Ronin Gallery Highlights the Crucial Influence Japanese Art Had on Toulouse-Lautrec

Mar 10, 2016 7:40PM

The influence of Japanese art on late 19th-century European painting is well-documented. With the increase in trade between the two regions came an abundance of Japanese visual objects circulating the European market, which introduced artists to aesthetic styles unlike those favored by Europe’s Romantic painters. The ensuing obsession with Japanese artifacts in Europe was something of a double-edged sword: It often veered into orientalism—essentially the exoticization of Japan—even if many historians also credit this influx of Japanese art for its considerable influence on the burgeoning Impressionism movement.

Now, at Ronin Gallery in New York, a new show called “Demimonde: The Floating World & Toulouse-Lautrec brings together the works of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901) and many of the Japanese woodblock prints that inspired the French artist, allowing viewers to explore the complex cultural dialogue that took place in the 19th century.

Kabuki Actor Ichikawa Danjuro V as Matsuo-maru, ca. 1780
Ronin Gallery

Particularly influential to Toulouse-Lautrec were ukiyo-e, a Japanese word that translates to “pictures of the floating world.” These prints often depicted theater scenes and other places of leisure in Japanese culture. In prints like Katsukawa Shunko’s Kabuki Actor Ichikawa Danjuro V as Matsuo-maru (circa 1780), artists captured the actors mid-performance, fully done-up in costume and makeup.

Formally, these prints differ from contemporaneous European painting. Whereas European artists tended to favor illusionistic depth, works such as Utagawa Hiroshige’s Yoroi Ferry at Koami Town (1857) featured a simplicity of form. Sharp outlines, bright colors, and pictorial flatness are crucial to many of these prints—a style that left its mark on Toulouse-Lautrec.

Though the Frenchman worked in the advertising realm, his idiosyncratic style turned everyday printed matter into artistic masterpieces. Toulouse-Lautrec was a regular in Parisian bars and cabarets, and he used the posters for such establishments as opportunities to create accessible art for the masses. He turned the barest essentials of visual information—a few lines and colors—into iconic portraits of dancers and showgirls. By placing Toulouse-Lautrec’s playful yet powerful masterworks next to iconic ukiyo-e prints, Ronin Gallery allows viewers to properly understand the development of his era-defining style.

—A. Wagner

Demimonde: The Floating World & Tolouse-Lautrec,” is on view at Ronin Gallery, New York, Mar. 10–Apr. 30, 2016.

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