France, because he thought that it was similar to Japan, unlike any other place in France. (Artelino, 2018) He declared that one of the reasons he believed that Arles was similar to Japan was that the colors in Arles appeared to be brighter than in Paris just like they appeared in the ukiyo-e prints in Japan. Van Gogh thought that the amount of sunlight there was more similar to Japan and that the intensity of sunlight would create colors with a similar tint to those in Japanese prints. (Artelino, 2018)Next, looking at Hergé’s work done in the “clear line” style it is evident that it was also influenced by eastern art such as the woodblock prints of Hiroshige and Hokusai. Similarly, woodblock prints and western comic books both employ clear black outlines which are combined with consistent colors, no shadows and elements of perspective to make images appear to be 3D. It is known that Hergé had adored Japanese woodblock printing and looking at his comic The Adventures of Tintin we can see some similarities between it and The Great Wave Off Kanagawa by Hokusai. The clear and thin black outline, the style of the wave and the cropped nature of both images appears to be almost identical. Moreover, the positioning of the wave, although reversed, is clearly similar. Even today we can see that old traditional Japanese printing techniques were used as a source of inspiration for contemporary manga and anime. Japanese woodblock prints have a clear black outline which is present due to the nature of the process of carving.

On the other hand, as seen in Herge’s and Van Gogh’s works influenced by these prints the black outline is a stylistic choice made by the artist and this shows how these artists made this choice in order to recreate the look of the ukiyo-e prints. Lastly, the artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas alone was and still is executing an artistic and socio-political revolution. During the period of 20 years that Yahgulanaas lived among the Haida, he was taking in all the stories he heard and read that was part of his mixed heritage. He then started introducing the stories into his works of art. Later, Yahgulanaas found discrepant inspiration in Japan and the style of Manga. Going against the “authentic Indian” art, he put aside cultural expectations by combining various art genres and mediums from quite surprising elements of not only modern but also ancient, Japanese Manga, Chinese brushstrokes, North American Indigenous, serious, and comical influences. (Louise Look in News Culture, 2018) This influence from Japanese Manga came from Yahgulanaas’ relatives trip to Japan where they felt they didn’t encounter being subjected to the prejudices and discrimination they constantly experienced in North America. On this continent, “every aspect of indigeneity has been assaulted; everything that defines community, informal obvious governance, language, it’s bloody, violent and it’s persistent today.” For Yahgulanaas associating himself with the Manga style was more a political statement than a stylistic one. This essay has analyzed the influence of Japanese art and culture on the West through Hergé, Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, and Van Gogh.

According to scholars, there are four stages to influence, in this case, the influence of Japanese woodblock prints on Western art. These stages are considered to be discovery, appropriation, adaptation, and recreation. Many of the artists that were examined for these stages went through most or all of these stages. (Walther, 2018) The first stage is discovery (Walther, 2018), and each artist mentioned in this essay had their own individual discovery of Japanese woodblock prints. The World’s Fair of 1867 was the first to have a pavilion for the Japanese. (Hope Sewell, 2018) These artists did not only appropriate techniques of Japanese woodblock printing but also just like most of the people in the West at the time, also appropriated many things from the culture such as dress. Moreover, in a way, people worshipped Japan and thought of it as a sort of utopia when in reality it was just another country facing the same issues as any other. There were people like Van Gogh who made copies of woodblock prints and also people like Monet’s wife, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and also many of Manet’s models, who tried imitate the Japanese by dressing in their clothes. (Ives, 2018)

Additionally, these artists also adapted the techniques used in the Japanese ukiyo-e prints in order to satisfy their own needs. Herge, Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, and Van Gogh were not the only Western artists to be influenced by the Japanese ukiyo-e prints. These artists were chosen, as they have varied backgrounds although they are all Western artists. Moreover, the influence of Japan on the West was not one-sided.

The west also influenced the Japanese. Japan began to employ many Western techniques, such as oil painting. This was the product of the admiration the Japanese had with the perspective of Western art which arrived in Japan recently. The Japanese appropriated the perspective of Western art and once these were shipped back to Europe, they appeared exotic and new even though they were only a remake of their own work. In conclusion, as this essay has shown, the ukiyo-e woodblock prints were very influential, especially in the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist movements in the 19th century. It is important for us to acknowledge and study this aspect of 19th-century art as this influence displays the fact that these movements, while still being within the boundaries of Western art, were evidently influenced by a variety of outside sources such as Japan.

Additionally, the works of these artists can be seen more as inspiration rather than cultural appropriation, although Van Gogh did copy some ukiyo-e prints, him and Herge had a lot of admiration for woodblock prints and had gotten inspired from them. Yahgulanaas, on the other hand, used his Japanese influences in terms of making a political statement.

Moreover, as cultural appropriation is considered borrowing from a culture without respecting it and looking at the work these artists created and what they’ve said about Japan and their woodblock prints shows how they highly admired and respected them. All artwork that is influenced by a culture other than that of your own could be considered as the cultural appropriation to some extent. Yet the artwork of Herge, Van Gogh and Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas also has a personal twist of some sort that sets it apart from works that are deemed culturally appropriated. Van Gogh generally created pieces with his usual techniques utilizing oil paint but made his pieces appear to be similar to ukiyo-e prints, Herge employed a style called ligne claire which was influenced by ukiyo-e prints in his own comics and Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas utilized the stylistic elements of Manga mixed with North American Indigenous influences.

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