I visited Looking East a couple of months ago, soon after it opened. It is both a celebration of japonisme in all its guises, and an opportunity to see some real treasures from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Such was the general richness and variety, I found myself struggling to marshal my thoughts, and decided to try for a return visit.
I made it back last weekend, but with a small person in tow, so we confined ourselves to a close study of one picture, which is featured on all the publicity material – The Water Lily Pond by Monet. We looked at the Japanese bridge, the willow tree, the reflections on the water, the effects of light and dark, and so on. It was very targeted viewing, but enjoyable. I confess I wasn’t thinking too hard about what Japanese art contributed to Monet’s aesthetic.
However, I did start to think harder about the premise of the exhibition. The secondary title of the show is “How Japan inspired Monet, Van Gogh and other Western artists”. The layout of the exhibition seeks to achieve exactly this aim, grouping together pictures by Japanese and Western artists that look similar and treat similar themes, be it Japanese bridges or horse racing. In other words, a mechanistic approach to something that is often very nebulous. Reading the labels seemed to ignite my inner rebel. Were those scenes of Parisian life really taking their cue from Japanese ukiyo-e?
I have a copy of the catalogue (thanks to my lovely sister) and I will be reading it, because I think it is easier, and maybe more fruitful, to explore connections of this sort in an essay format. I absolutely recommend the exhibition because it is full of wonderful things, no question. However, I think those wonderful things outshine and transcend the format in which they are presented, so do just go along and enjoy the show.
Looking East: How Japan inspired Monet, Van Gogh and other Western Artists
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, CA
30 October 2015 to 7 February 2016
Above: Claude Monet, The Water Lily Pond, 1900. Oil on canvas. Height 90.2cm; width 92.7cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Image at http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/the-water-lily-pond-33697.