Friday, April 24, 2015

Monet's Japanese Muse

Japanese art accompanied Monet throughout his life as an artist. Without it he would not be the ‘Monet’ we know. It shaped every aspect of his art, from his style to his subject matter. This influence can be seen in the striking differences between his landscapes and those by his predecessors — a change from a vision of nature as serious and somber to one which seems joyful. Japanese art was not, of course, the only influence on Monet’s art. He was also fundamentally influenced by plein-airist painting, the practice of painting landscapes and figures in the open air. Monet was influenced too by photography, modern commercial imagery, and by Watteau’s Rococo painting. However, it was Japanese painting that helped him to synthesize these different visual experiences into his unique style. His study of Japanese art taught him to compose differently, and influenced the variety of the shape and pattern of his brushstrokes. Japanese art became so much a part of his way of seeing and painting that it influenced Monet to see nature in ways suggested by Japanese prints. It is in his paintings of landscapes that one can best observe how Monet used Japanese art to shape his vision of the world, and how his increasingly decorative style was influenced by the more decorative aspects of Japanese prints and paintings.

Claude Monet, Garden at Sainte-Adresse, 1867 
Oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 67.241

 This work has been said to be unthinkable without the influence of Japanese prints, with its almost outrageous brightness. Even today, one is struck by the intensity of the colors, as if they were just painted on the canvas. It is constructed of densely material color which instantly read as dazzling light. The private garden is jammed against a flat plane of blue sea. Small strokes of bright pigments against large areas of flat color suggest the brilliant color contrast of flowers and foliage in the almost painful glare of the sun. Monet has created a sense of space by making the eye move actively from one titled horizontal plane to the next.

Katsushika Hokusai, Turban-shell Hall of the Five-Hundred-Rakan Temple, 1835
Woodblock print, National Gallery of Australia, 2000.397

Hokusai’s work shows a group of figures on the deck of a pavilion, which is sharply juxtaposed against a marshy plain. The standing couple in Monet’s Garden at Sainte-Adresse have the same spatial relationship to the ship on the horizon as the male and female figures in the center of the print have to Mount Fuji in the distance. Hokusai’s figures contemplate the mountain while Monet’s father and aunt, sitting in the garden, enjoy the spectacle of the ships. Hokusai also creates a sense of space by making the eye move actively from one titled horizontal plane to the next.

Claude Monet, Garden of the Princess, Louvre (Le Jardin de l'Infante), 1867
Oil on canvas, Allen Memorial Art Museum, 1948.296

Monet presents random social groupings within a complex urban space, with interwoven trees and buildings. The distant Pantheon is sharply defined and the chimney pots in the distance are as clear as the trunks of the rose bushes in the garden below. Monet looked down onto the lawn below the Louvre, representing it as a flat, unmodulated plane of green paint. He composed the painting from multiple spatial ‘cells’, each of which invites the spectator to explore the entire canvas. Monet’s selective focus on certain figures, such as the couple in the garden or the woman in a pink dress under the trees, gives a sense of human presence within the distant crowd.

Utagawa Hiroshige, View of Kinryuzan Temple in Asakusa, 1841
Woodblock print, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, P.75.51.642

Hiroshige also presents random social groupings within a complex urban space, with interwoven trees and buildings. The skyline too is similar, with well defined buildings jutting out of the landscape. In this print, the viewer can choose to look down onto the ground plane, like in Garden of the Princess, or up and along the buildings. Hiroshige also shifts the viewpoint so as to make the viewer explore the whole visual field. However, he did not use the technique of distinguishing individuals from the crowd; a technique most likely made possible by Monet’s use of oil paint.

Claude Monet, Autumn Effect at Argenteuil, 1873 
Oil on canvas, The Courtauld Institute of Art, P.1932.SC.274

In this painting, Monet fractures solid form into countless brushstrokes. There is a striking contrast between the golden foliage and the bright blue water. The blue water is hemmed, asymmetrically, between golden trees and reflections shadowed with green. Monet builds his foliage, and its corresponding reflection, from varied orange-yellows. He uses two main color scales: blues, heightened by luminous tinted whites for the water, sky, and distant city, and orange-yellows with tinges of green for the foliage and its reflection.

Utagawa Hiroshige, Kai Province: Monkey Bridge, 1853
Woodblock print, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, 11.16816

Hiroshige also asymmetrically frames blue water by the gold and green planes of the cliff sides. Hiroshige uses two main color scales as well, though with less white than Monet. Also, his autumn foliage is made up of more orange-pinks rather than Monet’s orange-yellows. While the two pieces differ slightly in compositional choices and subject matter, it is obvious that Monet’s Autumn Effect at Argenteuil was inspired by Hiroshima’s Kai Province: Monkey Bridge in its overall use of color and structure.

Claude Monet, The Manneporte (Étretat), 1883
Oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 51.30.5

Monet builds this cliff with broad patches of color covered with lines of rusty reds and zigzags and glazes of blue-violet or blue-green. It appears the brush marks were painted rapidly, not only embodying the upward thrust of the cliff and giving an almost weightless quality to the waves, but also enacting the dynamism of the creative act of painting. Two small figures help give perspective to how massive the arch is, and how almost terrifying the waves must be. 

Utagawa Hiroshige, Entrance to the Cave at Enoshima Island in Sagami Province, 1853
Woodblock print, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, M.66.35.19

Monet’s The Manneporte (Étretat) relates directly to Hiroshige’s Entrance to the Cave at Enoshima Island in Sagami Province.  Like Monet’s, the rock arch is cut by the frame, and seems to plunge into the sea and to thrust upwards, while water surges around the base of the arch and isolated rocks. Hiroshige's work also contains tiny figures that indicate the mighty scale of the arch. His print has a more weighty quality to it though, which most definitely comes from the difference in medium.

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