‘Petals on a wet black bough’

by charlestonattic

While the various influences, allusions, and subversions of the European art historical canon are quite evident – and exhaustively studied – in Bell and Grant’s aesthetic, this week in the gift we discovered an item gesturing to a source of inspiration far further afield.

Japan image 1

CHA/P/2332 Recto. Japanese landscape study, watercolour on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

japan image 2

CHA/P/332 Verso, The Miyajima Hotel letterpaper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

A piece of letter paper appears, at least initially, to express little of its guest’s adventures, but reveals overleaf a delicate watercolour of a Japanese landscape; hotel stationary is transformed into a hand-crafted postcard. The faint, mutable nature of watercolour is here keenly expressive of the fleeting, transient quality of foreign travel; the new environment is ecstatically grasped only to be abandoned days later for the familiarities of home soil. Under these circumstances, it is unsurprising that the written word – so fixed in its intentions and implications – was judged an inadequate medium of expression. Deeply responsive not only to the scenery, but to the sensibility of tourism itself, the piece offers a teasingly anonymous snapshot of a stint at the Miyajima Hotel. Curiously, as far as we are aware, neither Bell nor Grant ever travelled to Japan; however, Japanese culture was a point of great fascination for Modernist art and literature.

European elevation and emulation of Japanese work dates to the late 19th Century, when a reopening of trade relations between Europe and Japan triggered an influx of Japanese art into France. French critic Phillipe Burty coined the term ‘Japonisme’ to describe the subsequent impact upon Western fashion, handicrafts, architecture, art and aesthetics. Concurrently across the channel, prominent curator and critic Christopher Dresser argued that an assimilation of Japanese design was essential in generating new forms for British decorative art. Needless to say, Burty’s quaint coinage and Dresser’s undoubtedly sincere enthusiasm conceal a broader trend  towards Western appropriation of Japanese culture recognizable now as Orientalism.

However, Victorian attention to Japanese aesthetics was but a modest, marginal precursor to the avid curiosity of 20th Century avant-garde painters. Eager to revolutionise representational practice, Impressionist painters borrowed heavily from Japanese art. Pierre Bonnard, Edgar Degas and Claude Monet pooled the bright palette of the pleinairist with the ambiguous spatiality and flat colour fields of Japanese ukiyo-e prints. Subsequently, Post-Impressionists also adopted Japanese compositional devices, experimenting with asymmetry, elevated viewpoints, pure colour and compressed space. The 1910 Japan-British exhibition in London notably coincided with Roger Fry’s first Post-Impressionist exhibition; an interaction of the two events surfaces in  references to Japan in Clive Bell’s 1914 aesthetic manifesto Art. One can imagine Roger Fry revelling in the coincidence himself, having applauded the ‘vast mass of new aesthetic experience’ in ‘Oriental’ art. Unsurprising, then, that Japanese poet None Yoguchi recalled his trip to Fry’s Omega Workshop as a revelation of self-recognition. As Christopher Reed explains:

From his Japanese perspective, the Omega looked… well, Japanese. Its folding screens were ‘Japanese style’, its marquetry – indeed its entire aesthetic – reminded Noguchi of home.

Literary culture was equally enamored with Japanese forms. Ezra Pound’s sparse, lustrous Imagist poem ‘In a Station of the Metro’ was thought to have been inspired by an ukiyo-e print glimpsed in the British Library. Woolf may have dismissed Pound’s work as ‘humbug’, but she too shared the Modernist fascination with Japan. Woolf and Bell were friends of Dr. Arthur Waley, an accomplished translator of Chinese and Japanese literature. Alongside  numerous social opportunities for discussing Waley’s specialist knowledge, Woolf publically affirmed her approval of Waley’s pioneering perspective in her 1925 review of his six volume translation of Tale of Genji.

Grant’s interest in Japanese culture is evidenced in his later work (namely, Still Life, The Sharaku Scarf completed in 1972) and in more relaxed studies found in the gift.

japan image 3CHA/P/1805 Duncan Grant, painting, oriental scene, paint on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust.

Grant’s Japanese study adopts the typical flat field of colour; the fluid, blotchy density of green paint follows pockets of light as they yield to murkier opaque shapes. The sunlit and shadowy are thus both accommodated without any shift in palette. Indeed, akin to a mercurial sky, a sense of the provisional hangs over Grant’s experiment in alternative styles. Smudges of paint outside the picture plane vividly visualise a preliminary moment of uncertainty, one so integral to the overall mood of the piece they remain – messy, playful, questing gestures – even on completion. With no formal signature in sight, Grant situates himself in the painting through this flurry of doubting brushstrokes. Yet  familiarity lies close by. The sleeping cat (notably denser, more confidently set upon the page) recalls Duncan Grant’s 1932 painting Opussyquinusque; as we have previously explored on the blog, cats were common subjects for Bell and Grant, The cat can therefore be regarded as a form of anchor, a reminder of Grant’s signature style amidst a visual iconography that threatens to float off into the unknown.

Returning to our tourist’s relic, perhaps the most compelling question is that of authorship.  Who amongst Bell and Grant’s circle of friends took the months-long boat trip to Japan? Various figures float into view, in such a hurry to express their experience – a day of sightseeing the great Torii or the surrounding shrines of Miyajima – they composed upon the nearest canvas at hand: humble hotel stationary. However, try as we might, we found no trace of the Bloomsbury group in Japan. Despite his frequent flights of intellect and imagination, not even Arthur Waley managed the journey in his lifetime. Having unsuccessfully combed the entire Modernist canon for potential artistic tourists – encountering only Leo and Gertrude Stein, decades too early for our investigation – we finally admitted defeat. Our theory suddenly appeared facile. Although we assumed the work represented a personal artefact, it could just as easily have been a second-hand souvenir picked up from a nearby curiosity shop.

Whether received in the post or purchased as an oddity, the painting nevertheless fascinates as a time-capsule of one mysterious tourist’s extraordinary trip.

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