Saturday, 21 February 2015

The Floating World.

A panel from a tryptyche of a printmakers shop, by Kunisada.  Public domain.
 I do like the occasional Japanese or Chinese print.  I’m certainly no expert, but it is fun to look and to trace the influence they have had on later European art.  The thing that fascinated Europeans was the flatness, and use of colour.  As early as 1800 the French artist J.A.D. Ingres was accused of being a ‘Chinese painter adrift in the ruins of Rome’ and while this seems almost absurd to anyone who knows his work today, it is indicative of the way they had of seeing in those times.

What they meant was they thought Ingres, an arch Neo Classicist trained by the grandee of the movement Jacques Louis David, had a (very slight) tendency to over lighten faces and eliminate shadows so that things seemed less rounded and three dimensional.  To some it was a shocking approach but French artists took it up with relish later in the century.

Not to mention British artists.  And I have mentioned Aubrey Beardsley in this blog before (all the usual suspects) and his work was profoundly influenced by both china and Japan.  He was given a book of erotic Japanese prints by his friend the artist William Rothenstein that Rothenstein was too embarrassed to keep.  Only Beardsley would have thought to cut the prints out of the book, frame them and put them on his wall.  Probably the only person in Britain in 1894 who would have done that.  But he studied every print he could get hold of, and as a lot of these prints were used as packaging material for other goods like porcelain they were comparatively easy to find in the 1880-90's.  
Beardsley illustration for Lucian's 'True Histories'  Easily shows Beardsley's Japanese influence.

The general term for the type of print I am mostly interested in is ukiyo-e or 'pictures of the floating world', which usually concerns the urban lives of the middle class of Japan, but can take in subjects like the yoshiwara or red light districts, various samurai encounters and the loose living of bandits and beggars.

And yes, you guessed it, as an artist interested in Japanese art I couldn't help but give it a try in some of my own large digital images.   

Detail of gouache painting entitled 'Red Glasses'.
I’ll start first with an actual painting, shown above, painted with Gouache on mounting board.  I liked the samurai with a sword in his mouth, which seems to be a pretty common theme to depict.  Often a samurai is shown opening a bag for some equipment, or adjusting clothing or applying a bandage while he grips the blade of his sword between his teeth.  I don’t know how that would play out in real life, I can imagine some pretty nasty cut mouths in the thick of battle, but what do artists know?  It makes a good picture.  

 I liked the ides of mixing different style approaches into images and so with these details of my next picture entitled 'phone' (which is digital) I wanted the face and hands of the man to be more realistic than the print behind him, but they were still to be obvious drawings, with lines crosshatchings and so on still visible.  His body and clothing however are flat and stylised, even more so than the Japanese print.
Details of 'Phone'

With the next image, called 'Bloody but unbowed' I made more of the man's face, it is painted more than drawn but still incorporates the overall flatness in the body.  Yes, I am tending to include dark glasses too much, and no I don't think its because I can't do eyes.  I think it's due to a wish to accentuate the anonymity of the face.  And I got that samurai with a sword between his teeth in again!
Details of 'Bloody But Unbowed'
I think I will try and explore this theme a little while yet, but I've also got some similar thoughts about medieval patterning and imagery, so I may come back to this again at a later date.


  1. Loved this - very interested in what you say about the Japanese prints, and the insight into the way an artist thinks. - And love your paintings!

  2. Thanks Sue. I think what I like is clarity, and a little bit of everything. Some nice drawing and painting, bright colours and well placed lines - and then some empty space!