In 1876, when Claude Monet painted his wife Camille as La Japonaise in a richly embroidered red silk kimono, the Parisian avant-garde had already been in the grips of Japonaiserie for some time: artists like Manet, Edgar Degas and Henri Fantin-Latour were known to purchase Japanese art and crafts at shops like La Porte Chinoise (opened in 1862). Around 1870, as a result of the forcing of Japan to open itself to the West in the mid-19th century, artistic circles in Paris, London and later Vienna succumbed to a wave of ‘Japonisme’. The term describes a specific sensitivity to Japanese culture that became emancipatory for Western artists, a move away from the perceived strictures of European art traditions. Around the turn of the 20th century, studying Japanese art and design was standard practice in Art Nouveau: Gustav Klimt not only painted women in kimono-like outfits, but also had such robes made for himself by the Wiener Werkstätten to wear while working in his studio. Last year, the Folkwang Museum in Essen devoted a major exhibition to Japonisme under the title Inspiration Japan, underlining the fact that recent Western art history cannot be fully understood without the influence of Japanese aesthetics.
By contrast, Logical Rain, the exhibition held at Dresden’s Japanisches Palais this winter, tried to go beyond the usual art-historical narrative. The show curated by Zurich philosopher and visual theorist Wolfgang Scheppe included several kimonos, but they appeared marginal, mute illustrations of an alternative approach to presenting Japonisme. The central exhibits were 140 katagami, the traditional Japanese stencils used in the printing of Samurai kimonos, shown at eye-level along a lengthy lightbox that bisected the exhibition space lengthways. With this indirect back-lighting, the patterns seemed to shine out from the roughly A5-sized sheets. The katagami selected (from a collection of over 15,000 acquired by Dresden’s museum of applied art in 1889 in as-yet-unclear circumstances) were all on the theme of rain: 140 different ways to graphically represent the falling of tiny drops in a rhythmic pattern.
In this way, the curator focused attention on the material source, concentrating on the incredible craftsmanship of the katagami and their timelessly minimal aesthetic. The show posed two nagging questions: how were these things made? And why don’t they look historical? The stencils were made using the bark of the mulberry tree that was processed into a paper-like mass; this was then made waterproof by applying a mixture of oil and the fermented juice of unripe persimmons.
During the making of the stencils with knives and hole punches, as art historian Siegfried Wichmann describes, ‘the patterns were first cut into a pile of 16 sheets. The bottom sheet and the top layer with the drawing were discarded, and the rest were stuck together in pairs, often with a mesh of human hair or silk threads to prevent tearing.’ In his catalogue Japonismus: Ostasien – Europa (1980), Wichmann also explains the crucial importance of katagami to the decorative arts in Europe around 1900, where they exerted a profound influence on the work of the artists of the Vienna Secession and the Wiener Werkstätten. In 1873, for example, the Austrian Museum of Art and Industry (today’s MAK – Museum of Applied Arts) purchased several thousand katagami stencils at the World’s Fair in Vienna which subsequently served as visual aids and sources of inspiration for Viennese. For Dresden’s relatively young museum of applied arts, founded in 1875 by the Academy of Applied Arts, ‘promoting the local economy’ must also have been a factor in acquiring the katagami. This is dealt with in the 50-page historical-poetic essay by Scheppe given away free to visitors of the exhibition, covering the cultural context of the purchase, the subtleties of katagami production techniques, and the significance of rain in Japanese culture. Aside from this the show itself took a low-information approach, putting visitors in the bemusing position of being left almost unmolested by extra input to revel in the timelessness of these designs. The nagging worry must have remained, however, that such naive delight in something so ‘simply beautiful’ is no longer possible.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell