29 August 2012

Bretagne - Japon

Paris in the 19th century was the center of the art world so if le japonisme was going to happen it was bound to happen in Paris.  But  Brittany?   It was late in the century when the web of railroads spread out from      Paris, connecting the outer province with the capitol and the northern coast was a hard, poor, antique place.  Flaubert, a native of neighboring Normandy, claimed that it was the crushing boredom of summertime there that drove him to write Madame Bovary.

What seems obvious in retrospect are the latent similarities between the Breton landscape and  the ukiyo-e prints of Japan, similarities that artists …with enthusiasm.   There was the sea with all its picturesque changes in the weather and its boats and fishermen.  Rugged lands and rugged weather don’t preclude romantic landscapes.   The popular song Red Sails In The Sunset was written about Portstewart on the northern coast of Ireland, not a Gauguin island in the south seas.  The clothing  of the Breton people looked as exotic to Parisians as a Japanese kimono .  And their burial customs, dating back to Celtic times, left monuments in  stones as elaborate and visually resonant as a   pagoda.

Among the artists who began summering in Brittany from the 1890s , Georges Lacombe may be the best known outside France because he took part in the group Les Nabis, originally a group of art students at the Academie Julian in Paris in the late 1880s.   The peacock waves  in Lacombe's Marine bleu  are a unique creation in themselves but  those stylized waves and pink spume washed up on the Breton shores after a journey half way around the world.    Fronds of yellow leaves in La foret au sol rouge also function as ghost-like fingers that beckon from images of the floating world.

 Henri Riviere (1864-1951), born in Paris, tried etching and photography but is was only after his first visit to Brittany in 1884 that he mastered the woodcut.  In Brittany, a place prone to dramatic changes in  weather ,he found a subject that suited his enthusiasm for Japanese prints.  It is difficult to imagine that a vacation on the French Riviera would have suited at all.  Riviere made the point explicit by producing several series of prints, in homage to ukiyo-e master Hokusai and Hiroshige, most notably in Thirty-Six Views of the Eiffel Tower.

Jacques Beltrand (1874-1977?) was born at an auspicious address for an artist: 1 rue des Artistes in Paris.  From his father, he learned engraving and from Augustus Lepère,  a family friend, he learned to make prints.  In 1897, he met Maurice Denis who hired Beltrand to engrave the  plates for his books, 23 of them from 1907 to 1944.  Beltrand often vacationed in Brittany with  Denis at  Perros Guirec,and Côtes-du-Nord.  Auspicious acquaintances, all.

Mathurin Meheut (1882-1958) was the one who actually went to Japan.  He studied art at home in Rennes and then in Paris.   He began his artistic career by collaborating with the marine biology station atf Roscoff.  He drew on what he observed there to created Study of the Sea 1913-1914 under the direction of Maurice Pillard Verneuil.  Meheut  visited Japan on a grant from the n Albert Kahn Foundation but his travels were cut short by the beginning of war in 1914.  Méheut was a  prolific artist, too much so according to his critics.

 Prosper-Alphonse Isaac (1858-1924) was born in Calais but moved  away to Paris in 1870, not an auspicious moment as the capital was under siege by the German army at the time.  But Isaac wanted to study art.  There he  met  Rodin and became active with a group of liked-minded enthusiasts of japonisme, eventually amassing a large personal collection.

This picture of a  Kabuki theater performance was widely enjoyed in France because it employed techniques similar to those used in shadow puppet theater, a popular art form in Paris at the time.  Indeed, Henri Riviere worked on shadow theater at the Montmartre club Le Chat Noire.
Ten years ago The Vienna Project came to the Berkshires of Massachusetts, introducing a new generation to Gustave Klimt's landscape paintings and many other things.  This year the French Culture Ministry is sponsoring Breton-Japon 2012 an archipelago of artists with exhibitions at twelve museums.  Officials describe the events grandly as the first in-depth examination of the connections between French and Japanese art.  Ah, the French, they are so hegemonic!

The website for more information:  Breton-Japon 2012
1. Georges Lacombe - Marine bleu - Effet de vagues, 1893, Musee des Beaux-arts, Rennes.
2. Nakanishi - Grondin volant (flying fish) , 18th century, Musee Oceanographique de Monaco.
3. Henri Riviere - Une femme et une vache, c. 1890-1900, Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Paris.
4. Georges Lacombe - La foret au sol rouge (The Forest with Red Soil), 1891, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Quimper.
5. Henri Riviere - Le port de Loquivy a maree basse, 1905, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Quimper.
6. Jacques Beltrand - Hard Times at Belle-Ile or The Red Cliffs, 1930, Musee Breton departmentale, Quimper.
7. Mathurin Meheut - The Salt-Gatherers of Guerande,  undated Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
8. Mathurin Mehuet - Departure of the Onion Merchants for England, 1929, Musee Mathurin Mehuet, Lamballe.
9. Prosper-Alphonse Isaac -Les Capusins a Monfort L'Amury, undated, private collection, France.
10. Shunbasai  Hokuei -  The Kabuki Actors Iwai Shigaku I and Bando Jutaro ca. 1832, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Rennes,
11.   Kimono with wave design, undated, Musee des Beaux_Arts, Rennes, J. Salinque - photographer.