Exhibition: Henri Riviere

Aspects of Nature: the Twilight, 1898

France's 'Little Hokusai' gets the star treatment in Hayama

Whenever an exhibition of late 19th-century European art is held in Tokyo, the curators never tire of telling us how all the major developments of the period were influenced by Japan. Impressionism's embrace of nature and city life as themes, Toulouse-Lautrec's asymmetrically energetic posters of Moulin Rouge nightlife, and even Vincent Van Gogh's interest in big shiny flowers and DIY ear surgery are all supposed to have had their roots in aspects of Japanese art.

The mental image this creates is of a group of effete Parisians, bored with painting saccharine cupids and fusty old saints, opening up a crate of Japanese crockery to find it wrapped in discarded ukiyo-e prints, which then blow their minds. Sometimes this line can get a little stale or unconvincing through repetition, but with Henri Riviere: A French Master of Ukiyoe, the influence of Japanese woodblock printing on this French artist is unmistakable.
Previous Riviere exhibitions in Japan have focused on his Thirty-Six Views of the Eiffel Tower (1902), a series of Paris cityscapes clearly inspired by ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai’s much more famous Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji from 1826 (some examples of which are included in this exhibition to help drive home the main curatorial thesis). Like Hokusai's series, in which Japan's iconic volcano is sometimes prominently displayed and at other times a cipher on the horizon, Riviere uses the equally identifiable Eiffel Tower to mark his views as belonging unquestionably to a specific locale. As with Hokusai's work, you occasionally have to search through the prints to catch sight of the landmark.

A good example is From the Pier, where the top of the tower is just visible amidst the rafters of the quay. Interestingly, this work is also used to show that Hokusai wasn’t Riviere's only Japanese influence. Utagawa Hiroshige's Okazaki, Yahagi Bridge (c. 1840) can be found nearby, showing the beams of the bridge from a remarkably similar angle. It is impossible to determine whether this is plagiarism or coincidence.

Either way, the ukiyo-e precursors of Riviere's Thirty-Six Views are old hat. What distinguishes this exhibition is that it greatly adds to the picture we have of the French printmaker, bringing in other aspects of his career, like the art inspired by frequent visits to Brittany—some excellent, some more chocolate boxy—and his connection with the Chat Noir (Black Cat) cabaret group.

From 1886 to 1897, Riviere was deeply involved in producing shadow plays, influenced by oriental puppetry, at the Chat Noir theater in Paris's bohemian Montmartre district. This show includes zinc cutouts used in the performances and other paraphernalia. The work seems to have given Riviere an appreciation of the economy and expressiveness of silhouettes, which later surfaced in his prints.

The exhibition's greatly expanded view of Riviere is possible thanks to the donation of a substantial private collection to the National Library of France, and the research this prompted. But there is more to the show than this. A talented draughtsman, Riviere is nevertheless an essentially unimportant and peripheral figure from art history. Yet he has become an important artistic bridge between France and Japan.

To the Japanese, Riviere is the clearest symbol of their cherished belief that many of the great artistic developments of late 19th-century European art could not have happened without them; to the French, he represents their equally self-centered view of themselves as protean internationalists, effortlessly absorbing and blending diverse cultural strands while giving them an indelibly French stamp. In short, the modest talent of Henri Riviere succeeds in massaging two large national egos at the same time.

Henri Riviere: French Ukiyo-e Master. Until Oct 12, 2009, Museum of Modern Art, Hayama

9th October, 2009
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