This painting by the great Post-impressionist and Pointillist painter Georges Seurat (above) seems to be the very essence of Frenchness… A Sunday Afternoon at the Grande Jatte… what could be more Parisian, more moderne than this elegant display of European manners on a Sunday afternoon? The restraint, the rhythm, the beauty of the figures and the passive geometry that pressages an end to chaos and a new dawn for the modern world… that other great French optimist, Matisse might have called this Luxe, Calme et Volupté… indeed, he did after a fashion. Exactly thirty years later Henri Matisse painted the masterpiece Luxe, Calme et Volupté in what was by then known as the Divisionist style. The picture was a departure from the quasi-scientific experiments of the Post-Impressionists and a start down the road of fantasy and abstraction.
What’s depicted here is pleasure in the easy way of life… sex, food, nakedness, sun-worship; decadance. The title indeed comes from the great decadant, Baudelaire and his poem Les Fleurs du Mal:
There all is order and beauty,
Luxury, peace and pleasure.
How like the description of the ukiyo that is. A near definition of the Floating World, the world of ukiyo-e from the novel Ukiyo Monogatari by Asai Ryoi from 1661:
Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating; … refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world…
The Floating World was the idyll that lasted several centuries (or so people fondly imagine); a time in Japan when the feudal and chivalrous world of samurai and peasants was cut off from the vulgarity of westerners and the privations of capital and industry. This was imagined as a time of poets and lovers, of dreamers and sensualists… maybe it was. In any case, by the time the woodblock artists and kabuki playwrights had reimagined it, the image was set and indeed exported widely and it contributed to the still persistent western idea of the exotic (read sexualised), East. Above are two sheets from a woodblock print made one hundred years before the Seurat but uncannily similar.
This is a depiction – as good as any – of the ukiyo… the Floating World. How strong is the similarity to the Seurat. Toyokuni has used the novel method of western perspective here, termed uki-e in Japanese, to create distance and space. Like the Seurat, here is the curving shoreline, the pleasure craft and crucially the strong verticals of the trees dominating the right margin. Strangely, the left-most tree in both pictures divides and spreads across the lake in an identical fashion. The right hand foreground is dominated in both pictures by a static and monumental pair of standing figures and in the Toyokuni, a child stoops to pick a clam and in the Seurat a dog has adopted the task of reducing the descending diagonal of the composition. Elsewhere, the multitude of figures populate the scene in varying poses of work leisure. Of course the really important similarity is the mood of the piece… the subject. Here, the Japanese led the French by centuries, here the idea of the modern, ordered society – (one based on leisure and not toil, freed from obligations of church and state) – was depicted in ways that defied the rules of the Academy and liberated the artist from the genres of the Salon.
That liberation found its apotheosis in Matisse; look again at the Matisse, flipped to mimic the composition of the previous two images.
There’s no way of knowing of course whether Seurat had seen the Toyokuni print of the clam pickers. It’s irrelevant in a way, the influence of the great Japanese woodblock artists is manifest in all his mature work and it is widely known that he was hugely appreciative of their style and innovation… similarly with Henri Matisse. What is important is the acknowledgement that without Japanese art the course of European painting in the nineteenth century and beyond would have been very different… a fact that many people find hard to fully acknowledge. The Art Institute Chicago who own the Grande Jatte painting certainly make no mention.