Vincent van Gogh decorated his fabled Yellow House at Arles with the Japanese prints he collected and copied. “I envy the Japanese the extreme clarity of everything in their work,” the artist wrote to his brother Theo from Arles in 1888. The art is never dull, he went on, and “is as simple as breathing: They draw a figure with a few sure strokes as if it were as easy as buttoning your waistcoat.” That poetic simplicity can been seen in Van Gogh’s “Path Between Garden Walls,” an 1890 black-and-white charcoal-and-chalk drawing of a woman walking down a path.
It’s one of 300 works on view at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor in Japanesque: The Japanese Print in the Era of Impressionism, a revelatory exhibition that brings together woodblock prints by the Japanese masters of the 18th and 19th centuries with works on paper by Western artists deeply influenced by them. The enchanting Ukiyo-e, or “floating world” woodcuts of Kitagawa Utamaro, Katsushika Hokusai, Ando Hiroshige and others share the galleries with prints and drawings by Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists whose sense of space, color and design was shaped by their love of Japanese art: Manet, Whistler, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, Bonnard, Vuillard, Mary Cassatt and others. Drawn primarily from the rich collection of the Fine Arts Museums’ Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, the show, which runs through Jan. 9, complements Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Beyond: Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay at the de Young Museum.
You see the Japanese influence — the asymmetrical composition, pure colors, decorative patterns and flat picture plane — in many of the paintings in that stellar exhibition. “Many, if not most, of the Post-Impressionist painters representing in the Orsay exhibition were exposed to Japanese art in the form of prints in the latter half of the 19th century,” says Karin Breuer, the Achenbach’s curator in charge. “Several of them — including Gauguin, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec — were avid collectors and were greatly influenced by the Japanese aesthetic.” In addition to the formal elements, these path-finding painters were also taken by the subject matter of Japanese prints. “They saw everyday life depicted with a freshness and vitality they could respond to,” Breuer says. “It was in keeping with their goals of moving away from strict academic rules and principles.”
Breuer has organized the Legion show in three sections: Evolution, Essence and Influence. The first traces the development of Japanese prints from the 1700s to the mid-19th century, showing the evolution from black-and-white and hand-colored prints to multiblock woodcuts using four and five colors. You see fan prints and pillar (narrow width) prints by Utamaro, Suzuki Harunobu, Hokusai and Hiroshige, along with artists’ books from the Achenbach that have never been displayed, depicting courtesans, landscapes and samurai. Essence celebrates the full flowering of the Japanese woodcut in the mid-1800s, showcasing the great works of Hokusai and Hiroshige and the compositional devices they created, “the asymmetrical arrangements, the truncated figures, bird’s-eye viewpoint and high horizon line,” Breuer says. You see 31 of Hokusai’s classic “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji,” including perhaps the most famous Japanese print of the 19th century, “The Great Wave.” Then, there are woodcuts from Hiroshige’s splendid “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo” — Edo was renamed Tokyo in 1868 — among them the lovely 1856 print “Precincts of the Tenjin Shrine at Kameido,” with its arched wooden bridge, delicate vines, blue-and-white sky, and water.
Dozens of other marvelous works come into view as you make your way through the Influence galleries, which contain the Japanesque prints and drawings of Manet, Degas, Gauguin, Bonnard, and other European and American artists. They include Cassatt, whose beautiful 1891 color aquatint “Woman Bathing” was inspired by Utamaro’s work. There’s the second-generation French Impressionist Henri Riviere, whose “Thirty-Six Views of the Eiffel Tower” lithographs pay homage to Hokusai. Riviere spent more than a decade on the portfolio, which he began in 1888 when the Eiffel Tower was under construction (he depicts the unfinished structure in the snowy “La Tour en construction, vue de Trocadero”).
Many of the Western works are accompanied by thumbnail images of the Japanese prints from which they directly borrowed. Toulouse-Lautrec’s famous 1893 Montmartre nightclub poster, “Divan Japonais” — with its stylized forms, bright color and “Japanese” perspective — is paired with the print that inspired it, an Utamaro print of a teahouse waitress. In the final gallery, you encounter the woodcuts of prominent American printmakers such as Helen Hyde, who worked in Japan for many years, and Arthur Dow, a major influence on the Arts and Crafts movement in the United States. Stepping into the educational gallery, you’ll find an artist’s studio featuring woodblocks, carving tools and preparatory drawings, and videos showing the Japanese woodcut process.
On select weekends, local artists will demonstrate the centuries-old craft. “I hope people who have seen the Orsay paintings, or will go see them, will realize that what they’re seeing just didn’t spring from nowhere,” Breuer says. “In many cases, it came from the artists’ embrace of the Japanese aesthetic.”