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Globalism and Japanese Prints in the Early 20th Century

May 31, 2017

Zoe LaLonde graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2014 with a double major in studio art and Japanese, intending to combine the two in graduate school. After teaching English in Japan for a year, she decided to come back to the University and pursue a third undergraduate degree in art history, with the ultimate goal of pursuing graduate study in that field.

In the spring of 2016, LaLonde did an independent study with Professor Gebriel Weisberg, who specializes in Japonisme—the influence of Japanese prints on European art, especially in France. Because Japan was isolated until the mid-nineteenth century, the forms of art developed there were unlike those anywhere else in the world. The introduction of Japanese prints to a European market changed the landscape of art forever, especially in movements such as impressionism and art noveau.

Japanese woodblock print from 1947, features a person crouching at a river near a mill in the springtime
Kawanishi in Tochigi Prefecture, by Kawase Hasui, published by Watanabe Shōzaburō, 1947
Source: Minneapolis Institute of Art

However, what is not often talked about is the influence globalization had on Japanese prints. Weisberg instructed LaLonde to see the Seven Masters show at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia), which included woodblock prints commissioned by Watanabe Shōzaburō. Shōzaburō was a publisher in Japan during the early twentieth century and noticed pieces that westerners were purchasing and which prints attracted the most sales. He then asked seven different artists to create traditional Japanese prints, but to add a twist on them in order to make them more appealing to foreigners—some of these “twists” consisted of adding linear perspective, natural colors, and an emphasis on outdoor themes. “The artists creating these prints were being trained at universities where professors had gone to France and looked at impressionism, and come back [to teach it to their students],” explains LaLonde. These prints helped stimulate the tourist economy, appealing both to domestic travel as well as an increase foreign tourism.

Weisberg originally suggested that LaLonde call her independent study “Reverse Japonisme,” but that did not appeal to her; instead, she went with “Self Japonisme,” which refers to the fact that traditionally Japonisme is understood to refer to western artists adopting popular Japanese motifs in their work in response to European market trends, whereas her focus is on Japanese artists who marketed work that combined Japanese styles and subjects with western elements.

Her paper, “Self Japonisme,” describes how Shin-Hanga print (“new prints”), driven by Shōzaburō, revolutionized Japan in the early twentieth century. “It’s very much tied to globalization,” LaLonde says of her research. “We think of globalization as being recent thing that’s happening today, but the first print of this kind was made in 1915—over 100 years ago now. Everything was getting really complicated like, ‘what is western?’ and ‘what’s Japanese?’ Even those ideas are really arbitrary and made up. Which is which?” 

This spring, LaLonde had the opportunity to present the work done in her independent study at Mia’s Fifth Annual Student Art History Symposium. The symposium is a half-day event that highlights academic contributions made to the history and interpretation of art by emerging art historians from area colleges and universities.

LaLonde heard about the event from a class she took with art history department chair Jane Blocker. At the time, LaLonde was applying for grad school and thought the art history symposium would help her stand out. While preparing for the symposium, LaLonde expressed some worry beforehand, “I spent so much time writing the paper and since it was an independent study no one read it… Having some kind of audience for all this hard work is nice.”

LaLonde will begin her graduate studies in art history at the University of Oregon this fall.

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.