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Wednesday, July 18, 2001

Nature not nurture links Japan and Art Nouveau

Anyone writing about Art Nouveau here in Japan is expected to deferentially mention the strong Japanese influences on this late 19th-century art and design movement. Indeed, the exhibition now at Shibuya's Bunkamura of furniture and glassware from the important French Art Nouveau center of Nancy goes out of its way to draw attention to those influences, focusing on the marginal figure of Hokkai Takashima, a young, artistically inclined forestry student sent to Nancy by the Japanese government to study tree cultivation.

"Chat et Papillon" by Hokkai Takashima, ink on paper
Poster for the 1909 international expo in Nancy, by Pierre Roger Claudin
Acid-engraved glass vase with autumn leaves design by DaumPHOTOS COURTESY OF THE BUNKAMURA MUSEUM OF ART

Of course, it's very pleasant for Japanese visitors to come to an exhibition like this and imagine Takashima as an important figure in a strongly Japanophile movement. Art Nouveau owes a lot to Japanese style, especially in 2-D art: The clarity of line, spaciousness of composition, boldness and flatness of color found in ukiyo-e are clearly present in the posters on display, which advertise expos of the decorative arts held in the eastern French town.

The defining characteristic of Art Nouveau, however, wasn't its Japaneseness, but its love of nature. This is clear in the beautiful "Magnolia Lamp" made by Louis Majorelle with the help of the Daum brothers. Naturalistic clusters of petals made from opalescent glass house the light sources on top of an elegant design of curved bronze stems. The topmost of the three flowers in the design is open wider than the other two, creating the illusion of something alive and blooming.

Whether it's a Daum acid-engraved glass vase wrapped round with realistic-looking autumn horse-chestnut leaves, or an exquisite marquetry bed by Emile Galle with the head and footboards carved to look like dandelion clusters, almost every item at this exhibition shows an attempt to bring nature into the homes of the period, contrasting strongly with the stiff, heavy formality of earlier styles.

It may seem natural to attribute this "breath of fresh air" to an imported aesthetic and cite Japan as the obvious source. Indeed, Galle's chrysanthemum vase in smoked glass with enamel overlay would apparently back up such a hypothesis. A jardiniere, or ornamental plant stand, in glazed pottery by the same craftsman, however, has touches of rococo chinoiserie, revealing a promiscuous playfulness in his Eastern influences that hints at a certain superficiality. Beyond a passing interest in the novelty of Eastern design, there is little evidence that the provincial craftsmen of Nancy had any deep attachment to or understanding of Japanese culture.

A much simpler explanation for the popularity of Art Nouveau can be found in the contemporary background of industrialization. Britain had already been through its Industrial Revolution, but, in the case of most of the continental European states, industrialization and the accompanying urbanization only really started to bite in the late 19th century. Under these circumstances it was perhaps inevitable that a certain nostalgia for the natural realm should set in among the new class of city dwellers.

One of the advantages of Nancy as a center of Art Nouveau production was that it was still in many ways an idyllic country town. Business acumen, beautiful designs and technical breakthroughs, such as acid etching applied to multicolored layers of glass, helped the small provincial center keep ahead of its big urban rivals for several decades.

But Nancy also lay uncomfortably close to the tense border between Germany and France. When these two powers went to war in 1914 the delicate naturalism of Art Nouveau was dealt a blow from which it would never recover.

The School of Nancy: "Conversation with Nature," until Aug. 26 at the Bunkamura Museum of Art, (03) 3477-9252, Shibuya. Open 10 a.m.-7 p.m. (until 9 p.m. Fri. & Sat.) Admission 1,200 yen, students 800 yen.

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