Degas and the Art of Japan

Watanabe Seitei (Sho Tei), Birds on Branch, 1878, watercolor on paper, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute.*A crucial issue involving Degas and the Art of Japan, currently on view at the Reading Public Museum, is invoked by a delicate and ethereal watercolor on prominent view. The diminutive piece is the subject of a telling anecdote and it is the reason why a companion work by Edgar Degas is no longer extant. One evening in the 1870s, Degas attended a dinner in the home of the writer Philippe Burty, an admirer of Japanese culture and a collector of Japanese art. (It was Burty who later coined the term “Japonisme.”). Among others in attendance were the artists Claude Monet and Tadamasa Hayashi, a young entrepreneur who would soon become a major dealer and proponent of Japanese culture. The admiration for all things Japanese was at its height in France and the guests were treated to a demonstration of Japanese paining by Watanabe Seitei, also known as Sho TeiOne of the works Sho Tei executed that evening was Birds on a Branch. He offered the work as a gift to Degas. Afterward, Degas picked up a brush and, in a gesture of gratitude, created a painted image intended as a return gift to Sho Tei. Upon its completion Degas declared it too “ugly” in comparison and destroyed it.At this point writers on art have little more to say. They recount the story without drawing inferences other than Degas’ apparent inability to satisfy himself that his own work could stand being compared to the work of the Japanese master. I’ll have more to say about this later.*Degas and the Art of Japan is a world class exhibit – a significant example of the great art held in collections of regional museums throughout the world. The Reading Museum posesses several works by Degas and a good selection of Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock prints., also known as “Pictures of the Floating World.” The current show, as supplemented by works from other sources, makes excellent use of the Museum’s collection, which includes an exquisitely carved period woodblock of the type used in producing the images on display. Among the museum’s holdings, Degas’ The Washerwoman evokes quotidian reality and calls to mind an important category of Japanese woodblock prints in which common scenes become the subjects of classic artworks. Other categories of paintings and prints in the exhibit include theatrical subjects, such as dancers and actors, as well as more intimate depictions of bathing and personal grooming.* Pedagogical approaches of comparison and contrast are facilitated by the gallery presentations here. Works sharing common themes are hung in groups. Correspondences abound. Simply walking through the exhibition is a more of a formal learning experience than typically provided by most museum shows. For example Degas’ Woman in a Tub contains a strong echo of a figure in Iseya Jisuke’s woodblock print entitled Interior of a Bathhouse.These works and others reflect a sense of the eroticism that occurs when art captures the private moments of our lives. This well-recognized taboo-breaking aspect of late nineteenth century European art is equally apparent in the Ukiyoeprints of the period. The unique composition of this exhibit promotes a fuller comparison betrween Oriental and Occidental worldviews. We recall the civic uproar caused by the recent Keith Haring show held here and its barely evident sexual references. In comparison, the number of unselfconsciously unclothed human beings populating the images of “Degas and the Art of Japan” is truly noteworthy. In comparison to the Haring show, this is a veritable nudist colony. Yet no precautions were deemed necessary to present it to regional audiences.*Returning to the initial comparison between Sho Tei’s Birds on a Branch and Degas’ unfulfilled attempt to somehow equal it, after considering these very different cultural expressions, I am inclined to agree with Degas in his crtique of his own work. In comparison to the light and luminous work of the Ukioye artists, this European’s efforts appear at best perfunctory and at worst, heavy handed.Perhaps it is the position of the artist in relation to society at large that is revealed as most problematic. Even the most novel work of the Japanese art exhibited here is deeply rooted in an ancient tradition of meaning and value. On the other hand, Degas – the European rebel – takes the easy route of rejecting most of his cultural heritage in pursuit of some mythical alternative of individual genius. And as do the generations of western artists who inherit his attitude, he fails. And he knows it.*Edgar Degas, Woman Ironing, 1882-1886, oil on canvas, Reading Public Museum.Kitigawa Utamaru, Suited to the Dyed Stripes Stocked by Shimaya, from Summer Outfits, cover, c. 1795-1796, color woodcut, The New York Public Library.*Degas and the Art of Japan is on view at the Reading Public Museum through December 30, 2007The exhibition catalog, compiled by the show’s curators Jill DeVonyar and Richard Kendall, is available at the Museum.Images courtesy of The Reading Public Musem

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