Some ten years have passed since I began making my sojourns in Paris.
Over the years, I have written a number of “art novels,” tales that weave art history into a tapestry of fiction. For me, the most fascinating chapter of that history is the revolution led by artists in Paris from the late 19th to the early 20th century. During that era, painters who later became hailed as the giants of modern art—names like Monet, van Gogh, Matisse, and Picasso—enduringly pursued their visions despite the initial disregard for their creations. In doing so, they evolved into legends still beloved the world over. Many of their works, needless to say, grace the collections of art museums across Paris. So, whenever the urge strikes as I’m penning my latest novel in the French capital, I can pop out to those museums and commune with the various masterpieces on display. In fact, the unparalleled joy of those experiences emboldened me to rent out an apartment in Paris and turn it into my writer’s study away from home. Lately, I’ve been flitting between Tokyo and Paris, spending time every other month at that apartment to further my literary pursuits, and so I’m continuing to make my spontaneous jaunts to art museums.
Once I began crafting novels based on the lives of the greats of modern art, I researched over and over the question of what, exactly, compelled them to pioneer “a completely new realm of art.” What I found was that many of them had encounters with Japanese art that inspired them to conceive their unprecedented forms of expression.
A well-known example is the influence of Japan’s ukiyo-e (colorful woodblock prints) on painters such as Monet and van Gogh. I, naturally, was already familiar with that tidbit of history, but I hadn’t given much thought to why Japanese art had such an impact on so many Impressionists and their successors in that particular period of the 19th century. The answer, I learned, was directly linked to Japan’s debut on the world stage in the mid-1800s, following the end of a centuries-old isolationist policy. The Treaty of Amity and Commerce forged between France and Japan in 1858 paved the way for Japan’s formal introduction to the French public, and the showcasing of Japanese crafts and art at the Paris Exposition of 1867 triggered a craze for all things Japanese. The wave of Japonism had hit the shores of France.
In less than half a century in the latter 1800s, the French art scene was transformed by a stream of revolutions—Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and the ensuing innovations of modern art. This period coincides perfectly with the earliest presentations of Japanese art at three world’s fairs held in Paris. We can only imagine how invigoratingly fresh those displays must have appeared to the eyes of up-and-coming painters constantly on the prowl for new modes of expression. Spellbound by Japan, they began to eagerly incorporate Japanese styles and techniques into their creations, launching a movement that can aptly be described as the sprouting of modern art.
Already 160 years have come and gone since that story began, but when I’m staying in Paris I often sense that Japan still occupies a special place in the French heart, much like the strong affinity that the Japanese have toward France. I think that for many Japanese, including me, France is an object of adoration in terms of culture and art. Conversely, I get the impression that French people see Japan as a sort of wonderland full of surprises. Many French, I believe, are fascinated with Japanese culture, not just art, but also design, cinema, manga, animation, fashion, food, and so on. And, they recognize the high quality of our culture. The dream of Japonism still lives on, with many French holding the same reverence for Japan that was felt by artists like Monet and van Gogh (who, of course, was Dutch, not French). That is why the moniker “The Year of Japonismes” profoundly struck a chord with me when I learned it was the title for the celebration of last year’s 160th anniversary of the friendship between Japan and France.
National Treasure, Wind and Thunder God, Tawaraya Sōtatsu, Kennin-ji, Kyoto ©Graziella Antonini
Starting last year and continuing into this one, the milestone Year of Japonismes is being commemorated with a smorgasbord of exhibitions and other events. As a would-be creator who works in Paris, and as a person who writes novels set against the backdrop of the Japonism craze of 160 years ago, I am overjoyed that this celebration has put Japanese culture back in the limelight, to be experienced by large audiences of French people and visitors to Paris. Of the many items on the program, I was especially delighted to have had the wonderful experience of attending the exhibition “Treasures from Kyoto: 300 years of Rinpa creation,” which presented in Europe for the first time ever Wind and Thunder God, a pair of folding screens that are cherished as a National Treasure.
For a year and half spanning 2017 to 2018, I wrote a serial novel titled Wind and Thunder God for regional newspapers such as Kyoto Shimbun. That story, more than half of which I composed in Paris, centered on the boyhood of Tawaraya Sōtatsu, the artist who painted the eponymous folding screens. So, I was blown away by the very happy news that his masterpiece was coming to Paris. I had never imagined in my wildest dreams that I would have the opportunity to come face-to-face in Paris with the most famous of all Japanese paintings, a work that any Japanese person can instantly picture in their mind.
When I attended the exhibition on its opening day, I was filled with extraordinary pride, a sensation like what one feels when seeing a family member all dressed up for a special occasion. I couldn’t help smiling and nodding as I watched visitor after visitor marvel at the rare masterpiece before their eyes. I wanted to break out in a jig as I thought, “Japonismes has arrived! Where? Paris!”
My quiet hope is that the 21st century Japonismes will, like its 19th century forbear, spark the rise of new art movements. I know that there is at least one creator who has been transformed by it—me!