This year marks the 160th anniversary of the opening of diplomatic relations between France and Japan, paving the way to its status as global influencer. From June, a six-month cultural programme celebrating the event will be held in France as part of the Japonismes 2018 festival, which embraces everything from Japanese fine art to theatre, cuisine and traditional tea ceremonies – and Paris auction house Artcurial’s selling exhibition, Au Temps du Japonisme, held from May 19-22, serves as a thrilling taster of what lies ahead.
The auction features 50 prints that have been in the same family since the end of the 19th century. The artworks were purchased by a lawyer who, like many discerning Parisians of his day, had a passion for oriental art (an influence that took hold of the French capital as Japan relaxed its borders). He sought out famous specialist dealers like Siegfried Bing and amassed over 200 prints, which were split between four heirs after his death.
The works on sale are fine examples of the genre known as ukiyo-e, or “pictures from the floating world” – 19th-century woodblock prints and paintings that depict diverse subjects such as elegant women, kabuki actors, landscapes and scenes from history. Highlights include Toshusai Sharaku’s wonderfully expressive set of six portraits of actors (estimates €60,000-€80,000 each), Kitagawa Utamaro’s image of a young woman arranging a hairpin (estimate €30,000-€40,000), and a series of exquisite landscapes by Utagawa Hiroshige, considered the last great master of the ukiyo-e tradition (estimates from €2,000). Designs like these, with their extreme economy of expression, had an incalculable influence on 20th-century Western art, from the Impressionist movement to the paintings of Gustav Klimt and operas of Puccini (notably Madam Butterfly). Ironically, at the time they were produced, the Japanese considered them lightweight and of little value. In a strange twist of fate, they found their ideal audience in a very different place.