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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Artist Alfred Stevens And Japonism


What's in a painting? Apparently NOT all of the work I wrote yesterday, as it mysteriously disappeared - much like some of my work on Aum did a few days ago... and with the automatic saves, it's not like it shouldn't be here even if I forgot to save it. It's too bad... it had my raw thoughts on a painting... and that will be impossible to recapture. Blogger.com sucks.

So... let's look at the term Japonism, and an artist who whole-heartedly embraced it before it became a 'thing'.

Japonism comes from the French term Japonisme, and was first officially recognized as a term in 1872.

As you might guess (maybe), it relates to Japanese influence on European art, culture and aesthetics. There are, of course, different meanings, but really the above covers it.

Until 1868, Japan was a closed off society, but for nearly 20 years before that, the U.S. had been making aggressive inroads to Japan to convince (at cannon-point) that they should stop being an isolationist country and open up their doors to economic trade with the US.

By 1868 and the Meiji era's abolishment of the warring shogun-rule and re-establishment of the Emperor as the supreme ruler, Japan was soon doing global trade with anyone with something to sell.

Japan... this mysterious country and with its strange customs, became a fascinating subject for the world at large.

Whether it was its furniture, clothing, art or people, the Japanese were the 'it girl' of the 1860s and 1870s. Even if people weren't turning Japanese, they were turned on by all things Japanese.

While people became fascinated by Japan's ukiyo-e artwork - its lack of perspective or use of shadow, compiled with flat areas with strong but limited colors, artists around the world learned. They also learned that when it came to Japanese artwork, it was not necessary to have the subject placed square in the middle of the frame... the eye will follow what the eye will follow.

I should try and recreate what I wrote here previously.

First off, I have no artistic talent. I can sort of draw a stick figure... maybe a car, a rocket ship and an elephant's behind. I can paint... but only models... and aside from some Dungeons and Dragons 25mm figurines that I would put up against anyone else on this planet, I lack painting knowledge.

I only know what I know and, when it comes to legitimate art, like paintings, sculpture et al I don't know why I like certain things, except that I do.

I do have about 35 pieces of art... 33 paintings and two sculptures (One Native Indian made of ironwood, and one Inuit made of whale baleen). My paintings are oil, oil and wax, acrylic and pastel and range in style from: landscape, allegory, impressionism, abstract and more.

Just like a woman, I have no idea what it is that turns me on, suffice to say that certain art (and women) do. I likes what I likes.

But... I should state that the artwork needs to tell me a story. Why is the Mona Lisa considered a great painting? Surely it's simply a painting of a moon-faced woman... but apparently it's that smirk she has. Smile? Nay... smirk. It's like... he... Leonardo... I'm not wearing any panties. It's the viewer wondering just what it is she is thinking... not to mention just who the hell she really is... history is not sure who the subject is.

For me... the story is key. Probably because I am a story-teller... more so than a writer, in my own head.

There has to be a story that captures my imagination.

I hate still life... bowls of fruit sitting there all pretty... but if there was a bad apple in the bunch... or an any crawling on a leaf... then... then we have the beginnings of a story.

In fact... one of my paintings... an Oleg Koulikov oil and wax from his Houses series... that has a nuclear green background... trees in autumn foliage... and then blackened windows, dead trees... and it makes one wonder just what the hell is going on in the painting. What's the story? I love it.

I hate nudes reclining on a chaise lounge. Boring. But... give me an image of a woman facing away from me, legs slightly spread and arms pushed up high against the wall... holding up the building or looking to be frisked... and you have a story.

I have a portrait oil painting from the 1840s... it's a man in a powdered wig sitting on a bench, bent elbow propping up the disconsolate head... but here's the thing... he has one leg shackled to the bench! Why? There's the story... and one's imagination can run wild.

It's why I have chosen to express the term Japonism with a painting by Belgian painter extrodinarie, Alfred Stevens, who was one of the first artists to incorporate his love affair with Japan into his artwork...

While Stevens was a collector of many forms of furniture and exotica from around the world, his Japanese love affair revolved more feminine things... as in real, human life, the female form certainly is more desirous of more delicate and beautiful things than man. Stevens loves such items as kimonos, umbrellas, fans, folding screens... and as evidenced by the artwork above... masks.

Just like a woman you see for the very first time, you don't know why, but she takes your breath away... and when you get closer you find she has taken more than that. That's what happened to me when I first saw the above painting - The Japanese Mask - by Alfred Stevens.

Two weeks ago or less, I was searching to see if Japan had an artistic period to rival European art in the 1600s... a Rembrandt... or a da Vinci, even... but sadly no... until western influences rained down upon Japan in the 1870s, Japanese art was pretty much the same. Ukiyo-e portraits, landscapes and animal nature; screens; and scrolls... even while certain artists obviously excelled at their art, it was always done in a similar style.

Now... let's take a closer look at The Japanese Mask.

Truthfully, I don't even see the mask when I first look at the canvas. I don't even see the pale redhead front and center... no... my eyes are immediately drawn in towards that sultry brunette.

Now... those of you who know me, know I have a thing for redheads, but there is something about that brunette that is absolutely captivating.

You know what I love about the brunette in this painting... the initial love... it's her brains. I sure do want to suck on her intelligence. I mean look at her... you can see the intense look of concentration in her smoky brown eyes, with her pondering head perched delicately upon the back of her hand.

She's concentrating with inquisitive intelligence deep into the laughing eyes of the Japanese Noh mask... the devilish contenance of the Japanese theater mask perched a-way off to the side of the painting. Even though the painting dares call itself The Japanese Mask, Stevens has learned from Japanese artistic stylings to not place such devices front and center... he allows us to find the mask by following the sultry stare of the brunette.

Why doesn't my eye follow the look of the redhead? It's because she looks afraid of the mask... which is why she has her hand clutched to the thigh (Helloooooo, nurse!) of the brunette.

As well... the light rose or peach color of the redhead's dress... it's a color too close to her delicate skin tone... which is pale enough as it is... but... it's what the redhead is hiding that makes me want to see more. She's hiding, or rather, obscuring the brunette. If I didn't want to see more of the brainy brunette before, I certainly want to see more of her now. She is the enigma studying, to her, an enigma.

Just look at how she is dressed. I know it's difficult, because we are only afforded glints and gleans of her. We see the smart yellow ruffled dress (again... I'm no expert in women's fashions... though I have some of lingerie thanks to THIS website)... and we see the diamond (?) wrist jewelery along with her headpiece amongst her sexy piled up hair... but as ever... I am drawn in by her eyes... hypnotized by the devil mask or hypnotizing the devil?

I know, I know... I should get a room for four hours. I could... the brunette challenges me... draws me in... it's funny... the Japanese mask is almost arbitrary... it's so dark, and pushed almost to the edge of the painting that while it has captured the fancy of the ladies, it's the ladies - and one in particular, which capture our fancy.

Completed in 1877, The Japanese Mask is merely one of several Japan-inspired paintings by Alfred Stevens (May 11, 1823 - August 24, 1906) - and I will take another look at some of his other Japonism-inspired paintings after I get some juice.

I suppose, depending on one's own preference, others might not think this one is all that special... but... if I were to chose one piece of art to hold up my wall... this... The Japanese Mask would be it. Sexy and intriguing. What a story! 

Cheers,
Andrew Joseph

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