Behind the Red Kimono

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Behind the Red Kimono:
Western Cult of Japan in the Late Nineteenth Century

Yuan Jiang

With the international exhibitions and increasing trades between Japan and West, the late 19th century witnessed a significant influence from Japanese art on European elite artists. This paper is mainly concerned with Claude Monet’s La Japonaise (1876), through which I attempt to explore not only how Japanese art affected Western aesthetics, but also why from both the Japanese and European perspectives.

“Look at that flower with its petals turned back by the wind, is that not truth itself?...and here, near this woman by Hokusai, look at this bathing scene: look at these bodies, can you not feel their firmness? They are made of flesh, yet are described only by their outline. What we particularly appreciated above all in the West was the bold fashion of defining their subject; those people have taught us to compose differently, there’s no doubt about that.” - Monet to the Duc de Trevise, 1920[1]

Claude Monet, one of the most famous Impressionism painters, is known for his radical challenges against the stuffy Salon in the 19th century. In his La Japonaise (1876) (fig. 1), a blonde lady (Madame Monet) with a charming smile, is dancing in an erotic and brilliant Japanese-style costume, on which there embroidered a large figure of a Japanese warrior. Despite all the Japanese designed fans on the wall behind her, Madame Monet is holding a French fan, contrasting to the exotic fabric she is wearing. The world of Japanese objects, bold colors, as well as shallow spaces presented in this work show the cult of Japanese culture in the late 19th century and the significant influence of Japanese art on Monet. Although there is no published source indicating when Monet first discovered and collected Japanese art, he showed signs of Japanese influence in his Near Honfleur in the Snow dated as early as in 1866-67 (fig. 2) with the stress on outlines and flat spaces. Among all the Japanese artists, Katsushika Hokusai, a significant Japanese painter and printmaker during the Edo period, is the most important figures that Monet studied[2]. In his only recorded statements about Japanese art in 1920s, Monet acknowledged his admiration of Hokusai’s works: “Hokusai… how powerful his work is. Look at this butterfly which struggling against the wind, the flowers which are bending. And nothing useless. Sobriety of life.[3]” Monet’s later collection of Hokusai’s prints from the visit to Holland in 1871 led the colors in his work become much brighter, as Goncourt brothers notes in the Journal that “as we were leaving through the big plates of Fujiyama by Hokusai, Manzi said to me: ‘look, here are Monet’s great yellow areas.’[4]” Among all the resources, however, the expositions held in Europe in the late 19th century definitely provided Monet with more opportunities to discover and collect Japanese art, thus resulting in the rich Japanese objects in La Japonaise as well as more profound Japanese styles in his later works. Although Japan did not first attend when the international exhibitions began in Europe in 1851, it soon became one of the most enthusiastic participants during the more enlightened years of the Meiji era (1868-1912). The first appearance of Japanese goods and arts on the London international exhibition in 1862 was organized by Sir Rutherford Alcock, the first British Minister to Japan[5]. This unofficial debut of Japanese culture on the world stage in the 19th century aroused such keen interests in Japanese crafts and arts that by the time of the international exhibition of 1867, Japanese arts, products and buildings had become major attractions. The Goncourt brothers were certainly overwhelmed and amazed by the exhibition that they “seemed to be walking in a coloured print from Japan … under this roof curving like that of a pagoda, lit by globes of ground glass, like the paper...
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