The Genealogy of a Painting

Per Kirkeby, Fram, 1982. Oil on canvas, 46 1/2 x 78 3/4 in. Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk, Denmark

Per Kirkeby, Fram, 1982. Oil on canvas, 46 1/2 x 78 3/4 in. Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk, Denmark

Caspar David Friedrich. The Sea of Ice (German: Das Eismeer) 1823–1824. Oil on canvas, 38 in × 49.9 in. Kunsthalle Hamburg, Hamburg

Per Kirkeby’s painting Fram appears to be completely abstract but actually has a story behind it. Kirkeby has said that when he is working on a painting, he often goes to his art library, looks at an art history book and takes it to his studio. “I borrow something, something starts to move. That’s the way I use my art history.”  In this case, Fram, which means “forward,” was a ship built by Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansens and used for his 1893 voyage to the North Pole. The ship was considered to be the strongest wooden ship ever built. Kirkeby, who initially studied arctic geology at the University of Copenhagen, has said that he has always been fascinated by polar expeditions.

(Left) Kirkeby, Fram (detail), 1982. (Right) Willem Claesz. Heda. Stilleven met een zilveren tazza, 1630. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Some of Fram‘s composition is based on Sea of Ice by Caspar David Friedrich, which features a wrecked ship amidst a forbidding display of shards of ice in the polar sea. As Kirkeby stated, “The story fascinated me. It is both an ice floe and a tabletop. It’s very audacious to reach the North Pole by subjecting a ship to these audacious forces.” In Kirkeby’s painting, the energetic brushstrokes on the left pay homage to Friedrich’s composition, while the fallen tumbler on the right refers to a 17th-century Dutch still life by Willem Claeszoon Heda. Kirkeby combined landscape and still life, genres that seemed outdated in 1983 when he painted Fram, into a new, hybrid composition, perhaps reflecting the drive for knowledge that inspired Fram’s journey.

Views of Paris, Views of Japan

Henri Rivière, Planche 25, Dans la tour (Plate 25, Inside the Tower)

Henri Rivière, Planche 25, Dans la tour (Plate 25, Inside the Tower), from Les trente-six vues de la Tour Eiffel (Thirty-six Views of the Eiffel Tower), 1888-1902. Lithograph, 6 5/8 x 8 1/4 in. (16.8 x 21 cm.) Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Visitors who have become enamored of Henri Rivière’s lithographs of the Eiffel Tower, which he published in Thirty Six Views of the Eiffel Tower, a take-off on Hokusai’s Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji, might want to head over to the Smithsonian’s Freer|Sackler Gallery, where there is a special exhibition of Hokusai: 36 Views of Mount Fuji through June 17 as part of the Cherry Blossom-inspired Japan Spring celebration with the National Gallery of Art. Hokusai’s series established a standard of innovation in Japanese printmaking for years to come and was heralded for its startling compositions and technical mastery. Several rare, early prints with unusual coloration are included in the exhibition.

Under the Wave off Kanagawa (from a Series of Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji). Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849)

Detail. Under the Wave off Kanagawa (from a Series of Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji). Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) Ca. 1830-1832. Japan. Edo period. Polychrome woodblock print; ink and color on paper, 10 1/8 x 14 15/16 in. (25.7 x 37.9 cm). Published by Eiudo. H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929 (JP1847). Location: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, U.S.A. Photo Credit: Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY

Hokusai: Japanese Screens and Hokusai: Paintings and Drawings are complementary installations also on view at the Freer Gallery of Art.

Pierre Bonnard and Japanese Art

Snapshot is part of the National Cherry Blossom Festival, celebrating 100 years of the gift of trees. For readers interested in learning more about the influence of Japan on artists in the exhibition, gallery talks on “Japonisme in France” will be held at 6 and 7 pm this Thursday as part of the Phillips after 5: Journey to Japan event. 

(Left) Woman walking with an umbrella, seen from behind. Reproduction from a Japanese print, published in Le Japon Artistique, March 1891. (Center) Pierre Bonnard, The Little Laundress, 1896. Color lithograph, 11 3/4 x 7 1/2 in. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation) © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. (Right) Attributed to Suzuki Harunobu, 1725-1770. A young woman crossing a snow-covered bridge. Color Woodcut. 1765. The Gale Collection. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

(Left) Woman walking with an umbrella, seen from behind. Reproduction from a Japanese print, published in Le Japon Artistique, March 1891. (Center) Pierre Bonnard, The Little Laundress, 1896. Color lithograph, 11 3/4 x 7 1/2 in. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation) © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. (Right) Attributed to Suzuki Harunobu, 1725-1770. A young woman crossing a snow-covered bridge. Color Woodcut. 1765. The Gale Collection. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Pierre Bonnard was a member of an artistic group called the Nabis, the Hebrew word for prophet. The group, which included Edouard Vuillard and Maurice Denis, were the harbingers of a new way of making art. They broke away from academic tradition to embrace an approach that emphasized decorative unity and a more personal, abstract style. The group members gave each other nicknames; Bonnard’s was “le Nabi très Japonard,” or “the ultra-Japanese Nabi.”

Less than a year after he abandoned law school to pursue a career in art, Bonnard saw a huge exhibition of Japanese prints at the École des Beaux-Arts, where he had been a student. The exhibition featured over a thousand Ukiyo-e woodcuts just when the craze for all things Japanese was at its height in Paris. Bonnard was already looking at Japanese prints at the Goupil Gallery, where Theo van Gogh worked, and bought Japanese prints at a boutique on the Avenue de l’Opera. The prints were available for the equivalent of a few dollars, and Bonnard papered the walls of his studio with them. He purchased works by Hiroshige, Kuniyoshi, and Kunisada.

In Japanese prints, Bonnard found much to inspire him at a key moment in his artistic development: graceful contours, flattened color, asymmetrical compositions, and subjects drawn from everyday life. Bonnard’s The Little Laundress (see above), a color lithograph from 1896, is a prime example of the influence Japanese prints had upon his work. As Colta Ives points out in The Great Wave: The Influence of Japanese Woodcuts on French Prints, the slightly awkward figure with an umbrella, making her way up a street paved with cobblestones, echoes the silhouette of an Ukiyo-e print published in 1891 in Le Japon Artistique (see above), a periodical that Bonnard subscribed to. It also resembles a print by Suzuki Harunobu of a young woman crossing a snow covered bridge (see above). Bonnard found in Japanese art qualities that liberated him from Western conventions of color, form, and composition, creating uniquely intimate, spontaneous works that were aligned with his personal temperament.