Saturday, April 23, 2016

Degas and the Influence of Japonisme

The Impressionists wanted to create a scene that felt as though one were looking at a  single moment or a quick glimpse into the past. They achieved this with quick brush strokes and an intense study of color. Many took to plein air, but some, especially Edgar Degas, wanted to capture the modern life of Paris. This is seen in his infamous depictions of the young ballerinas working at the Paris Opera, among many other works.
Two main influences shaped his work. Despite being apart in geography, the Japanese method of art made its way to France and into the hands of Degas. In 1853, their ports were reopened to the West. With this came an influx of new art. The modern Parisians collected these works and hung them in their homes. Artists looked at them and found inspiration. One can clearly see the influence of Japonisme in many of Degas’s pieces. He uses candid scenes, a limited number of light or muted colors, intimate moments, and asymmetrical compositions. In the 1830’s, the camera was introduced. It brought a new way of looking at the world. Degas applauded the ability to capture a moment as honestly as possible and attempted to emulate it with his art. This, combined with his admiration of Eastern art, introduced a very cutting-edge style. The purpose of this curation is to pair pieces with similar features and point out the influence of Japonisme on Degas’s art.

Edgar Degas, Dancers Practicing at the Barre, 1877, mixed media on canvas, 29.100.34
Dancers Practicing at the Barre by Edgar Degas depicts exactly what the title states. Two young ballerinas stretch, preparing for their rehearsal with a watering can off to the left. Using muted colors, Degas paints with scattered strokes. His off-kilter composition breaks away from typical academic painting style. The subject is not clearly centered and the perspective almost seems warped compared to past art. It holds to the Impressionist idea of capturing a moment, but with Japonisme influences in its arrangement.
Unknown, Willows and Bridge, early 17th century, pair of six-panel folding screens; ink, color, gold, and gold leaf on paper, 2015.300.105.1,.2
This piece is an example of the distinct compositions that influenced Degas. Like Dancers Practicing at the Barre, this uses strong diagonal lines, pulling the viewer across. The colors are of a similar intensity--muted yellow, orange, green, and blue, but in metal tones. A copper moon sits fixed in the sky with lazy willows draped, covering the bridge and waterwheel. Not much detail is given. The famous bridge depicted crosses the Uji River in Kyoto. Edgar Degas, Woman Combing Her Hair, ca. 1888-90, Pastel on light green wove paper, now discolored to warm gray, affixed to original pulpboard mount, 56.231
Degas’s Woman Combing Her Hair depicts just what the title states. The viewer is on an intimate level with her, watching the performance of an everyday task. Staying true to Impressionist style, Degas uses a rushed brush stroke, but manages to smooth out her back with the shadows--especially the dark line down where her spine it. The viewer is drawn to this contrast. The main focus here is the back of her body leading up to the train her hair makes. This perspective is very intentional--if it were further away, this would not have felt like such an intimate observation. He does not show her facial expression because that is not the main concern here, but her body and the act of combing hair. Utagawa Hiroshige, Yamauba Combing Her Hair and Kintoki, ca. 1801, polychrome on woodblock print; ink and color on paper, JP979
This piece is essentially the Japanese counterpart to Degas’s Woman Combing Her Hair with similarities such as content and composition. They are both nude, performing an everyday action. Both artists are closer to them, making this an observation of an intimate moment. Neither woman makes eye contact with the viewer, allowing him or her to look at their body. There is departure on the style of their brush strokes. The thickness of lines that depict her body and hair highly contrast those of her waist and Kintoki on her back. The former are much, much thinner, making her seem delicate. The viewer starts by looking at her face, takes in her body and Kintoki, and then makes his along the thin pieces of hair that fall next to the thick lines of her robe. Though they depart as far as brush stroke style and coloring go, they still have the same effect.
Edgar Degas, The Orchestra at the Opera, 1870, oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, RF 2417
Before he painted the ballerinas, Degas depicted the member of the opera’s orchestra. Here, he maintains his particular subject and painting style, but utilizes Eastern influences such as a muted color scheme and tight composition with a diagonal pull. Any color that is not neutral is quite faded, such as the pink and blue tutus of the ballerinas on stage. The composition is cropped, with the edges of faces and instruments cut off, as though one this painting someone watching the musicians from their seat in the audience. The bassoon, flute, and cellos create a strong diagonal guide that leads from the bassoonist’s face and across the orchestra until he reaches the ballerina’s. Even though more light shines on the stage, the viewer follows this zigzag of instruments first. These aspects can also be seen in Japanese art, such as Two Women Under an Umbrella. Kitagawa Utamaro, Two Women Under an Umbrella, 1790’s, polychrome woodblock print; ink and color on paper, JP1525
This piece displays another composition style that Degas emulates in his work. Here, the umbrella and women create a strong diagonal pull. This aspect stays true to Impressionism--they wanted to break away from the salon. They do so here with a different perspective. Part of their hair and the umbrella seem to be cropped out. Degas particularly liked this aspect of Japonisme--it felt very much like the candidness of the camera and can be seen in many of his other works.

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