Artistic Cultures of Asia and the Americas


The Art of Asia



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Japanese Prints



and collection

Hiroshige - Bierstad





"We live only for the moment, in which we admire the splendour of the moonlight, the snow, the cherry blossom and the colours of the maple-leaves. We enjoy the day, warmed by wine, without allowing the poverty which stares us in the face to restore our sobriety. In this drifting — like a pumpkin carried along by the current of the river — we do not allow ourselves to be discouraged for a moment. This is what is called the floating, fleeting world."

This "New Age" text is taken from a story written in 1661. Not long before, in the year 1638, the young Tokugawa regime had sealed Japan off from all communication with the outside world. In 1657 Edo, modern-day Tokyo, was ravaged by fire.
In the course of the subsequent construction boom, the pleasure quarter of Yoshiwara was rebuilt on a new site: it took the form of a rectangular grid of streets of green houses, surrounded by walls and ditches. Only with a special pass were the ladies of this earthly paradise allowed to leave its confines.
In this sophisticated, neatly-painted pleasure city, as in the Kabuki theatre, social distinctions were blurred. It worked its attractions on the new bourgeoisie no less than on the old nobility. Artists familiar with the old traditions found in this milieu new motifs and a new form of mass-reproducible art for a new market.
Although "nature" — landscape, flora and fauna — continued to have its place in the popular views of festive existence painted over the following two centuries, and in particualr in the 19th century, the heart of this festive existence beat in the contemplative side-views of everyday life, and above all, for the courtesans and actors, the goddesses of Yoshiwara and the idols of the Kabuki theatre. Through their art the lowest on the social ladder came to be the highest on the Olympus of joie de vivre and fantasy, and colour prints bestowed immortality upon them.
And it was this world which brought forth the very embodiment of the Japanese print: ukiyo-e, pictures of the floating, fleeting world.


Kaigetsudo Norishige
Standing Woman

The floating world is thus also, and firstly, the rapid but precise passage of the ink-brush over the paper. The virtuoso command of this skill formed the basis of both calligraphy and painting. Meticulously, the woodblock carver rendered the brush-stroke on the printing block. The floating world is the drama of lines: their currents, their sweeps, their curves, their loops, their zigzags, their thrusts. It is the rhythm of directions, as they run with and against each other, as they diverge and snap together again. It is the interplay of line and plane, of figure and background, of printed and imprinted paper, of passion and tranquility. It is the maze of patterns and folds which draws the eye to the erotic force-field of garments which enshroud the bodies; it is the fashionable display of costly fabrics and mannered coiffures.
Bodies? Between the silhouetted heads of hair- sweeping into elaborate curves before being tied back again - and the vertical play of clothes, there appears a mask-like face captured in just a few fine strokes, demarcated from the surrounding emptiness by no more than a tender, gently curving outline. Otherwise just a tiny hand in the middle, and a foot below. Let us cast our eyes over an early work by Norishige (see left): it is only the position of head, hand and foot in the rapid sweep of the whole which even suggests a figure in an elegant pose. The movement moves the eye and the imagination of the beholder. Nothing is more than hinted at; everything hinted at is ambiguous, but nothing is blurred. The body disappears behind the folds; it has no volume, no shadow, no weight. There is no floor, no depth.
Any emotion lacking in the unmoving face appears all the more vehemently in the restlessness of the garments. The cascade of hair responds to the curves of the puffed sleeve; this in turn to the similarly-patterned wedge of fabric with its unpatterned counterpart - and together they nudge at the fingers from below. The raised sleeve conceals the other hand; it reveals only the opening, on which a ball seems to hang like the inside of a butterfly net in which an iris is seen to blossom. Above and around the visible hand, by contrast, directions accumulate into folds resembling a pointed fan, a stout hose, a long-nosed mask. This centre of energy gives rise to whirlpools from which straight jets radiate far into a bizarre outline, only to turn about, some rounded, some angular.
"Remember," said Henri Matisse to his pupils in 1908, "that the character of the curved line is easier to comprehend if, as often the case, it is contrasted with a straight line. The converse is also true."
The more one immerses oneself in these clear, well-defined lines, the more their wealth of association unfolds. The folds brace themselves against the large floral patterns. We have once more an interplay of contrasts: the irises, bent to fit into closed, white discs on a black ground, like moons half covered by the clouds; the Paulowmas, open against a white background, like stars radiating in all directions. Some of the blossoms and leaves straddle the force-lines of the folds unhindered, while others are cut off by them.
This print by Norishige is a "primitive" in the history of Japanese woodblock printing, one of the direct descendants of the pioneering works of Moronobu which were apperings full of archaic strength and freshness, in the years around 1700. The prints were in black-and-white, until the introduction of hand-colouring in about 1710. Not until the mid-18th century did the classical age of polychrome printing begin.




What manner of sovereign figure is this, in her decorative pose and dynamically interwoven composition? She would tower above the average Japanese woman by two heads, as though the picture were scaling down the real world to the format sometimes assigned by the classical masters of the woodblock print to a maid in the presence of a lady. And thus the dependency relationship between art and reality is reversed. The lady, as Art, does not imitate Reality, but formulates perceptions to enhance Reality.
These extravagantly-garbed figures were an advertisement for the latest designs in hairstyles and clothes. The parades of the leading courtesans in Yoshiwara were events with a capital E. Norishige's print may be seen in this context: behind the austerity of the design one can sense the rustle of the embroidered silk, and the unapproachable pose before the eyes of the public.
This idealization of a culturally up-market Miss World makes no distinction between prostitute and princess. Only initiates know: the former knotted their kimono sashes in front. What Western morality has wrenched apart and driven into painful contradictions - heavenly and earthly love, the Madonna and the whore - are shown in the non-naturalistic female figures of the Japanese woodblock masters as aspects of a holistic human nature. And that alone is real. The only Reality is life in the harmony of opposing forces, even though it may only be realized fleetingly or vicariously or in the contenplation of living, painted or printed images. Thus say the artists, with a wink and a nudge; meanwhile they work hard, and "savour the moment".
Even men and women are often difficult to tell apart in the woodblock prints. Both sexes wear long flowing garments, both wear their hair done up in a sophisticated bun. The delicate, motionless doll-like faces are interchangeable. In one of Koryusai's prints the end of the standing woman's sash - knotted in front
- touches the shoulder of the recumbent man. while the latter's coiffure nudges against the woman's hip. This sort of thing is one of the fine distinctions within this feminine aesthetic with its flattering hues, which adapts the outward aspect of the male to that of the female.
On the kabuki stage, female roles were played by men. The corresponding actor portraits achieve perfect mimesis: their exterior beauty represents a manifold reflection of so-called reality: the portrait of a man impersonating a woman in a role created by show-business according to prespecified rules. Only the legend identifies the actor, the role and the play from the transient world of the performance, captured by a painter and distributed by a publisher, whose names are likewise mentioned.
At most the actor portraits by Sharaku - with their craggy, dry facial features - hint at the man behind the female mask (see below). The passionate kabuki audiences knew everything there was to know about the theatre: the plots, the personal details of the stars, and the particular roles in which they excelled. They wanted to recognize them in these colour prints, as well as enjoy the charm of their graphic transfiguration.
It would appear that the ancient oriental wisdom of yin and yang, of the balance between the male and female principles, had appeared in the form of the easy muse of the tea-house and the stage, and perfumed the cast of the ukiyo-e with sweet androgynous scents.


Toshusai Sharaku
Sanokawa Ichimatsu III as the Geisha Onayo of Gion




With bulging muscles, grimaces, spits and hisses, strutting like a turkey with bristling feathers, bursting with strength: in the pictures of the heroes of melodramatic stories, of wrestlers and of artistes, masculinity is glorified by a genre of its own.
The rough and ready pictorial language of the "primitives" could have been made to order for these musclemen; the images endure to this day in contemporary comic-strip magazines. As though he had discharged his energy in a flash as he sprang into the picture, the corpulent fighter dominates the lower half of a print by Kiyonobu (see below). He extends not lengthways but sideways, filling out the square in which he is placed right up to the sides of the picture. Were he to summon his reserves of strength, stretch out his bent left arm and kick out with his bent left leg, the written characters would be sent flying off the edge of the paper.


Torii Kiyonobu
Yamanaka Heikuro and Ichikawa Danjuro II


The fellow is half naked. The nakedness is characterized by a wavy outline filled in with brilliant orange, and is concentrated in the bloated belly, which nevertheless seems capable of exerting further fearsome pressure. Centring on this belly, the garment bursts out in three directions. It too is hand-coloured, but in light ochre, only slightly deeper in hue than the paper itself. The stronger and more thrusting the orange, the sharper and harsher is the effect of the black of the pattern elements, which are carrying on a struggle with the lines of the folds. Both qualities - the rigid geometry and the dynamic stroke - are mutually intertwined.
The grey rival in the top half of the picture - perhaps a demon, certainly the villain of the piece - while moving threateningly above the back of the hero's neck, is not characterized by anything like the hitter's potency. True, a pointed black form is bearing down upon the hero's bald head, but the orange of the villain's garment is reduced to narrow stripes, so that its importance is visually reversed: paths of energy, flowing from the muscleman, seem to break up the more meagre figure of the villain and displace his presence from a position of superiority into the background.
The feminine portraits of anonymous grace differ from the masculine images of courage, aggression and intrigue also in respect of their facial expression. The former are characterized by a tranquil, light-hued oval (rarely in profile) their almond eyes almost closed, their mouth a mere dot, and their lips sometimes like tiny wings trying to open. The latter by contrast are marked by rolling eye-balls, maybe with a squint, and a grim mouth with its corners pulled outwards and downwards; these features are often further enhanced by war-paint covering the face like some unleashed arabesque.
With his body and his physiognomy, his movement, his garb and his warrior's accessories, the hero comes supplied with the whole arsenal of macho gestures designed to intimidate his opponent by the mere sight of him, while transfixing with a thrill of horror theatregoer and picture-beholder alike.




In our attic there hung colour reproductions of Franz Marc and Vincent van Gogh, a Chrysanthemum from the Mustard-seed Garden, the Wave and the View of Mount Fuji by Hokusai (see below). They channelled the longings of an adolescence plagued by Latin vocabulary away from the misery of the post-war years on to a mental image of Nature - wide, pure and unspoilt. Into this idyll there came one day a head by Sharaku. From that day on, the sound of the name alone took on a magical charisma which acted upon the same nerves as give rise to goose pimples.


Katsushika Hokusai
36 View of Mount Fuji


The actor and the role: "Ichikawa Komazo III as Shigano Daishichi" (see below). Whoever the two-in-one-person may be, the kabuki theatregoers in May 1794, like today's connoisseurs, knew who it was, just as today's film buffs know who is meant when they see a still captioned "Humphrey Bogart as Rick". The legend is dispensable; the picture itself suggests all that is needed. Alongside Shakaru's shady character, Kiyonobu's hero comes across as hyperactive, slightly ludicrous windbag, and the scene as if taken from a village barn theatre or an African war-dance, a rustic knees-up, full of vitality, rich in associations, but lacking in deeper intent.
The picture by Sharaku, by contrast, confronts us with an overpowering apparition which conceals more than it reveals. The figure creeps up from the side, silent as a cat, and is suddenly there, right next to us, in black and white. Suddenly the dark space is illuminated by a palely-gleaming head, from which in place of a neck, a no less bright banana grows. With a razor-sharp edge, the black coiffure sits upon the long mask of the face with its long nose. Beneath this nose, the mouth appears in the shape of a thin bone, an illusion created by the tightly pressed lips. The action would seem to have reached its climax. All is quite silent. We hardly dare breathe. Something is about to happen - or has just happened. Now the hero has appeared - or is about to withdraw. He is pulling something from his garment - or else he is just replacing it. The hand and hilt are clearly discernible, but are subsumed in the harsh contrast between the white neckline and the black cloak, like a whisper lost in a hubbub of shouting. I am face to face with the intruder, who rolls his eyes till almost nothing but the whites can be seen.
Murderer or lover? Rescuer or sleepwalker?


Toshusai Sharaku
Ichikawa Komazo III as Shigano Daishichi


This print requires an aesthetically demanding, practised viewer with a predilection for the sinister, someone who loves indirect associations which can stimulate his fantasy to psychological games.
There are just a few large fields in this picture, accompanied by just a few thin lines; unambiguous decisions, yet accompanied by delicacy and finesse. And there is only black, white and grey, with barely noticeable nuances of hue to give some colour to the dramatic chiaroscuro.
Mysterious, outwardly at least, is also how best to describe Sharaku's artistic career; almost all biographical details are lacking, leaving us to supply the deficit from our imagination. A former No dancer creates 144 actor portraits in nine months; after that, nothing. Their effect transcends the work of all other masters of woodblock printing — at least for the Europe of Goya and Dostoevsky.



Ishikawa Toyonobu
After the Bath

From overtly or subliminally violent masculinity, let us return once more to the intimate serenity of the green houses.
The lady steps inside from the garden. Within, it is no less airy than outside. A little servant girl hands her a cup. A kimono is carelessly wrapped around the naked body of the young mistress. She looks back to the garden, where a jetty leads across the water, drawing out the line of our vision. Has someone just departed? Or is someone expected? From the garden, one could see her bare shoulders, otherwise only the kimono. We, by contrast, as beholders of the picture, get to see far more. If she would just open her delicate hand, the fabric would fall open, and we should see everything.
This early three-colour print by Toyonobu offers us a story for the spinning (see left). It depicts an everyday toilette tantalizingly on the verge of becoming a strip-tease. Immediately before the climax, the scene stops where it is, as a tableau vivant. Presented as a maidservant, the diminutive figure at the side arouses no suspicion. But her eager profile betrays the voyeur and his desires. The role of the miniature domestic in her simple floral garment with its enormous bow behind is offered to the beholder as camouflage. The beauty herself has in her something of the spoilt daughter of the grande dame on the Norishige print which we considered earlier. There is less power and pride, but to make up for that, more tenderness and seductive sophistication. The same is true of the style of the print as a whole.
The point at which these discreet allusions end, where, at the top of the leg where the open kimono is just held together, we are given a glimpse of public hair-this is the point where the so-called shunga begin, where nothing is hidden. These shunga, either on single sheets or in albums, were evidently very widespread. The genre continues the ordinary print, as it were, behind the screen, from where it retrospectively enables the customer to place a more informed interpretation on the hints imparted this side of the screen.

The interplay between body and garment sets the standing or seated single figure vibrating, with minimal involvement of hands or feet: when it comes to the floor routine of sexual athletics, it treats the four-hand, four-foot entanglement with great tenderness. The recurrent schema of elegantly curvilinear poses, as maintained for the public outside, here within brings forth an endless variety of positions where inventiveness is given a free rein. The lines and patterns are as precisely delimited and as clean as those we have already met, but the precision knows no bounds, while cleanliness is ensured on occasion by a small kerchief in a delicate hand. No matter how entangled the entanglement, no matter how vehemently intrusive or subtly clothed the nakedness, the elaborate coiffures never have a hair out of place. If the figures are totally naked, then their bodies and limbs, uncoloured, come across like those of rubber dolls. Except for one thing: it is at this point that we discover what it is that the tiny white hands in the clothed pictures are capable of— namely, an enormous contrast. An occasional tree stump then awakens further associations. For all their hypertroplua, the shungas maintain a sense of proportion; for all their violence, they maintain their grace; for all their indiscretion, they maintain their subtlety; for all their matter-of-factness, they maintain their poetry; for all their didacticism, they maintain their sense of fun.


Often, a male or female spectator turns up m the picture, less as a voyeur, more as an attentively sensitive observer. He or she follows the act from close proximity without embarrassment. If he or she conceals him or herself behind a screen or in a niche, then it is, if anything, in order not to disturb the rhythm of the couple during their lesson. The observer in the picture excuses the observer of the picture. And yet this is not the right way to put it: the intimate glimpse is not so burdened by guilt that, for all its sophistication, it could give rise to any embarrassment that would need to be excused.
Back in front of the screen, on the way out, so to speak, we cast our eyes once more upon a bust by Utamaro. A lady gazes into a hand-held mirror, to examine the teeth she has just blackened (see below). The warm grey background is just a hint darker than the natural colour of the paper, as evidenced by the untinted face and arms. The greater, then, is the contrast created by the light and dark areas, accompanied by a delicate duet of light orange and dark green. The black tower of hair gives emphasis to the orientation of the head as it leans forward — its impetus absorbed by the oval mirror. Between hair and mirror is the three-quarter profile with the incredibly fine sweep of its outline. How eagerly she leans forward out of the blackness to look into the blackness which she holds so closely to her face, in order to examine in the reflection (hidden to us) the blackness in her mouth! And how, on the back of the mirror, the yellowish petals of the stvlized flower are beginning to wilt before our eyes!


Kitagawa Utamaro
Sketches of Women.
Women Gathering for a Tooth-Blackening Ceremony



Artist's teachinhg manual,
Kano school, 18th century

The apprentice painter underwent a strict process of instruction during which he learnt the repertoire of signs and the skills of brush-handling through continual practice, just as one learns vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation until fluency is achieved.
Academic art theory in the West had established a study of nature which, with the help of classical schemata, sought to render the world as a body in a space by means of light and shade. The naked human body stood as anthropocentric model. In the East, by contrast, the eye and hand were schooled by copying models in which the pictorial experience of centuries was distilled to an extreme level of concentration. The rules, however, aimed not at the external mutation of stereotypes, but at developing a feeling for the animated brush-stroke, which, in its organically controlled progress, was required to reflect the original being copied. In the process, the eye inspects not only the shape of the lines which together go to make up a blossom, a wave, a fold or a hand, but also, and with the same attention, the intervening spaces, or rather, the emptiness in between. It is this emptiness which determines the rhythm of the drawing and the tension in the pictorial plane. The lines are drawn briskly. As there is no way of correcting an ink-drawing, the pupil had to learn to master his repertoire of brush-strokes so that the result was right first time.
The totality of motifs and stylistic devices is what defines a particular school. Its collective experience was passed on - with a greater or lesser degree of variation - by the masters, and often preserved in albums of woodblock prints running to serveral volumes. The examples illustrated here are taken from a copybook produced by the Kano school in the 18th century, a six-volume work containing a wealth of models in sketch form. There were various such schools, all of them part of a development which led from the "primitives", via the classical masters, to the late masters of the 19th century, whose works reveal the increasing influence of the geometric perspective of Western painting. On the whole, though, the era of the Japanese print presents a homogeneous picture, by virtue both of the tradition of the schools and of the restrictions imposed by the woodblock printing technique itself.
This technique was based on the precision and strictly linear character of the drawing, which excluded any painterly dissolution of the brush-stroke. The key block - the first step in the printing process - was characterized by a framework of open and closed outlines alongside areas destined to be black in the final print. Within this network of lines, the empty fields could then take up the interplay between untinted areas (i. e. the original colour of the paper) and tinted areas (whether uniform, shaded or patterned). Each new colour was inked into this linear skeleton with a separate printing block, or was created as a secondary hue from the overprinting of several colours. The tradition of an iconic language, the conditions imposed by the technique and the studio process by which the work was divided into various phases, together guaranteed the fixed pictorial logic of the elements of line, field and ornament. Like individual musical instruments, they maintain their intrinsic value while allowing the most astounding contrasts and modulations, and playing in concert produce the decorative overall effect. By contrast, contemporary European painting, from Tiepolo to Turner, achieved its dynamic quality through the fusion of pictorial elements.
As a rule, the artist would use a brush to draw a line or fill in an area in black on thin, transparent paper. He had to be able to move the brush across the paper so surely as to be able to create not only crescendos and diminuendos, but also lines of even fineness and fields with exact contours. This drawing was then stuck face down onto a block of cherry or box wood, so that the ink drawing adhered, easily visible but laterally reversed, to the surface of the wood. The next stage — the carving of the key block - was left to the woodblock cutter. He would isolate the black areas with a contour knife by cutting along the edges of the drawing with extreme precision. The areas to be left untinted, or to be printed with colour, were then scraped away with a chisel. Black-and-white proofs were then pulled from this key block; on these proofs, the artist would indicate the colours to be employed in the various areas of the picture. On the basis of these instructions, the individual colour blocks were then prepared. A fine line and an angular register mark at the bottom edge ensured the exact superimposition of successive colour impressions. Finally, the set of completed blocks would be passed on to the printer, who would use a brush to apply a watercolour mixed with ricepaste to the surface of each block, and press the paper against it by hand or with a brayer. In overall charge of the whole process, from the design stage via production to sales and distribution, was the publisher.

Illustrations from an artist's teachinhg manual, Kano school, 18th century




In 1853 Japan's ports were opened up to trade with the West. This marked the start of a period during which the influence of Japanese aesthetics on the modern movement in Europe, up to and beyond Art Nouveau, can hardly be overestimated. It encompassed every field of craft and design, encouraged tendencies in modern architecture, and above all came as a revelation to the first modern painters, from Degas, van Gogh, Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec to Schiele and Klimt.
The feeling for the arabesque in place of volume, for pictorial surface per se in place of illusionistic depth, for the intrinsic value of point and line, of colour and rhythm in place of their representational value, and above all a sense of expressive emotion in place of naturalistic imitation: the European avant-garde recognized that all these things which had been agitating them so greatly were already present as a mature art form in the Japanese prints that had been arriving in Europe, and especially in Paris, since the 1860s.
Influences now began to flow in both directions between East and West. But whereas the arrival of Japanese art in Europe brought positive results, the converse was hardly true. During the period of Japanese isolation, the Dutch were the only nation to be allowed a trading post in Japan, and even that was a sealed-off island in Nagasaki harbour. From there, European etchings filtered into Japan, where individual artists borrowed certain aspects of their exotic perspective for use in their own graphic art. No doubt it held the same curiosity as did their own art for their counterparts in the West, and through the closer observation of nature which it engendered, it may have contributed to the enrichment of their pictorial language. Prints by Hokusai, Hiroshige, Toyokuni, Kunisada and Kuniyoshi demonstrate a knowledge of the rules of Western art going back well before the mid-18oos - a knowledge which subsequently contributed to the end of ukiyo-e. Conversely, it was in particular the prints by masters already influenced by European traditions which first helped Western artists to liberate themselves from those very same rules.

Vincent van Gogh
Field with Rising Sun

Some outstanding graphic works in the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung in Munich and a painting in Amsterdam, seen side by side with the works of Japanese masters, provide a more or less indirect reflection of this Eastern influence.
Take a great landscape drawing from van Gogh's late period, for example (see left): the movement of the short lines in black chalk and red ink proceeds in waves upwards from the lower edge of the picture. This wave movement is then cut off by a horizontal bar, above which it continues in part horizontal and in part vertical. In the uppermost section is a large disc, surrounded by concentric lines. Bottom to top at the same time represents near to far. While there is a vanishing point in the form of a clump of trees, the rhythm of the almost evenly heavy strokes emphasises the pictorial surface and sets it vibrating. The breadth of the landscape leads to emotional depth, not to spatial depth. On the subject of two comparable, albeit more detailed, differentiated drawings of a broad landscape constructed with even greater physical depth, which van Gogh executed in Montmajour a good year earlier, the artist wrote to fellow-painter Emile Bernard:
"They do not look Japanese, and yet they are the most Japanese thing I have done"
(letter no. 501, dated 18 July 1888).


We are not concerned with value-judgements when we consider alongside this drawing a little print by Hokusai, the master of the views of Mount Fuji - the busiest, most versatile, most productive, and in Europe initially the most admired of Japanese artists (see below). The landscape looks at first somewhat didactic: indeed, that was how it was intended. All the better, then, to demonstrate the stylistic means employed: the layering of the landscape from bottom to top; the evenly sustained strength of the drawing, the way the surface takes on a rhythm through undulating lines and dotted fields, and the characterization of ground, plants, foliage and water by means of graphic abbreviations.

Katsushika Hokusai
Landscape from the artist's "Manga" sketchbooks, published in 15 volumes from 1814


Utagawa Hiroshige
100 Views of Famous Places in and around Edo
Ohashi Bridge, Sudden Shower near Atake

Vincent van Gogh
Japonaiserie: Bridge in Rain
(after a print by Hiroshige)




The lithograph "Woman in Bed, Profile, Awakening", part of the series "Elles" by Toulouse-Lautrec dating from 1896 (see below), offers another starting-point for comparison. As a colour print, as an everyday brothel scene, and in the consistent intermeshing of patterned and plain, coloured and uncoloured areas, this picture has many similarities with an ukiyo-e. Before the blanket becomes a blanket, lying on top and hanging down, it is and remains a double-printed cold pink, which has to be seen in relation to the bright orange head of hair sported by the otherwise totally uncoloured figure of the madam. This pink nudges against the thin open arms of the girl, making her pallor appear yet more consumptive, and indeed causing everything else in the picture to pale into relative insignificance. Just a few casual strokes separate the white upper body of the girl from the white bedlmen, making it possible for her to get out of bed, and turning the pillows into a monstrous growth, a silent cry, pushed into the background by the submissive gesture of the arms. Contrasts like these, creating ambiguous relationships between the different areas of the picture, over and above the representational meaning of the outline, are found again and again in Japanese woodblock prints. The lithograph also contains highly pertinent lines of great economy — not as calligraphy, but as psychic seismography. Here, everything is direct; nothing is stylized. The patterns on the blanket were daubed on with a brush, while those on the wallpaper do not serve to decorate the wall, but encircle the two women's heads like restless, compulsive ideas. The contours of the various fields are fixed, block-like; there is no curvaceous sophistication. The garments of the two figures are devoid of colour or decoration; there is no elaborate fabric to act as an arena for the interplay of patterns and folds. We are looking into the plain interior of an establishment, not into the elegant interior of one of Yoshiwara's green houses. It is not the stylistic means that are realistic, but the circumstances of those depicted. The poetry lies in the very personal sensitivity and its powerful expression, not in the transfiguration of beautiful appearances.


Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Woman in Bed, Profile, Awakening from "Elles"



Gustav Klimt
Seated Woman

A drawing by Klimt (see left) also demonstrates extreme economy and sensibility, with the body devoid of all volume and shade. Yet in the peaceful mood of the girl, sunk in her own thoughts, and in the interplay of limbs and fabric, she bears an affinity with the Japanese ladies. She occupies a large area of the picture, sitting on the spread of the cloth as upon a plinth, ensconced within a closed outline. On the right, the line feels its way up from below, over the back to the shoulder, from there making almost a right angle at the nape of the neck and the head, and then dropping on the left-hand side in a series of almost straight lines, heavily reinforced like a barrier protecting the more exposed side of the body. All the movement is within this outline: the arms and the legs are curled up, the thigh juts out conspicuously from the garment, while the agitated curls in the pattern of the cloth take up the motif of the curled-up body in a fleeting shorthand within a sparkling current. As in a Japanese clothed figure, the ornamentation spreads out across the picture in an autonomous rhythm which responds to the rhythm of the delicate fold-lines. But in place of the technical precision and geometric order of the Japanese print, the pencil here dances freely across the paper, its strokes representing not the splendour of the costume, but fundamental symbolic gestures, which - at the highest artistic level - rediscover the spontaneity of childhood.
The pictures of the fleeting, floating world derive from two different worlds, which meet in poetic inspiration.

Thomas Zacharias

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Hiroshige - Bierstad



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Japanese Prints



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