Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 3, 2024
Xiaojin Wu Renegade Edo and Paris, Japanese Prints and Toulouse-Lautrec Exh. cat. Seattle Art Museum, 2023. 104 pp.; 70 color ills. $30.00 (9780932216076)
Seatle Art Museum July 21–December 3, 2023

Renegade Edo and Paris: Japanese Prints and Toulouse-Lautrec is a focused gem of an exhibition at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, accompanied by a slim catalog of the same name. This is the first time the museum has compared Japanese and French art in a single exhibition. The majority of the Japanese prints in the show are part of the museum’s permanent collection alongside works on loan specifically for this exhibition, mostly prints by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The show opens with a room dominated by two large mid-seventeenth-century six-panel Japanese screens depicting Edo inhabitants enjoying spring and summer activities that set the scene for the context of the city, which had become the center of government earlier in the century. The world of the emperor’s court remained in Kyoto, hundreds of miles away. This shift led to Edo growing from a provincial backwater into a city of about one million inhabitants by the eighteenth century (13). The changes that consequently took place in Edo form the backdrop for the development of the popular imagery in the exhibition, and the foundation for the comparison to an analogous massive population increase and complete renovation of Paris in the nineteenth century. The fundamental social and cultural changes that accompanied these urban transformations in both places gave rise to the “renegade” reputation that connects them in interesting ways and that underlie the influence of seventeenth to nineteenth-century Japanese woodblock prints on French culture and art in the nineteenth century. As the Seattle Art Museum’s outgoing director, Amanda Cruz, and former curator, Xiaojin Wu mention in the catalog, articulating this connection between the renegade cultures and artworks is the contribution the exhibition and catalog make to the well-known influence of Japanese prints on nineteenth-century French art (7–8).

Four sections comprise the exhibition, beginning with the six-panel screens and a few large French posters featuring Paris entertainment, and advertising an early Parisian exhibition of Japanese prints. The catalog offers short introductions to Edo and Paris and to the cultural shifts that took place in each. Both the exhibition and catalog then focus on three thematic emphases. The “Entertainment” section comprises eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Japanese woodblock prints depicting actors, scenes, and backstage culture from Kabuki theaters and images from teahouses in the Shitamachi (“lower city”) district of Edo. This section also contains nineteenth-century lithographs of various nightlife entertainment in Paris. The second section, “Celebrity Culture,” features prints of particular Kabuki and Montmartre performers and the artists who contributed to their fame. The final section, “Pleasure Quarters,” looks at sex workers in both contexts, comparing idealized Japanese prints of famous beauties to Toulouse-Lautrec’s prints showing candid scenes of daily life in Parisian brothels. The exhibition sets this room off from the others with curtains framing the doorway and creates intimacy with lower lighting.

The exhibition demonstrates connections between seventeenth to nineteenth-century Edo and nineteenth-century Paris and shows how print culture from both contexts emphasized hedonistic subject matter that had not previously been acceptable in fine art imagery. The Japanese woodblock prints in the exhibition comprise what is referred to as ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the floating world.” This was a new focus in Japanese art of the Edo period (1600–1868) on the popular cultures of Shitamachi, Edo’s “lower city,” where the townspeople lived. Woodblock prints popularized Kabuki theater and the pleasures of tea houses and Yoshiwara, the licensed red-light district. Similarly, Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters of entertainment in the Montmartre district of Paris brought marginal, lower-class culture to wide popularity. His lithographs and albums focused on certain popular entertainers and brothel life, breaking with traditional subject matter for establishment art in France at the time.

Mary Weaver Chapin’s essay in the catalog, “Bohemian Paris and the Prints of Toulouse-Lautrec,” situates the artist in the Paris of his day, Europe’s center of entertainment. From the 1880s, Toulouse-Lautrec lived among the outsiders of bohemian Montmartre. Cheap entertainment abounded there and Toulouse-Lautrec made his name with striking posters advertising particular performers (21). The artist made edgy use of color lithography, a new medium associated with crass commercialism, to create his bold poster designs (24). His use of large areas of flat colors, unusual viewpoints, asymmetry, striking silhouettes, and calligraphic lines all reference the Japanese ukiyo-e prints he admired (27). Chapin briefly outlines the French interest in Japanese objects and images that constitute French japonisme, a term coined in 1872. Japan opened to foreign trade in the mid-1850s and by the 1860s, prints, books, scrolls, and textiles were on sale in French department stores (26). By the 1870s and 1880s, artists began to depict some of these objects in their works (26). In the 1890s, artists began to adopt motifs and formal aspects from Japanese prints, which Toulouse-Lautrec did to dazzling effect in his lithographs (26–27). Appreciation of Japanese art allowed artists and critics to see that Western aesthetics and perspective were not simply natural or universal but represented the West’s particular cultural orientation (Paul Wood, Western Art and the Wider World, Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2014, 148).

 Although shunga (erotic prints) were common in Japan and accepted as picturing a natural part of life in Japanese culture, the exhibition includes few explicitly erotic prints, and none are included in the catalog. This gives more emphasis to the divide between how sex workers were depicted in Japanese and French artworks. The Japanese prints highlight beauty by depicting certain women—often high-ranking sex workers (signified by their elaborate hairstyles or by depiction of or reference to their attendants)—shown in graceful poses with elegantly draped robes. By contrast, in his album of brothel images, Elles (1896), Toulouse-Lautrec focused on candid moments that often show the women in awkward or unflattering poses.

Torii Kiyomine’s A Beauty of the Eastern Brocade (ca. 1804–10), for example, shows a young woman with a rolled paper held under her chin while she adjusts the adornments in her hair. The artist emphasizes the woman’s grace and beauty, even in an unguarded moment. Displayed next to this print is Toulouse-Lautrec’s cover for the Elles album, also depicting a woman with arms raised to adjust her hair, but he emphasizes the pointiness of her elbows in her voluminous blue robe as she pulls a hank of her hair out so that it extends oddly to the right.

In Elles, Toulouse-Lautrec doesn’t focus on erotic scenes, but rather on boredom, daily life, and routine chores (88). Rather than explicit eroticism, he merely suggests the interaction of men and women, for example by the top hat on the chair next to the woman adjusting her hair on the album’s cover, or by the fully dressed, top-hatted gentleman who sits up rigidly next to a standing woman as she loosens her corset (plate 50, Woman in a Corset, from the album Elles, 1896 color lithograph), though this is the only image in the album that depicts a man with a prostitute (88).

Both examples of shunga included in the catalog show a woman with a man, sitting so close together that their robes merge, but neither is explicit. In the black-and-white, A Young Girl with her Client by Torii Kiyonobu I (1710) the contrast of patterns—squares for the man’s robe and flowers for the woman’s—clearly distinguish the two figures despite the visual merging of their draperies. Her bare foot emerges from her robe next to his feet, and this small gesture conveys the intimacy of the scene. This print is displayed in the exhibition above a more explicit image, also in black and white, of a sex worker and her client engaging in sexual intercourse while an attendant looks on, not reproduced in the catalog.

Though Toulouse-Lautrec made few explicitly erotic prints, his Elles portfolio conveys a raw awkwardness that the elegant Japanese prints, even the more explicit example in the exhibition, do not. The French prints present nudity in demeaning ways, with women awkwardly dressing themselves or in one case with a man fondling a woman’s exposed breast. The effect is that the European imagery appears more openly explicit even though, as Wu remarks, Toulouse-Lautrec made few explicit erotic images whereas shunga were “produced in large quantities, were an expected part” of artists’ work, and were enjoyed by “all classes of Japanese society” (73). This difference highlights the historically different moral values around nudity and sexuality between Japan and the West. The near absence of explicit imagery from the exhibition, and their complete absence from the catalog distort the historical picture of popular imagery in Japan in the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, deferring to the Western sensibilities of this museum context. Despite this minor distortion, the exhibition does an exemplary job of focusing our attention on the fascinating relationships between popular culture in seventeenth to nineteenth-century Edo and nineteenth-century Paris.

Naomi Hume
Associate Professor of Art History, Department of Art, Art History and Design, Seattle University