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During the Christmas holidays, I decided to visit Japanmuseum SieboldHuis in Leiden as they appeared to have a fairly interesting exhibition at the moment: Kachō-ga. The Poetry of Japanese Nature. The exhibition highlights one of the most important genres in Japanese art, a source of inspiration for Art Nouveau. 

In my earlier post about Siegfried Bing (1838-1905) I explained when and how Japanese art arrived in Europe and inspired famous artists like Monet, Van Gogh, Degas, Renoir, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Beardsley, Mucha and Klimt. And the current exhibition at Japanmuseum SieboldHuis focusses exactly on thát genre which inspired European artists back in the late 19th and early 20th century. The exact woodblock prints that above mentioned painters as well as great designers like Frank Lloyd Wright and Henry van de Velde collected, are the focal point of this exhibition.

Shibata Zeshin, Crows in flight at sunrise 1888

Shibata Zeshin, Crows in Flight at Sunrise 1888

Kachō-ga. The Poetry of Japanese Nature

The literal meaning of the Japanese word Kachō-ga is ‘images of flowers and birds’.  But the genre includes more. It encompasses plants, grasses, trees, animals, fish, insects; actually the entire living natural world except man and the physical landscape. It was the specific way in which those flowers and birds were depicted that struck our European avant-garde artists! Just imagine the utter shock they must have felt when they always learned that one (has to) paint nature like this…

… when they discovered the Japanese ‘painted’ nature like this!

European artists at this time, especially the Impressionists, were seeking an alternative to the strict Academic Art. And they felt extremely attracted to the colorful backgrounds, the emphasis on diagonals, the lack of perspective and shadow, and the asymmetry in the Japanese art they discovered.

On 24 September 1888, Vincent van Gogh wrote from Arles to his brother Theo:

“Isn’t it almost a new religion that these Japanese teach us? They who live in nature as if they themselves were flowers?”

kachō-ga. the poetry of japanese nature

Of course famous Japanese artists like Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) and Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) play a major role in this exhibition. They produced countless (woodblock) prints in the Kachō-ga genre during the first half of the 19th century. And after Hiroshige’s death, his pupil Nakayama Sugakudō produced another series of 48 beautiful prints. But from the first half of the Meiji period (1868-1912), we hardly see any woodblock prints as free graphic art of birds and flowers.

The Meiji government instead encouraged Western painting and founded an art academy with Italian teachers. But several Japanese artists stood up against this movement and were encouraged by the American art historian Ernest Fenollosa. Their traditional style did change though. Colour use became much more intense.

After seeing the entire exhibition, I am most excited about discovering Ohara Koson. While I have seen many Ukiyo-e exhibitions over the past 30 years, I don’t recall I ever heard of him. And I found his work simply spectacular!

Ohara Koson (1877-1945)

Ohara Koson gave Kachō-ga an enormous impulse again in the first decades of the 20th century. He would create about 600 prints! Koson was trained as a painter. Early in his career he exported paintings for sales abroad, especially to the United States. In the first ten years of the twentieth century he worked as a print designer for the publishers Kokkeidō and Daikokuya. With them he published more than 420 designs in different formats. Some 340 works contain birds, 65 other animals and there are fifteen pure floral prints. In this period he also made a reasonable number of paintings, again with birds, as well as with monkeys. In 1926 he began working with Watanabe Shōzaburō publishers. He changed his name to Shōson and he chose a different format for his work. Almost all of his prints were intended for export to the United States. In 1936 he changed publishers again. This time he worked with Kawaguchi and signed his works with Hōson. Despite his great productivity, very little is known about the man himself. With his death at the end of the Second World War, the production of pure Kachō-ga came to an end.

Kachō-ga. The poetry of Japanese nature at Sieboldhuis Leiden

According to the exhibition curator and writer of the catalogue Chris Uhlenbeck, “the remarkable thing is that the prints of Koson and his contemporaries cannot be seen as a continuous development within the print tradition. They do not resemble the woodblock prints by Hiroshige and Hokusai. In that sense, they were really ‘New Prints’ (Shin Hanga).” So in a way, Koson created what we would call Japanese New Art. Yes, Japanese Art Nouveau!

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And I did yet another remarkable discovery at this exhibition! I always learned that Alphonse Mucha became famous overnight in January 1895 when he designed an advertising poster for a play featuring Sarah Bernhardt, the most famous actress in Paris. That poster had a radically new vertical format. Previously, lithographic posters always had the same format, but Mucha ‘invented’ that he could use the paper in a different way. They would cut the print in half and then paste the two parts back together, yet under each other.

Alphonse Mucha 1895 Gismonda poster

Alphonse Mucha, Gismonda poster (uncut) 1895

But was Mucha really the inventor of that new format? In Japan paintings were traditionally mounted as a hanging scroll (kakemono). And Utagawa Hiroshige for instance, created kakemono-e (kakemono-woodblock-prints) by glueing two standard pieces of paper under each other to create the shape of a scroll. That was common practice. But the composition was used for the depiction of geisha and courtesans and for images of the emperor. Hiroshige though used the format for birds-of-prey and cranes. The current exhibition even showed how Hiroshige used a standard paper format to create three prints in the scroll format by cutting the print in three strips after production.

Kishi Renzan, tiger and dragon 1840

Kishi Renzan, Scrolls with Tiger and Dragon (1840)

These prints by Hiroshige date from the first half of the 19th century and we know that Western artists collected and closely studied Hiroshige’s compositions (Vincent van Gogh even went so far as to paint copies of two of Hiroshige’s prints). So could it be that Alphonse Mucha got the idea to create a scroll-shaped poster from Hiroshige?

Utagawa Hiroshige, Rare uncut sheet containing three prints 1840

Utagawa Hiroshige, Rare uncut sheet containing three prints 1840

I am very excited about my discoveries. Never did I read about Mucha getting the idea from someone else. If you have come across information about this matter anywhere, please do let me know where I can find that information. I would love to learn more about the connection between Mucha and Hiroshige, and their scroll-shaped prints.

catalogus kachō-ga auteur chris uhlenbeck japanmuseum leiden

Catalogue can be ordered by clicking on the above picture (Dutch/English)

Kachō-ga. The Poetry of Japanese Nature
7 December 2018 – 3 March 2019
Japanmuseum SieboldHuis, Rapenburg 19 Leiden, The Netherlands

In order to fully understand how these Japanese (woodblock) prints are produced, you may want to watch this video. The process is similar to our lithographic process, but much older.

Continue Reading:
Kachō-ga. The Poetry of Japanese Nature
NRC: Sierlijke Japanse vogels en schele tijgers in museum Sieboldhuis
Blog: Birds, flowers in Japanese art, exhibition
More Kachō-ga on Ukiyo-e.org
Kacho Fugetsu: Natural Beauty in Japanese Art
Wikipedia: Academic Art
Wikipedia: Japonism
Ukiyo-e Museum in Matsumoto, Japan