Japanese Connections at the Louvre Abu Dhabi

The time is somewhere between jaunty April and the gloved-hands of November in 1867. You are a wide-eyed visitor at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, the most elaborate fair the world has ever seen, in a city where both human and physical geography is growing and diversifying seemingly overnight. For the first time in world fair history, the Second Empire has planted pavilions beyond the boundaries of the Palais Omnibus and allowed her global architecture to bloom like exotic flowers in the surrounding Champ de Mars. It is a wild spectacle! Your red-leather fair guide, with an introduction by Victor Hugo, pinpoints where to slog in this crowded global garden to experience traditional Swiss cottages, the sweeping yellow roofs of soon-bygone Chinese dynasties, and the one-room American schoolhouse (representative of universal free education!), among others (Chandler). These fairgrounds are a “world of dreams” where “illusion is all that we require” for the more than eight million visitors (Çelik). And fashionable you, in your crinoline petticoat or elegetic three-piece suit, beeline for the competing pavilions from the Japanese archipelago–the most anticipated exhibits at the fair!–the shogunate’s “The Government of the Great Prince of Japan” and the Ryûkyû Kingdom’s “The Government of the Viceroy of Satsuma of Japan”. This is the Land of the Rising Sun’s debut in the world fair circuit and both parties hope to sell their foreign wares. In truth, during this decade, European fascination with this far-off land had already “reached a crescendo” resulting in much connecting, borrowing, appropriation, and assimilation of Japanese artistic aesthetics by western artists (Weisberg). And since that time, despite the misfortunes of 20th century war, enthusiasm for Japanese bric-a-brac, crafts, and art has never completely waned. From ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) to cosplay to anime to horror films, Japan has effortless and timeless heaps of what a lot of nations (and individuals) would like to have: Gross National Cool.

One-hundred-and-fifty years later, within a country preparing for its own world fair in 2020, the Louvre Abu Dhabi has opened a special exhibit to highlight these first cultural exchanges between Japan and France. From September 6th to November 24th, visitors can enter a small gallery within Jean-Nouvel’s illusory floating museum-village for “Japanese Connections: The Birth of Modern Décor”–Japonism’s Middle Eastern debut. Like the 1867 Exposition Universelle, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is also dreamlike, but a dreamscape of a more sleek, traveled, and politically-correct generation. While 1867’s connection seems as messy as a love affair, hemmed with power dynamics, baggage, chaos, rumors and gossip mongers, this latest display of Far East connection, featuring about forty works of art organized by the Musée d’Orsay, is refined, halcyon, and mostly quiet. Laurence des Cars, President of the Musées d’Orsay et de l’Orangerie, says about the exhibit, “ [It] takes an aesthetic rather than a thematic approach, its free-ranging exploration calls into play a certain universality of the gaze.” Indeed, visitors activate their gaze with an immersive experience, a walk through the streets of Paris during the latter years of La Belle Époque while large screens loop black-and-white images and videos: wide boulevards, sturdy black umbrellas, the old Gare d’Orléans, the Jardin du Luxembourg, horse-drawn carriages along the Seine, women balancing enormous hats on their heads and dragging dark skirts like Victorian headmistresses, and even the Eiffel Tower half-undone. Meanwhile relaxing piano music plays overhead as you pretend to step back into time.

Following this, you learn about the Nabis, a ragtag brotherhood of young French artists who fell under the spell of Japonism at yet another world fair (1989) after stumbling upon the work of Gauguin and other post-Impressionist painters. Interestingly, the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s permanent collection holds Gauguin’s Breton Boys Wrestling (1888); however, Gauguin and other early acolytes of Japonism (such as: James McNeill Whistler, James Jacques Joseph Tissot, Jules-Joseph Lefebvre, Manet, and even Degas at times) do not enter the narrative of “Japanese Connections”. The beginning of the exhibit also features an informative movie to help visitors understand the process of creating ukiyo-e, supplemented by an interactive game that utilizes exhibited works (such as Ker-Xavier Roussel’s The Terrace, and Hiroshige’s The Bank of the Sumida River in Edo) to illustrate the complexity and repetition of woodblock ink application.

The Bank of the Sumida River in Edo (1858), Utagawa Hiroshige.jpg
The Bank of the Sumida River in Edo (1858), Utagawa Hiroshige

The next four rooms mostly consist of works by Nabis artists (Maurice Denis, Pierre Bonnard, and the Sérusier couple) as well as some Japanese legends like Hiroshige and Hokusai. The name Nabis comes from the Hebrew and Arabic words for “prophets” (النبيين), and this group felt Impressionism had run its course. They rejected the “illusionistic three-dimensional space of perspective in favor of a [more Japanese] flattened representation of the world comprised of juxtaposed plane surfaces arranged in tiers” (The Art Story). Throughout “Japanese Connections”, works by Nabi artists are often displayed parallel to works by Japanese artists, incontestably illustrating the Japanese influence on the Europeans. Also, while all but one of the European artists featured are men, the subjects of the paintings themselves tend to be of women and young children. In the Japanese paintings, you see more animals (notably cats) and men, such as the prints from Hiroshige’s series Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido (1833-34). Furthermore, in Hokusai’s work, you see stains of the color Prussian Blue, which is the only discernible example in the exhibit of the “connection” moving in reverse, from west to east. Prussian Blue, as explained in Kassia St Clair’s marvelous book, The Secret Lives of Color, was discovered inadvertently by early 18th-century alchemist Johann Jacob Diesbach in Berlin and quickly spread throughout Europe. As explained by the Louvre AD tour guide, Prussian Blue arrived in Japan via its Nagasaki Port by Dutch ships, antecedent to the French connection.

With that stated, throughout the exhibit, there remains a lopsided feel to this asserted connection independent from the museum’s exquisite showcase. In fact, Japanese artists were also influenced by what they saw and learned in Europe. It wasn’t long after the 1867 Exposition Universelle that the Tokyo School of Fine Arts opened in 1889 and the school’s first principle, Okakura Tenshin, expanded the curriculum to include yōga (western-style painting). This was during the emergence of the Shin hanga movement in Japanese art, when ukiyo-e sensibilities were undergoing reinvention and beginning to incorporate western concepts. For example, traditional Edo-period ukiyo-e prints were mass produced to the point where European customers would even repurpose these paper prints as wrapping paper for more important goods. This is also why Hokusai’s stormy waves can be on view simultaneously in: New York, Melbourne, London, Giverny, Chicago, and beyond. Conversely, Shin hanga “resurrected the highest production values achieved in the distant past by employing thick mulberry paper, rich mineral pigments” and other specialized techniques (Marks). However, Shin hanga sold better in Europe and America than in Japan because foreigners regarded the movement as a fine art, whereas within Japan, shin hanga prints were still viewed with commercial skepticism. Additionally, there was opposition to the yōga style by nihonga painters (such as Hashimoto Gahō) who favored traditional Japanese conventions.

The final section of “Japanese Connections” features other kinds of cultural connections. The focus on interior décor includes an enchanting six-leaf screen by Hara Zaimei of Japan and more than a dozen ethereal panels by Odilon Redon, a symbolist painter from the port city of Bordeaux. In his work, Cherry Tree Blossom Against a Gold Background, Zaimei evokes the ephemeral and borrows techniques from his immediate western neighbor, China, for his Cherry Tree’s ginger-root-shaped trunk. Zaimei’s gift for transcendence through color is evident in how the artist seems to suggest the blameless white flowers and browning tree could at any moment disappear into the golden mist and be lost forever. Likewise, Redon’s works are saved for the finale of the exhibit and his enormous panels suggest a unfamiliarly-familiar spiritual dimension. Originally commissioned for a wood-paneled dining room in Burgundy, some of the pieces illuminate with golden sunlight while others calm with natural tones of ponds, storybook illustrations, insects, and flowers. They have an “unreal atmosphere” and they “simultaneously suggest medieval figures, Hindu priestesses, or depictions of the Buddha….combining cultural and religious elements from Europe and the East…” (Japanese Connections Birth of the Modern Décor). With this confluence, the exhibit ends within Redon’s dreamy atmosphere, leaving heads spinning with the possibilities of a world where earth and dreams connect and harmonize.

Branch of Yellow Flowers (1900-01),Odilon Redon.jpg
Branch of Yellow Flowers (1900-01), Odilon Redon

Lingering further is the idea of the exhibit’s title–the word, the noun–connections. While the world continues to laud “connections”, one has to question the nature of these connections and what exactly do we mean by the word. How do connections differentiate from collisions? When do cultural connections disfigure into cultural appropriation? These questions are as meaningful today as they would have been in 1867, if only such questions had been asked. The word connections is a safe and pleasant word. In a review of a current exhibit (“Mobile Worlds”, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe) in Hamburg, Jason Farago writes on the exhibit’s unorthodox curation choices, “All of them [display arrangements] replace the fiction of cultural authenticity — and, by implication, the oversimplified idea of ‘cultural appropriation’ — with a far broader constellation of terms: translation, simulation, exchange, conquest, recombination, hybridity.” The Louvre Abu Dhabi’s Connections title could possibly be considered as an umbrella for Farago’s constellations of terms, and to that end, the fun for the visitor of “Japanese Connections” can be in determining which pieces from the exhibit are translation, simulation, exchange, conquest, and so on. It is too easy to see everything nowadays, including the connections in this exhibit, through the lens of appropriation, because ultimately, this limited lens will backfire and distort our creative worlds as well as our personal communities and relationships. Though the word “appropriation” has long existed in the art lexicon (hello, Surrealism and Pop art), it has taken on a newer widespread meaning in recent years, especially in North America (and particularly on Twitter). Yet, even in the late 19th century, while people understood artists used other styles as departure points for their own works, there were already lines drawn based on artists’ intentions, eschewing the simplifications of appropriation. On these later years of Japonism, American art historian Gabriel P. Weisberg writes, “While some artists were struggling to assimilate and transform concepts from the art of Japan into their own vocabulary, other artists and artisans perpetuated the Japanese craze through marketable art works that were quickly seized by the upper middle-class who wanted novelty and exoticism…” (“Aspects of Japonisme”). For Weisberg, it seems intentions matter. Exhibits like “Japanese Connections” can push us to ask the same question–do our intentions matter when borrowing, learning, and connecting with another place? How do we show our intentions? How do we all become more like the artisans who strived to understand and transform…and less like the ones who seized other folks’ ideas and cultures? We might not all be artists in the fabled sense, but we all do create our own lives, and perhaps, as we make our own connections, we can decide what kind of artists we want to be… even if our canvas is only ourselves.

One early selection from “Japanese Connections” is Paul Sérusier’s Women at the Well, which echoes the Greek myth of the Danaids. The Danaids were fifty sisters, forty-nine of whom killed their husbands (oh, ancient politics!), and as punishment, much like the repetitive eternal torment of Prometheus, these sisters were sentenced to an eternity of filling and refilling jars of water in the underworld. Sérusier’s humbling painting of the procession of these doleful women carrying their identical bright red jars, jars never to be full, “expresses both a quest for concentration and an impulse to a geometrical, even mathematical, construction of space…”, which may connect with the question of eternal recurrence, a question quilted with Nietzsche (Japanese Connections). Are they satisfied with their life choices? Many of Sérusier’s women who killed their husbands appear overworked, yet some of them…defiant (maybe even free). While Albert Camus might call this question the absurdity of life, this question might also be the opportunity of life. We all have this jug. We all go to a world fair (Paris, Dubai, elsewhere). We circle through it all. We make connections, but what do we do and see differently? Is it even possible to do things differently? David Foster Wallace may have said some of these jug women are whispering “this is water, this is water” while most of them are not. Confronting “connections” from the past, our own past blunders and hurts, and all that grey history can sometimes be uncomfortable, but it is also important to talk about connections, the inherent power dynamics of our connections, and our own connections to our historical selves and our present selves, especially when paying and spending our limited time to see an exhibit featuring such a title.

In Steve Pinker’s heavily-researched book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, he makes a firm case that humans today are less violent and less cruel than in the past. We are becoming more reasonable, more universal. Remember Laurence des Cars used the phrase “universality of the gaze” in describing “Japanese Connections”? Well, this gaze contrasts greatly with the gaze that others or the gaze that exoticizes, which seems to have been the case in those early world fairs and unfortunately still, in many contemporary cultural connections. So, while the present may have bleak-shaped shadows, from Pinker’s vantage point, maybe it is apropos to note that the average visitor to today’s “Japanese Connections” exhibit is not the same visitor as the one to the shogunate’s 1867 pavilion in Paris. It might sound obvious, but a belief in moral progress is in itself a catalyst for further moral progress.

So, if you are the visitor leaving “Japanese Connections”, as you walk into the new museum’s interior, below the falling raindrops of light, you might ask yourself: how has the world changed since that first contact with Japan and France…and how will the connections I make in my lifetime be part of a further progress?

Header Artwork: Section from Femmes À La Source by Paul Sérusier


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