“Everything is Japanese now,” wrote Alexandre Dumas – the fils rather than the père, naturally, this being 1887– as a great wave of Orientalist art broke against the continent of Europe. Furniture-makers such as Gabriel Viardot and EW Godwin were knocking out mahogany cabinets in a strange hotchpotch of Eastern styles, Van Gogh was painting The Bridge in the Rain – an oil version of a woodcut by Hiroshige – and even Gilbert and Sullivan were torturing the eardrums of operetta-goers with the faux-japonais plinky-plonk piano of The Mikado. Within a few years of Dumas’s remark, the cult of Japonisme had become even more pervasive; artists like Beardsley and Toulouse-Lautrec defined the “decadence” of the 1890s with a graphic style that borrowed, consciously and voraciously, from elements of Japanese printmaking. And the French lithographer Henri Rivière made the connection even more explicit with his series Thirty-Six Views of the Eiffel Tower, which alluded in title, number, style and composition to Hokusai’s famous prints depicting Mount Fuji. At the very moment that Kipling was busy intoning that “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet”, Japanese and European art had already met, got to know each other rather well, and created some decidedly outré offspring.

The Western avant-garde’s love affair with Japan began, as Lionel Lambourne’s book reveals, from the moment that US Commodore Matthew Perry and friends sailed into Tokyo Bay in 1853, thereby ending 200 years of self-imposed isolation. The resultant opening-up of trade routes brought Westerners their first intoxicating glimpse of an alien culture, one that had developed quite independently of the European artistic tradition. And the mutant hybrid of East and West that is modern Japanese culture was created by another American military arrival, of a considerably less diplomatic kind – the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. As far as the artist Takashi Murakami is concerned, every post-apocalyptic nightmare, every overtly Westernised cartoon eye, every infantile twitch of the Japanese subculture can be directly attributed to this moment.

The connection between Hiroshima and Godzilla films – a lizard-creature born of a nuclear explosion wreaks destruction on Tokyo – is not difficult to see, but what of the Japanese predilection for all things kawaii (a word that can be loosely translated as “cute”)? Murakami’s title, Little Boy, is taken from the nickname given to the Hiroshima bomb, but it also refers to an infantilised society: one in which businessmen read comic books on the bullet train and entertain Humbert Humbert fantasies about cartoon schoolgirls with immense round eyes. The kawaii imagery subverted by artists like Yoshitomo Nara and the man known only as “Mr” is a new East-West hybrid: the iconography of American commercial art and cartoons has been absorbed to produce an artform that is distinctly Japanese. And although its building blocks are familiar to Western eyes, it is, ultimately, no less alien and revolutionary than those Hokusai prints must have been back in the 1880s.


First published in World of Interiors issue 277. Reproduced with permission.


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