Geishas Dance, Warriors Advance in Geneva Show of Japanese Art

Exhibition "The Buddhism of Madame Butterfly. Buddhist Japonism." Scenography by Atelier de scénographie Pascal Payeur, Paris / Photo : MEG, V. Tille (Courtesy of Museum of Ethnography)

Exhibition “The Buddhism of Madame Butterfly. Buddhist Japonism.” Scenography by Atelier de scénographie Pascal Payeur, Paris / Photo : MEG, V. Tille
(Courtesy of Museum of Ethnography)

Blouin Art Info
BY JAKE CIGAINERO | NOVEMBER 10, 2015

GENEVA – In the exhibition “The Buddhism of Madame Butterfly,” the Museum of Ethnography in Geneva assembles some of the first Japanese art, artifacts and objects brought to Europe in the late 19th-century.

Curator Jérôme Ducor said the exhibition presents the fascination of Japanese Buddhism within the context of the larger phenomenon of the movement “Japonism,” the French term that describes that early influence of Japanese aesthetics on Western culture.

Although Westerners knew about Buddhism from India, the religion had long been dead on the continent. Ducor said the interest was renewed when Matthew Perry’s forcing Japan open to trade in 1854 revealed the country as a living example of modern practice.

“The fascination was mostly exotic,” said Ducor. “It was the shock of discovering a sophisticated culture that had been closed for so long – that’s to say, the discovery of civilized cultures outside of Europe.”

Vitrines at the beginning of the exhibition trace initial European tastes for Japanese culture up to the moment in which commercialization reached saturation. In just a little more than 20 years, the quality of exported objects plunged, becoming garish and kitsch, as seen in clunky ceramics and porcelain vases with cartoonish samurais.

Detail of Samurai armour Cuirass with the Bodhisattva Kannon sitting on the dragon (Ryūzū-Kannon) Japan. 16th century Metal, leather, textile Musée d’ethnographie de Genève Photo : J. Watts

Detail of Samurai armour
Cuirass with the Bodhisattva Kannon sitting on the dragon (Ryūzū-Kannon)
Japan. 16th century
Metal, leather, textile
Musée d’ethnographie de Genève
Photo : J. Watts

Before the decline, Japanese art’s vivid colors marked impressionists like Van Gogh, as well as Art Nouveau. Alexis Grasset’s illustration for Debussy’s songbook “La Mer” is almost a direct copy of Katsushika Hokusai’s “The Great Wave.”

Samurai armor obtained by the city of Geneva in 1896 exemplifies the genuine craze for Japanese objects. Next to towering porcelain vases, a poster advertises a shogun-themed circus.

The exhibition is more than anything an ode to the wealthy industrialist and avid traveler Émile Guimet, a privileged Frenchman who hauled home 600 statues, 300 paintings and 1,000 books from his 1876 trip to survey Far East religions. Accompanied by painter Felix Régamey, paintings in the exhibition document the dapper adventurer meeting with Shinto authorities. Régamey missed no details, right down to Guimet’s striped socks.

“Félix Régamey is THE discovery of this exhibition,” Ducor said.

Geneva painter and collector Alfred Etienne Dumont’s sketches from his 1891 round-the-world trip are also shown for the first time.

In addition to the various statues, figures, and the impressive gates of a Shogun’s tomb, two other exceptional paintings from Kyoto are 1895-96 portraits of the Buddhist patriarch Myonyo Shonin by Ando Chutaro.

“Every time I come in this room, I can’t believe they are here,” Ducor said.

Myonyo sent his regal, stern-faced portrait fitted with shutters to temples to greet followers when he was too ill to travel. The icon still commands reverence: Ducor recalled being “introduced” to the painting when organizing the show.

For Ducor, the 1887 publication of Pierre Loti’s novel “Madame Butterfly” marked the beginning of Japonism’s decline. In retellings preceding Puccini’s 1903 opera (on view in the exhibition), the title character – rejected by her Western lover and cast out by her own – attempts suicide.

Used and abandoned, unable to return to the security of the past, Madame Butterfly’s despair, limbo and death are fitting metaphors to punctuate the fast-and-furious Japonism mania that struck Europe in the late 19th century.

“The Buddhism of Madame Butterfly” is on show until January 10, 2016. Information: http://www.ville-ge.ch/meg/index_uk.php

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