Longing for Asia: Western Ukiyo-e Artists from the Colonial Period

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    Elizabeth Keith (1887-1956), b. Scotland, active Japan and United States, Tea House Native City – Shanghai, 1924, Color woodblock print, Gift of Mrs. Charles M. Cooke, 1927 (05.472)

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    Bertha Boynton Lum (1879-1954)b. United States, active Japan and United States Kites, 1912Color woodblock printsGift of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, 1963HAA (14.916)

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July 02, 2008 - August 24, 2008
Galleries 20 and 21

Exhibition Overview

The opening up of trade between Japan and the West in the late 1800s led to an exchange of a different kind. In Longing for Asia: Western Ukiyo-e Artists from the Colonial Period, prints by four American artists and one European reveal how they not only stimulated—but were also stimulated by—Japanese artists seeking new artistic direction. Although their beautiful images demonstrate Western interest in Asia, they also convey Japan’s interest and imperialistic ambitions toward Asia during the colonial period.

The mid-19th century was a time of unrest in Japan. In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry arrived with the U.S. Navy’s “black ships” (kurofune)—so called by the Japanese for the billowing black steam produced by their engines. Perry demanded that Japan open its closed society to Western trade. His black ships became symbols of the imminent technological and military threat from the West. After 1854, when Commodore Perry returned to Japan to negotiate a trade agreement, goods such as lacquer and ceramic works began to be imported by Western nations. A year later, Japan concluded trade agreements with Russia, Great Britain, the U.S., and France. Through this trade, Europeans and Americans may have caught their first glimpses of ukiyo-e—the woodblock prints were reportedly used as wrapping paper for many imported Japanese wares.

In 1867, Japan participated for the first time in the World Exposition in Paris, where art and technology from around the world were on view. Japan experienced artistic triumphs there, as well as at the 1893 World Exposition in Chicago. From that time until the outbreak of World War II, what was known as Japonisme hugely influenced artistic trends in Europe and the U.S., particularly affecting impressionist and Art Nouveau artists.

During the late-19th and early-20th centuries, powerful, rapidly industrializing European countries and the U.S. were exploring the world in search of financial profit and new business opportunities. In keeping with this trend, the West’s interest in Asia intensified. At the same time, many Western artists and intellectuals, stressed out by their frenetic urban lives, began to long for Asia as a type of dreamy utopia. Vivid visual materials such as ukiyo-e conjured an image of Japan as a fairy-tale country with a “never-never land” aura.

During this colonial period, advanced technology made travel to Asia more accessible, and young European and American artists enamored with Japanese woodblock prints went to Japan to study ukiyo-e. In search of artistic inspiration they also traveled to other Asian countries, including China, Korea, and India.

In the mid-1890s, Iowa-born Bertha Lum (1869-1954) studied design in Chicago, where the Japonisme fever still raged. Lum went to Japan for her honeymoon in 1903, and would later return more than seven times to create woodblock prints. She was best known for producing Hiroshige-inspired works. She was also influenced by Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), the author whose ghost stories and folk tales of Japan introduced such subjects to the West.

English artist Charles W. Bartlett (1860-1940) was already well known for his watercolor paintings and etchings in Belgium and France before he went to Japan. In 1913, Bartlett began his Asian odyssey, starting from India, moving through China, and finally arriving in Japan in 1915. He collaborated with the publisher Watanabe Shözaburö, who promoted a new style of ukiyo-e known as shin-hanga. In 1917 he left Japan and settled in Hawai‘i, where he also produced many prints with Hawaiian themes.

Elizabeth Keith (1887-1956), also from England, visited her sister in Tokyo in 1915. During her nine-year sojourn in Japan, she traveled to countries such as China, Korea, and the Philippines, and produced many sketches. The publisher Watanabe saw her potential and produced prints from her sketches, works that were popular in London and Paris.

Paul Jacoulet (1896-1960) grew up in Japan, where his father was a French-language teacher appointed by the Japanese government. Familiar with Japanese traditional arts such as classical literature, calligraphy, and music, Jacoulet was also trained in Western and Japanese styles of painting. In about 1930, he traveled the South Seas, making stops at island nations such as the Marianas and the Carolines. In 1937, his first exhibition outside of Japan was held in Honolulu. Because of his cosmopolitan approach to art, his work cannot be categorized as Japanese or Western but may be seen as a combination of both.

These artists’ eclectic, fascinating prints are pure aesthetic pleasure as well as a rich picture of the complex historical background during this turbulent time.