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.
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.
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.
A look at Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard reveals a predilection for the silhouette that has as one of its sources the shadow theater experiments of Henri Rivière and his colleagues at the Chat Noir cabaret. Rivière, a printmaker and photographer featured in the Snapshot exhibition, was responsible for helping to make the shadow play productions a complex, pre-cinematic art form. The Chat Noir was the place to be in the 1880s and 1890s. The Paris café was frequented by poets and writers Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, and Emile Zola, composers Claude Debussy and Erik Satie, and artists Pierre Bonnard and Toulouse-Lautrec. As Patricia Boyer points out in her book on avant-garde theater in nineteenth century Paris, the illustrators who created the Chat Noir productions “breathed new life into the tradition of shadow plays in France.”
Early shadow plays at the Chat Noir were made of black cardboard or zinc cutout figures projected onto a backlit screen. The shadow plays evolved, thanks to Rivière’s innovations, to incorporate glass panels upon which were painted figures and settings, placed at varying distances from the screen and with moving zinc cutouts in front of them to suggest spatial recession: the cutouts placed nearest to the screen appeared black, while those further from it yielded a variety of grays and soft colors. Continue reading “Who Put the Silhouette in Snapshot?” »