19 June 2010

Emile Guimet's Promenades Japonaises

In 1880, Emile Guimet (1838-1918) published Promenades Japonaises, a book in which he described the arts of Japan as hieroglyphs, (a term he borrowed from poet Stephane Mallarme) so unfamiliar were Japanese methods to European eyes. Fifteen years before Siegfried Bing opened his revelatory Maison de l'art Nouveau in Paris, the wealthy and widely traveled industrialist from Lyon was urging his fellow Frenchman to consider the beauties of Japanese art. The message was timely; artists more and more found the conventions of European academic art stifling and worn out.

Guimet and his friend, illustrator Felix Regamey were well-suited to their mission. Guimet was a tireless note taker, eager to explore all artifacts from pottery to to the school books of Japanese children - and always willing to listen. Regamey recorded his impressions through books full of sketches. Both shared traits of curiosity, appreciation, and a willingness to be surprised by what they found. The exoticism of Pierre Loti, whose novel Madame Chrysantheme also caused a sensation when it was published in Paris in 1887, and inspired Puccini's opera Madama Butterfly was a flight of imagination compared to their studious labors.
The popularity of Guimet's book contributed to his deteremination to build a permanent home for his collection that would be open to the public, a collection that included numerous Buddhist religious items and 1300+ wood block prints, (one of the largest collections outside Japan). First opened in his hometown of Lyon in 1879 and then donated to the nation in 1885, the Musee Guimet moved to its current home in Paris.
Suzuki Harunobu (1725-1770) was the first Japanese artist to produce full color prints. He was also known for choosing ordinary people for his subjects. This may be the reason why in Young Woman and Her Maid with Bush Clover (above left) the kimonos of the two women, though finely rendered, are part of the total effect rather than the focal point of the image as they are in the works of many other ukiyo-e artists.
Guimet wrote admiringly in Promenades Japonaises about Kawanabe Kyosai (1831-1889), particularly of the artist's impressive technical abilities. The two pieces here are from the folio Drawings for Pleasure; the work is exuberant but not graceful in the way that Japanese prints often are.

Guimet's splendid collection included the works of well known artists such as Shotei and Kuniyoshi, to name only the two whose boating scenes shown here. Now, thanks to the internet, Guimet's collection is available online. 

To learn mote, visit the Musee Guimet. Image credits: Musee Guimet, Paris
1. Suzuki Harunobo - Young Woman and her Maid With Clover, 1760s.
2. Eisohai Chokai - Chasing Firepflies, 1795.
3. Kyosai Kawanabe - Three Rabbits- from Drawings for Pleasure, 1881.
4. Kyosai Kawanabe - Fruit - from Drawings for Pleasure, 1881.
5. Hokuju Shotei - View of Matsusada From The Sumida River, c.1811.
6. Kuniyoshi Utagawa - Parked Among the Seaweeds, 19th century.
7. Katsuma Ryusi - Dragonfly, 1765.