Japonisme: Cultural Crossings between Japan and the West

Japonisme: Cultural Crossings Between Japan and the West
by Lionel Lambourne
$44.07 on Amazon

The great English potter Bernard Leach, who introduced Japanese pottery techniques to England, once expressed the utopian hope that the cultures of the East and West would one day merge together.

“I believe in the interplay and marriage of the two complementary braches of human culture as the prelude to the unity and maturity of man,” he remarked near the end of his long life. But, if ever the cultures of the East and West were to merge into one, it would be something of a tragedy because, as this book shows, whenever things get stale in the West a fresh breeze from the East is cable of freshening things up, and vice versa.

Lavishly illustrated, “Japonisme” by Lionel Lambourne, the former head of paintings at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, is a wide-ranging and informative survey of the relationship between Western and Japanese culture since the 17th century, with the emphasis more on how Japan influenced the West than the other way round, which is, undoubtedly a much larger project.

Lambourne’s erudition is evident throughout in the many connections, subtle or otherwise, that he highlights. Alongside the more obvious and well-documented Japanese influences, like that of ukiyo-e on French Impressionism and the poster art of Toulouse-Lautrec, he also points out the lesser known connections, like Norwegian artist Edvard Munch’s use of the grain of the plank as background in his woodcuts, a technique he borrowed from Japanese woodcuts, and the influence of kabuki on the filmmaking of the legendary Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein.

With photos, illustrations, and artworks on practically every page, the reader is guaranteed to know instantly what Lambourne is writing about without spending hours googling for visual reference. This also makes the book a pleasure to return to again and again, and ideal for absent minded browsing.

As Japonisme was at its height in the late 19th century, most of the book naturally focuses on this period and the early 20th century, showing how Japanese influences provided inspiration in a wide range of fields, from interior design and fashion to gardening, architecture, and poetry. The influences, in several cases, are even shown to jump from category to category. For example, the renowned American architect Frank Lloyd Wright was more influenced by the manga of Katsushika Hokusai than the buildings he saw.

“Ever since I discovered the print, Japan has appealed to me as the most romantic, artistic, nature inspired country on the earth,” he gushed in his autobiography.

As Wright’s quote also demonstrates, there is a very real danger of a work like this turning into a hagiography, extolling Japan as a font of supreme truth and beauty, an idea that is quite ridiculous considering the Japanese themselves were busily engaged on an even more intense crash course in Westernization. Luckily Lambourne’s cool, measured tone does nothing to encourage such a view, and allows the reader to be impressed or not by the substance presented.

Like all fads, the late 19th-century enthusiasm for Japonisme soon reached a point of overkill, but the important point was that, after having made such a warm acquaintance with each other, both the West and Japan continued to maintain their distinct and unique characters. This allowed each to surprise, delight, and stimulate the other at subsequent meetings. Lambourne finishes by recounting the shock and impact of Kurosawa’s films on Western filmmaking in the post war period. But we all know the story doesn’t end there. As long as East is East and West is West, they will continue to serve as an occasional and potent inspiration to each other.


24th August, 2007

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