Eastern Light – The Impact of Japan on Western Art

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In a distant corner of the Dutch countryside, I visited the Lalique Museum to see their exhibition Eastern Light – The Impact of Japan on Western Art. I have been planning to visit this museum for several years, but it’s location somehow always prevented me from actually going. The current exhibition (running until 17 November 2019) on the impact of Japanese art though, tipped the scales for me. So here we are…

Lalique Museum Doesburg 2019

I had informed the museum that I was planning to visit their exhibition and the welcome was heart warming. Curator Benjamin Janssens welcomed me personally and gifted me with the exhibition catalogue, a hard cover book with detailed information and pictures of the exhibited objects, all beautifully photographed by Linda Roelfszema.

Dish Jan-Willem Mijnlieff 1915

The Impact of Japan on Western Art

Art Nouveau admirors are not always aware of the fact that Art Nouveau was very much influenced by (the art of) Japan. The exhibit in Doesburg pays explicit attention to this Japanese influence and displays works by Japanese artists alongside those by European artists, showing the visitor the similarities. The exhibition includes work by Lalique, Mucha, Gallé, Daum, Knox, Van de Velde, Majorelle, Macintosh, Maison Vever, Fouquet, Gautrait and many others.

At the beginning of the exhibition, the gallery texts briefly explain how Japanese influence got ahold of artists in Europe. A story I already explained in detail in my earlier blog about Siegfried Bing, so I won’t get into that again now. After that introduction, the curators have made a great effort to explain Japanese ideas about esthetics, and where these ideas came from: Shintoism and (Zen-)Buddhism.

Shinto – the Way of the Gods

Shintoism, which is quite difficult to explain to people who are unfamiliar with the Japanese lifestyle, became the Japanese state religion in 1868. The gallery texts and the catalogue are quite helpful; main characteristic of this religion is a preeminent respect for nature. Everything in nature, from elements of the landscape, forces of nature, to beings and the qualities that these beings express, has a spirit, and is therefore considered a kami (a holy power).

As Japanese people can be Shintoist and Buddhist at the same time, Buddhism is of great influence on their aethetics too. In Zen Buddhism (the Japanese variant of Buddhism) Enso is a circle that symbolizes absolute enlightenment. When the circle is closed, it represents perfection. An open circle is unfinished, and represents allowing for movement and development.

Enso

Zen practitioners relate this to the Japanese wabi-sabi perspective and aesthetic: fukinsei (asymmetry), kanso (simplicity), koko (weathered), shizen (without pretense; natural), yugen (grace), datsuzoku (freedom), and seijaku (tranquility). Ma (negative space), is the fifth element according to the Japanese way of thinking. It symbolises ‘space’, ‘gap’ or a consciousness of place. It is the space that accentuates shapes.

These Shintoist and Buddhist aesthetic concepts were completely new to European artists, and they loved it! Avant garde artists, like Van Gogh, Beardsley, Toulouse-Lautrec, Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles Rennie Mackintosh to name just a few, all became fascinated with Japan and incorporated these Japanese ideas into their own work. And that is how Japanese aesthetics in a way came to define ‘our’ Art Nouveau art too. Asymmetry, simplicty, and a natural weathered grace… it’s all there.

I find it tremendously fascinating that while ‘our’ artists loved Japanese aesthetics, the Japanese have always embraced their work for it. European Art Nouveau Art has been collected by Japanese collectors / museums since way before we Europeans started to collect the objects ourselves. There are some amazing museums in Japan with permanent collections featuring Émile Gallé, Daum Frères, René Lalique, Alphonse Mucha etc. (See for complete list my MUSEUM page).

Ma Racine est au Fond des Bois

My root is at the bottom of the woods, a famous quote by Émile Gallé, clearly illustrates how important nature had become to him. His work was strongly influenced by Japanese aesthetics. In the catalogue, there’s a whole chapter dedicated to Gallé. And, as a matter of fact, there’s a story about each and every one of the artists featuring in this exhibition. The curator told me he interviewed several descendants of the exhibited artists. So the catalogue is brimming with anecdotes and little known facts. Yes, even the Dreyfus Affair is explained!

All objects in this exhibition were beautifully captured by Linda Roelfszema and published in the exhibition catalogue that is available at the museum-shop. If you are not in a position to pick up a copy at the museum, you can order your catalogue by sending an e-mail to info@musee-lalique.nl. The catalogue costs €10,- and is published in Dutch only.

Lalique Museum Doesburg 2019

Besides their temporary exhibits, the museum also houses a permanent collection entirely devoted to jewelery and glass artist René Lalique (1860-1945). A small part of their collection can be admired here. But there is much more to be seen on the museum’s Instagram page. Here are a few pieces from the permanent collection that I particulalry liked:

The observant reader must have noticed by now that there are not a lot of references in my blog about all the vases Lalique produced during his heydays. I am not a great fan of pressed glass. Sorry. I love his delicate jewelry and his one offs, but his large series of vases cannot charme me unfortunately. I already wrote about that in 2013, when there was a Lalique exhibition at Kunstmuseum The Hague.

Lalique’s jewelry though, was quite special! The Art Nouveau period brought a notable stylistic revolution to the jewellery industry. While in previous centuries the emphasis in fine jewellery had been on creating dramatic settings with diamonds, during the Art Nouveau period jewellers experimented with a wide variety of other (cheaper) stones (like agate, garnet, opal, moonstone, aquamarine and other semi-precious stones). And they experimented with a wide variety of new techniques, like enamelling, and new materials, including horn, moulded glass, and ivory. Lalique became a central figure of Art Nouveau jewellery, using nature, from dragonflies to grasses, for inspiration.

Want to own a genuine Lalique museum piece?

What I also wanted to mention: the museum has come up with a construction that guarantees a continuously growing collection without having to store most of the objects in a depot: works are sold with a discount through their Lalique Gallery, on the condition that the buyer will lend the object back to the museum for a certain period. So, in case you have always wanted to own a real Lalique, this might be a nice opportunity for you. Check it out! (Contact the museum for more information about this loan construction.)

Eastern Light – The Impact of Japan on Western Art
Lalique Museum Doesburg, The Netherlands
7 July – 17 November 2019

Photos in this post are either my own, or courtesy of the Lalique Museum Doesburg.  In that case, © Linda Roelfszema Photography.

The next temporary exhibition ‘Koninklijk Licht’ (Royal Light), about royal gifts and light designs by René Lalique, will open on 8 December 2019.

Continue Reading:
Belle Epoque Fine Jewels
Chamarande Antique Jewellery
Calouste Gulbenkian Museum Portugal (Lalique Collection)
Lalique Museum The Netherlands
Lalique Museum France
Lalique Museum Japan
Lalique Exhibition 2013 at Kunstmuseum The Hague
My very own Lalique Cactus!!!
SieboldHuis Japanmuseum Leiden
Sogetsu Branch Nederland (Japanse Flower Arranging in The Netherlands)
Toki Doki – TV programma over unieke Japanse woorden (NPO)

Lalique Museum Oosters Licht 2019

Lalique_Museum_2020_exhibition_Royal_Light