Toshidama Gallery is sponsoring the first full revival of the 1914 Vorticist ‘play’ Enemy of the Stars by Wyndham Lewis, to be performed in Bath for three nights from the 24th of July this year. We are delighted and excited to be part of the production, which will be a groundbreaking and exciting event – any readers near Bath should very definitely attempt to get hold of tickets if they can. The play is the centrepiece of a conference celebrating the British art movement Vorticism, being held at Bath Spa University this summer.
We have been asked why a Japanese art gallery should sponsor a very British production, rather than say, a piece of kabuki or noh theatre. The answer lies in our continued efforts – often on this blog – to expand public awareness of the vital importance that Japanese art of the eighteenth and nineteenth century had on modernism in art, design, literature and architecture both in Europe and America. What awareness there is tends to be amongst the decorative arts… that difficult phrase Japonisme, with its suggestions of art nouveau, of exotic geisha and of sexual novelty. This perception serves to distract from the very profound influence that Japanese culture has had on modernist thought, and in architecture, in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. In the visual arts, the impact of Japanese woodblock prints on the work of Manet, Van Gogh, Degas and other impressionist and post-impressionist artists is well known. That this influence continued through the work of the Symbolists, the cubists and beyond is less visible but equally important to the growth of early modernist aesthetics.
From the first (enforced) trade deals of the 1860’s, Japanese culture was exported in vast quantities to Europe and then America. Collections of woodblock prints by enthusiasts on both continents amounted to many thousands per individual: it is known that Frank Lloyd Wright made more money as a ukiyo-e dealer than he did as an architect; and collectors such as William Bigelow donated over 40,000 prints to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston alone.
All of this is not to say that Wyndham Lewis’ paintings and drawings jostle with geisha or samurai, nor that they have any specific Japanese paraphernalia at all. There is however a sensibility that is quite specific and is very much of its day. The aesthetic of early British modernism to some extent concerned itself with essence. The aesthetics of the poet Ezra Pound and the early Vorticists strived to represent, in either image or word, without recourse to description and at the same time shunning western metaphor and allegory. In literature, Pound’s Imagist movement at the early part of the twentieth century responded directly to newly imported ideas from Japanese poetry and in particular the Japanese form of haiku (hokku). This seventeen syllable form had a profound effect on Pound and informed the growing sense that the redundant, genteel poetry of the Edwardian should be supplanted by something modern and dynamic – for Pound that cosmopolitan, dynamic formula could be found in the Japanese use of imagery without description, of juxtaposition without literal meaning, and it is the haiku that is the bedrock of Pound’s Imagism, and inevitably therefore, of many aspects of the Vorticist movement that he was to help found.
In the visual arts, Lewis was known to be a keen student of Japanese art. Lewis worked briefly with Roger Fry, another British modernist, at his Omega Studio. Fry was deeply attracted to Oriental Art and his contribution from that source to the development of a British style is enormous. Japanese prints in particular are ‘constructed’; that is to say that at their best, they are aesthetic pieces that derive their strength from that which is seen on the page rather than from observation or the mimesis so central to western painting. This liberated the artist to play with all the elements on the page to make something that is like life but not necessarily of life. Hence in a Japanese print, writing, text blocks, signatures, cartouches and so on become elements of the dynamic composition. Often these floating elements are essential in creating space, or opening further meanings through allusions and puns
rather than the arch and hated metaphor that Pound despised so much. Japanese art’s use of type, kanji and text have been hugely influential in the west, with early ehon illustrated books leading more or less directly to the development of manga, graphic novels and what is now a conventional arrangement of text and image on a single page. This liberation of the visual from mere description and its marriage with the forms of the text in design is fundamental to Lewis’ and modernism’s approach to graphics and the dynamic of the page.
In painting, I do not think that it is stretching things too far to say that Lewis’ portraits of the 1920’s owe a great deal to Japanese art. Those flat slabs of colour that make up the backgrounds, the carefully constructed forms – all arcs and intersections – the flattened space and unmodulated tones, the unscientific perspectives that serve to divide the plane, all recall the great art of Edo and Osaka in the mid nineteenth century; as indeed does the sense of ‘contact’ that the sitter has with the viewer; intimate and reserved… active and passive… present and absent. For us as a Japanese gallery, there is a great deal in these early, modernist, experimental pieces that resonates with the great art of Japan… that fleeting culture which defied the trade winds of the nineteenth century, that placed value on pleasure and not acquisition and which made aesthetics above all not decoration, but something vital and important in life.
Enemy of the Stars by Wyndham Lewis 1914 is at Burdalls Yard from the 24th July, 2014.