Oct 26, 2011

REVIEW | The Orient Expressed: Japan's Influence on Western Art, 1854-1918 | McNay Art Museum | San Antonio, TX

The Orient Expressed, Exhibition Catalogue Cover

The McNay Museum of Art sits cozily atop lolling hills, almost feeling removed from it's location in San Antonio, TX. Surrounded by a grove of trees, the museum itself seems quaint and approachable, a feeling that is reiterated once you enter the museum and are presented with the very intimately arranged exhibits. One exhibit in particular, The Orient Expressed, was not only wonderfully arranged, but contained a number of breath taking pieces that were lovely to see in person.

Organized by the Mississippi Museum of Art,The Orient Expressed: Japan's Influence on Western Art, 1854-1918 is an exhibit that details the influence of Japanese culture on Western art.
Dan Piersol, the Mississippi Museum of Art's Deputy Deputy Director for Programs, says of the pieces in the exhibit:
All of these aspects will elucidate the impact of Japonisme, and how it hastened the development of art nouveau and symbolism during the 1890s, and the advent of modernism.
The exhibit itself is arranged in three subdivisions; firstly by a demonstration of Japanese art itself, next by its influence on western print and poster making, and lastly by its influence on western fine art.

Katsushika Taito. Carp Leaping From a Stream. Color woodcut.  14' x 6.5'. 1840.

The first subdivision of works is actually a very small portion of the exhibit. Instead of focusing on Japanese art itself, the McNay used the beginning works to set the tone visually for the content of the rest of the exhibit. Upon entering the gallery, the viewer is presented with a set up of a mock traditional Japanese tea room that is surrounded by household Japanese paraphenalia. Nearby, a few series of Japanese woodcut prints line the walls, leading the viewer through the exhibit and giving them an idea of what's to come.

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. Artiside Braunt aux Ambassadeurs. Lithograph. 59.1" x 39.4". 1892. 

The next subdivision of the exhibit details the influence of Japanese culture and style on western printing and poster painting. The walls of the exhibit are covered in posters detailing the trend of Japonisime, or the style of Japanese influence, a phrase coined by French art critic Phillipe Burty in 1872.  The exhibit contained a number of pieces by Mary Cassat and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, two artists that really took influence from the trend of Japonisime, and several other Art Nouveau era poster makers. The two artists mentioned above are notable in this exhibit because they chose to integrate the actual visual style of Japanese woodcut printing in their works, giving their prints a very simplified and flat look that had not been common prior to the rise of Japonisime.

Robert Henri. The Blue Kimono. Oil on canvas. 1909.

The last subdivision of the exhibit displayed the influence of Japanese culture on western fine art. In this portion of the exhibit, it became less about the influence of Japanese visual style, and more about the influence of Japanese aesthetics and content. As Japan had just reopened its borders to the western world for trade in the 1840s, the mysticism of the country took hold of audiences and artists alike in Europe and America. Rather than adopting the flat, blocked out look of Japanese printing and painting, most western artists in this portion of the exhibit instead utilized this "exotic" nature of Japan, choosing to paint scenes of domestic Japanese life, women depicted in Japanese garb, and the landscapes of Japan itself.

Mary Cassatt. The Letter. Drypoint and aquatint on laid paper. 13.6" x 9". 1890-1891.

As an added bonus to the exhibit, the gallery is displaying a large collection of Mary Cassatt prints in relation to the exhibit. The lower level of the gallery becomes somewhat of a pleasant surprise, and leaves the viewer on a good note with the exhibit. The collection shows several of Cassatt's drypoint and aquatint prints as well as some of her preliminary sketches for many of her more well known pieces, giving the viewer an intimate look at her creative process as it mixed western and Japanese methods.

The Orient Expressed was a wonderful exhibit that detailed the influence one culture may have on another. While showing a large variety of works, the exhibit still managed to hold on to a cohesive feeling throughout the show. In the end, the message of the exhibit was maintained throughout all of the displayed work: that the coming together of two cultures with an open mind can lead to the creation of some beautiful art.

-Brittany Ham


  1. I really enjoyed reading about your experience. How you wrote about each section of the exhibition separately made me feel as if I was there and painted a perfect picture. I feel that there is a solid amount of information in your blog to make me pursue more information about Japonisime.

    -Daniela Lawson