“Japanism” in Russian Culture of the Late 19th — Early 20th cc by wuyyok


									                                                                    Elena Diakonova

                       Japonisme in Russia in the Late Nineteenth and

                                 Early Twentieth Centuries

                                                      Gold flows into steel, East into West

                                                     (Valery                 Bryusov,     The


           Eastern motifs permeate the entire body of Russian culture. These motifs not only

transform many works of Russian literature into Oriental novelettes and stories, poems and

ballads; they make chinaware manufactured in Russia look like celebrated work of Chinese

and Japanese masters; they add a touch of the Arabic or Siamese to the interiors of the

homes and palaces of the nobility. Indeed, the East reaches into the very heart of Russia’s

poetic vision, transmitting artistic forms, and intruding into the meditation of its poets and


                                 It was your lynx eyes, Asia,

                                 That spied out something in me,

                                 That teased something more hidden…1 (Anna Akhmatova)

The Orient finds its way into verses about the essence of poetry, as Boris Pasternak wrote

about Pushkin’s Prophet in his poem “Prophet”2, – poetry is like a planetary night spread

out from Morocco to the Ganges.

1 Anna Akhmatova. Bez nazvaniya (No name, 1945), in: Anna Akhmatova.
 (Verses and poems) / ed. V.M.Zhirmunskii, Moscow: Sovetskii Pisatel’,1976, p. 221.
2 Boris Pasternak. Prorok (Prophet, 1918), in: Boris Pasternak. Stihotvoreniya i Poemy.

Perevody (Verses and Poems. Translations), Moscow: Pravda, 1990, p.74.

       By the nineteenth century, Russia came to think of itself as a bridge connecting East

and West. The way to the East, or to be more precise, the way of Russian cognition of the

East led directly from the ‘bridge of Russia’ into the depth of Asia. However, the path was

not a straight one: knowledge of the East was drawn from both Eastern and Western


       Russian fascination with the East has ancient roots, beginning with the old Russian

‘Alexandrias’ (Romances of Alexander the Great), a cycle of literary works on India, and

descriptions of voyages to the Holy Land, continuing with Oriental themes and motifs in

the classics of the ‘Golden’ (mid-nineteenth century) and ‘Silver’ (fin de siècle) Ages, and

finding a way into works of more recent Soviet times. Even now new interpretations of

Oriental themes can be found in the post-modern Russian art and literature.

       Works of Russian literature, dealing with images of the Ancient East and Palestine,

of the Islamic world (the Arab countries, Persia, Turkey) and India, of China and Japan, are

numerous.1 Oriental motifs are represented in all forms of art and literature. The ‘universal

responsiveness’ of the Russian soul, proclaimed by Fedor Dostoyevsky in his famous

‘Pushkin Speech’, is associated with the greatest virtue of Russian culture—its ability to

deeply feel the essence of other cultures and ‘be reincarnated in them’.

       This chapter concentrates on the ‘Silver Age’ of Russian culture, or the period

between the 1880s and the end of the 1920s and looks particularly at the influx of artistic

motifs from Japan. This period follows the initial years of encounter with Japan as

described in Michiko Ikuta’s chapter, but predates academic studies of Japan and Japanese

culture. During this time images of Japan gradually entered and became ingrained in

Russian art and literature. Thus, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,

Russians came to understand Japan on different levels (high culture/low culture) and in

different genres, forming a bright and expressive, albeit somewhat blurry, picture. That

image was incorporated into classical Russian literature and the writers of the Russian fin

de siècle accepted and transformed that image still further. It thus emerged like a

photograph in various stages of development. Starting from the classical period onwards,

the image of Japan was enriched, not only by works of Western writers and scholars, but

also, as Ikuta has shown, by the personal experience of Russian travellers.

Japonisme in Russia

       Things Japanese (such as chinaware, kimono, fans, lacquer ware, etc.), brought

from Japan to Russia often via Europe, were important in helping to identify the land of

Japan, but also because they contributed to orientalising motifs in Russian art and literature.

These things Japanese become the ‘load of spices’ (as the poet Maximilian Voloshin put it)

needed badly by the Russian artists to create a new poetic language and a new sphere of


    Images of Japan observed throughout the history of Russian literature have certain

recurrent motifs and themes in common handed down by generations of Russian artists.

They form an organic part of the Russian vision of the Orient as a promised land, a paradise

lost, an ‘India of the Spirit’. The ‘archetypal’ motifs of the Orient first emerged in the

works of ancient Russian literature (XY-XYIII cc.) and were later augmented, gradually

becoming more complex. Despite growing military tensions between the two countries,

Japan, in the eyes of many Russian observers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth

century, was a land given up totally to art and artistry. This image of Japan blended easily

with a typically Russian (though of course not confined to Russia) view of the East as a

realm of idyllic and happy people, and was confirmed by contemporary Western (French,

German, American, and, to a lesser degree, British) admiration of Japanese art.

    Following the footsteps of their European colleagues, Russian artists introduced ‘visual

images’ of Japan—fans, dolls, woodblock prints, chinaware, kimono—into their paintings,

illustrations, and other works of art. Sometimes they confused Japanese and Chinese

artefacts, but the fashion for things Japanese turned everything into Japonisme, a term that

was introduced by the French art critic Philippe Burty and defined as ‘the study of art and

genius of Japan’.3     The craze for ‘things Japanese’ in France began in the late 1860s,

especially the unexpected discovery of Hokusai’s Manga posed serious and exciting

challenges for the artists throughout Europe, and through these channels, artists in Russia as


    Japanese trends in painting influenced Russian painters indirectly, via Europe, although

their ‘Japaneseness’ was not always recognized. Russian artists admired the work of

fashionable European graphic artists who were influenced by Japanese woodblock prints.

Mediating artists included Aubrey Beardsley, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Claude Monet,

Edgar Degas, and other so-called impressionist painters. The Japanese influence on these

artists has been analyzed by art historians including Kobayashi Taichiro5 and Siegfried


    Exhibitions of Japanese artists organized by Sergey Kitayev (1864-1927?) in the final

years of the nineteenth and in the early twentieth century became an important step in

placing Russia in direct artistic contact with Japan. He was responsible for giving the

Russian public their first glimpse at the full range of the Japanese artistic tradition. His first

exhibition was held at the Academy of Arts, St. Petersburg (1-5 December 1896); a second

exhibition follows at the History Museum, Moscow (3-23 February 1897); and his final

exhibition took place in 1905 in St. Petersburg, in the midst of the Russo-Japanese war.7

Newspapers reporting on the exhibitions presented a virtual kaleidoscope of contradictory

images, but nonetheless played an important role in shaping Russian understandings of

Japanese art. Aside from exhibitions based on his own extensive collection of Edo period

woodblock prints, Kitayev began what may be called a ‘Japanese exhibition boom’ in

Russia: Japanese prints from the collections of Prince Sergei Shcherbatov and Vladimir

von Meck were exhibited during the winter of 1901–2; a major display of woodblock

prints owned (and offered for sale) by the Japanese art dealer, Hasegawa3 was held in 1905;

and an exhibition of Chinese and Japanese objects of art, industry, and everyday life from

Nikolai Kalabashkin’s collection took place in 1906.

    Compared with French and American collectors of Japanese art, until recently little

was known about Sergei Kitayev. An article published in 1994 by V. G. Voronova (curator

of Japanese art at the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum) was the first study about him and his

passion for Japanese art.8 Kitayev was born in the city of Ryazan in 1864. He graduated

from the Higher Naval School in St. Petersburg. Beginning in the summer of 1885, he

travelled extensively, spending three years and six months in Japan. In 1916 he left Russia

together with his family to undertake medical treatment from some serious illness and in

1918, after the Russian revolution, he settled down in Japan, in Yokohama, where he lived

through the Great Kanto Earthquake, and passed away in Tokyo in 1927.9

    When he returned to Russia from his voyages in 1896, he wrote to Ivan Tsvetayev, the

founder of the Fine Arts Museum in Moscow and President of Russian Academy of the

Arts, proposing to hold an exhibition of Japanese art, noting that he had collected some 250

Japanese paintings, several hundred studies and sketches, and several thousand woodblock

prints. He noted that his collection represented all schools of Japanese graphic art, and

therefore would give the public a good introduction to the essence of Japanese art. The

issue of buying the collection, which Kitayev kept in his house in Petersburg, was

frequently discussed by prominent Russian scholars Sergei Oldenburg, Sergei Yeliseyev

and members of the purchase committee of the Fine Arts Museum in Moscow, but the

tracks of his collection remained lost for a long time to be found only in the beginning of

the 1990s.

3 The name of Hasegawa is impossible to     because it is not mentioned by Scherbatov,
there are no other sourses.

    Kitayev’s exhibitions provoked much interest and he himself contributed to

propagating Japanese art through writing a guidebook to the exhibitions and giving lectures.

According to press accounts, his collection consisted of scrolls, paintings, drawings,

sketches and studies (shitae), engravings, albums, nishikie (colour woodblock prints

heavily decorated), as well as watercolours and photographs made by Kitayev himself. St.

Petersburg and Moscow periodicals gave the exhibitions extensive coverage, becoming a

regular column in some papers. Thus, in 1896, N. A. Alexandrov and a certain ‘Mr. V. F.’

published in the leading papers of the time, Birzhevye Vedomosti and Novoye Vremya,

articles covering the first exhibition of Japanese art. Other newspapers (Moskovskiy Listok,

Syn Otechestva, Moskovskiye Vedomosti, Russkiye Vedomosti) published accounts of the

exhibitions as well. These publications took the lead in interpreting Japanese art, making

comments on different approaches to drawing, use of colour, and other comparisons with

the European tradition. They included information on individual painting schools, for

example, on the school of Hokusai (‘the Japanese Doré’ [Gustave Dore, 1832-83], as he

was called) or on Kawanabe Kyosai and his ‘strange images’.

Japan and the Search for Utopia

An 1896 article in Birzhevye Vedomosti by N. Alexandrov, under the headline of The

Genius of Children (The Japanese Art Exhibition), abounds in expressions such as

‘remarkably   feminine    taste,’   ‘delicate,   slight   features,’   ‘soft   outline,’   ‘strong

impressionability,’ ‘power of expression and subtle observation,’ ‘expressiveness of

movements and their typical nature’.10 According to Alexandrov, these features attested to

the ‘infantile genius’ of the Japanese people. Aside from a common Western yearning for

the natural and nature ‘unspoilt by civilization’ (cf. Gauguin’s life and work on Tahiti),

there also was an echo of theosophy, holding that artistic insight was the attribute of a

‘future race,’ individual representatives of which were sent to live among the ‘old ’.

Accordingly, it was the ‘infantile genius’ of the Japanese that was praised: ‘We are

attracted to the young because we lapse into [second] childhood with old age,’ wrote

Andrey Biely in his Arabesques.11

     Moreover, nostalgia was a dominate reaction to the onslaught of modernity in Europe

and America. Art and architecture favoured the gothic and medieval; the age of the

machine was countered by movements to revive arts and crafts (in Russia, note the

examples of the Abamtsevo12 and Talashkino13 estates). The nostalgic impulse included a

powerful orientalism. The perspicacious Andrey Biely wrote: ‘As soon as Japanese painting

began to sing for the Goncourt brothers, Edouard Manet revived it in his work; then the

works of [Louis – E.D.] Gonse, [Michel –E.D.] Revon, [Michael – E.D.] Tomkinson14 and

others dealing with Japan appeared, while Audrey Beardsley [1872-98] re-created our age

in Japan-inspired works to bring it closer to Watteau’.15 Then follows a transparent analogy

in which yearning for the Japanese melds with a revival of the work of the French artist

Antoine Watteau (1684-1721): ‘A magical land melting into azure turned out to be the

colour range [of the painter]; a land where the sky is one with the ground.’16 Japan was

perceived as a dreamland in which the past is reborn in the future, and the future lives in the

past, thus eliminating the present. Therefore the symbolic Embarquement pour Cythère by

Watteau (incidentally, Watteau was acquainted with Chinese art from the Versailles

collections of Louis XIV) served as a new inspiration for creative work. The regime ancien

was revived as utopia.

Mastering Japanese Techniques

The first work on Japanese engravings appeared in Russia in 1903, one year before the

outbreak of the Russo-Japanese war. That was Japanese Colour Woodblock Prints by Igor

Grabar (1871-1960).17 Mstislav Dobuzhinsky (1875-1967), a friend of Grabar, wrote:

‘Grabar acquainted me with Japanese woodblock prints, of which he has a large and very

fine collection; it was then that the Japanese art “shocked” me for the first time.’18 Another


           I also owe to Grabar my first acquaintance with Japanese art; while in

           Munich, I saw at his [house] woodblock prints by Hokusai, Hiroshige and

           Utamarō. In 1902, a small cheerful Japanese named Hasegawa appeared in

           St. Petersburg. He spoke Russian a little and visited many artists bringing

           excellent Japanese engravings with him, which were easily sold as his

           prices were fairly low. That was three years before the war with Japan, so

           that later many people recalling Hasegawa thought him a spy or some sort

           of officer in the Japanese general staff, perhaps even a general! For my part

           I could not afford spending much money, so I bought a few woodcuts and a

           book by Hokusai titled Manga. I was especially struck by Hiroshige, his

           unexpected composition and the decorative quality of his landscapes. His

           choice of angle and the ‘section of nature’ was a great discovery for me.19

      Dobuzhinsky confessed: ‘I liked to choose a viewpoint of my own so that the

[resultant] composition would be striking, unusual; in that, I had the constant example of

Hiroshige before my eyes.’20

      The Russian ‘World of Art’ movement in the early twentieth century, fascinated by

traditional folk art and the eighteenth century rococo, also expressed an interest in Japan. A

magazine, the Mir Iskusstva (World of Art) founded in 1899 in St. Petersberg, served as the

forum for a group of artists who sought to counter the influence of modern industrial

society on artistic creativity. As one of the cofounders of the movement, Alexandre Benois

wrote in My Reminiscences: ‘... [T]heir [Japanese] marvellous art and their entire delightful

culture are what my friends and I came to like so much in the past few years. Many of us

liked it so much that we sought to acquire a collection of Japanese prints; Hokusai,

Hiroshige, Kunnoshi [Kuniyoshi – E.D.], Utamarō became our favourite figures.’21

    A mutual friend of Dobuzhinsky and Benois, Prince Sergey Shcherbatov (1875—1962),

himself a painter and collector, recalled his initial fascination with Japan:

    The cult of Chinese and Japanese art which, owing to the Goncourt brothers, had

    Paris and the entire West in its grip, had not reached Russia by that time yet

    [1890s – E.D.]… During my stay in Munich, Grabar and I became engrossed in

    collecting Japanese woodblock prints… What wonderful times those were, how

    much youthful enthusiasm and pure joy [we felt] when we managed to acquire a

    marvellous Utamarō, Hiroshige, Hokusai, etc. What masters those were, what

    subtle composition, what taste! I used to spend hours on end in my favourite shop,

    with an amiable Japanese producing from his folders more and more new wonders

    ‘for the connoisseurs’ he had kept hidden. I recall the peculiar exotic smell of that

    fabulous shop, the long moustache of the old Japanese and his mysterious voice as

    he half-whispered in [my] ear, ‘I’ve got something really special for you,’

    producing from his treasury some particularly exquisite woodblock prints. The

    public was

     shown simpler, more vulgar prints.22

       Shcherbatov continued buying woodcuts in Paris and Berlin. A. Benois remembered

him saying: ‘It is only with a poignant feeling that I can recall one of them, a portrait of a

woman against a silver background, displaying the unsurpassed finesse of Utamaro.’23

    Anna P. Ostroumova-Lebedeva (1871-1955) was one of the first Russian painters to

take advantage of Japanese artistic techniques. Under her tutelage, the Russian woodcut

emerged as a distinct type of easel painting in the late nineteenth and twentieth century.

She was a great admirer of the classic Japanese woodblock print and applied what she

learned in her black-and-white and colour views of St. Petersburg, which even today are

among the best known representations of that city. In her autobiography, she described the

impression that the Japanese art exhibition of 1896 made on her:

    I had no knowledge of Japanese art before. I would sit at the exhibition for many

    hours, drawn by the impossible fascination of shapes and colours. The works of art

    were hung on display boards, uncovered by glass, in huge numbers, nearly reaching

    the floor… I was struck by clear-cut realism side by side with stylization and

    generalization, by the world of fantasy and mysticism, … [by] their ability to

    commit transient, momentary phenomena of the surrounding nature to paper.24

    Ostroumova-Lebedeva mastered the lessons of Japanese art in earnest only later, in the

Paris studio of the English painter James Whistler who had been profoundly influenced by

the Japanese art tradition. Her black-and-white ‘winter’ landscapes and views of St.

Petersburg were created under the influence of the Japanese ukiyo-e woodcuts, primarily

Hiroshige. Look, for example, at her Imitation of Hiroshige, a landscape woodblock print

where the Japanese artist’s experience is seen from a different angle.25

    Vadim Falileyev (1879-1950), an artist born in St. Petersburg but later active in Italy,

was one of the first to follow Ostroumova-Lebedeva in using Japanese colour woodblock

techniques. He became interested in woodblock printing in 1905, when he started studying

Italian and Japanese engravings at the Hermitage. ‘Only Japanese woodblock prints taught

me polychrome technique,’26 he wrote. He also examined collections of engravings in

Berlin, Munich and Vienna. In Paris, he studied the department of prints of the

Bibliothèque Nationale. Falileyev also experienced the influence of the ‘World of Art’; his

works are sharply graphic, ornamental and exquisite. He wrote about ‘the visual wonders

of the Orient that were revealed’ to him. He is mostly famous for his dynamic, passionate

engravings showing the river Volga: Wind, Thunderstorm (Veter, Groza, 1905), Raft in the

Rain (Plot vo vremya dozhdya, 1909), The Volga in Flood (Razliv na Volge, 1916), as well

as for his Italian drawings, such as The Wave. Capri (Volna. Kapri,1911). All these and

other works of Falileyev demonstrate Japanese artistic influence as regards composition,

colour saturation, precise expressiveness, and a small number of techniques used. Return to

the Sheksna (Vozvrascheniye na Sheksnu, 1909, Figure 8) betrays the obvious influence of

Japanese woodcut artists, especially Hiroshige, as can be seen in the contrast between the

orange-red sails and the blue-green water. Using a few simple methods, the artist is able to

impart sensations of peace and quiet. The inner kinship of this work, in both its spiritual

content and colour rendering, to the Japanese woodcut is striking.

     Pavel Kuznetsov (1878-1968) is another artist well known for passion for Oriental

motifs, although he was mainly concerned with Central Asia, especially Bukhara and

Turkestan. One remarkable work, however, betrays Japanese influence. His Still Life with

Japanese Woodblock Print (Naturmort s yaponskoi gravyuroi), painted at the end of 1912

and at the beginning of 1913, in the prime of his career, is one of his ‘stand-alone’ works

that was not part of any cycle. To solve the mystery of the presence of a Japanese motif in

Kuznetsov’s work, one has to understand the cultural context in which the still life in

question was painted.27 Having absorbed the poetics and symbolism of colours developed

by the Symbolists (among others, by Andrey Biely), Kuznetsov combined the colour range

of Symbolist poetry with the traditional colour schemata of Central Asian pottery and

architectural décor. In addition, he was caught up in the craze that painters and poets had

for Japanese art. His Still Life with a Japanese Woodblock Print represents both

Kuznetsov’s discovery of Japanese art and his interpretation of it. His choice of Utamaro as

part of his own painting is neither accidental nor whimsical but a sign of the times.

Without imitating Utamaro, he attempted a painted interpretation. Kuznetsov’s path from

Symbolism to the Orient is, in a way, his own version of visual Symbolism. The critic A. A.

Rusakova writes, for instance: ‘Still Life is a case of a twentieth-century artist interpreting

an image that was created long before him, when one culture sought to interpret another.’ 28

At the same time, this researcher described the work as a ‘harmonious spiritual concord of

two different artistic systems.’ She wonders if Kuznetsov intended to simply portray a

woodblock print or Japanese art in its entirety.

     The picture in question is painted in two colours: yellow and blue, i.e., ‘in gold and

azure’, the favourite colour combination of the Symbolists present in all experiments of A.

Biely, A. Blok and V. Bryusov. The origins of this bi-coloured combination are in the

poetry of the Romantics and Symbolists who published their works in the Golden Fleece

(Zolotoye runo) magazine issued during 1906-9; the name of the first Symbolist exhibition

opened on the 18th of March 1907 was ‘Blue Rose’29; the poet Nikolai Gumilev referred to

‘the golden lightning of Romanticism’. The renowned art critic N. S. Nikolayeva compares

Kuznetsov’s Still Life to a woodblock print by Paul Gauguin of the same name, portraying

the head of an actor of the Kabuki theatre, which Kuznetsov probably saw in Paris during a

1906 exhibition.30

    The work of the painter Viktor Borisov-Musatov (1870-1905) earned him, like

Bonnard in France before him, the nickname ‘Japanese’. His work also must be seen as part

of a general enthusiasm for the Japanese woodblock print, a passion imported from

Europe—from Paris in the case of painters and from Munich in the case of graphic artists.

While in Paris, Borisov-Musatov, like everyone else, became immersed in the atmosphere

of the craze for ‘things Japanese’.

    An unexpected Japanese theme can be found in the work of the avant-garde

photographer, Alexander Rodchenko (1891-1956), a close associate of the poet Vladimir

Mayakovsky and the Futurists. His photo compositions, especially those illustrating works

by Mayakovsky, exerted a serious influence on the current view of the world in the early

twentieth century. Completely different from his photos is the picture Woman in Kimono

(Dama v Kimono, 1915), where Rodchenko introduced a Japanese motif and the influence

of the Viennese ‘Sezession’ (especially that of Gustav Klimt) can be seen.

Ivan Bibibin and Georgi Narbut

As we have seen, artists connected with the ‘World of Art’ movement were eager to learn

Japanese artistic techniques, even during the height of war with their Asian neighbour. Two

‘World of Art’ members, Ivan Bibibin (1876-1942) and his disciple, Georgi (Yegor) Narbut

(1886-1920), particularly stand out for their skill in combining Russian and Japanese motifs

to produce creative new trends in Russian art circles. Narbut worked in St. Petersburg, the

cultural centre of Russia, but his work displayed a good knowledge of traditional Ukrainian

arts and crafts. Critics attribute Narbut’s genius to his Ukrainian origin and note that all his

works are full of the Ukrainian elemental force. Having never received a proper artistic

education, he was a naturally gifted artist belonging to an old Ukrainian family that fell into

total decline. Georgi Narbut’s brother, Vladimir, became a St. Petersburg poet of note,

much valued, among others, by Anna Akhmatova.

    Books with illustrations by Narbut are now bibliographical rarities well-known

primarily among specialists. Narbut’s teacher, the renowned painter Ivan Bilibin, wrote

about his pupil: ‘Narbut is a genius of huge, practically immeasurable proportions… I think

him the greatest, the most prominent of Russian graphic artists.’31 From his childhood

Narbut was impressed by old Russian books, especially the Ostromir manuscript of the

Gospels (Ostromirovo Yevangeliye) from which he copied samples of old script. He loved

Russian fairy tales, and could scrutinize flowers, herbs, butterflies and grasshoppers for

hours. Bilibin’s engravings in Mir Iskusstva magazine and his illustrations of fairy-stories

fascinated the young artist with their amazing precision of line and artistic effects derived

from observing naturally occurring colour-and-shade combinations.

     Bilibin’s technique was to Narbut the height of perfection. He was fascinated with

Bilibin’s imagery, which included toadstools, fly agarics, water-lilies, cornflowers,

chamomiles and various herbs drawn with botanical accuracy combined with stylized folk

embroidery-like ornaments. Narbut did not realize then that Bilibin was reflecting the

influence of the world of the Japanese woodblock print, especially works by Hokusai and

Hiroshige. As for Bilibin, he was so captivated by Japanese art during those years that one

of his disciples, R. R. O’Connell-Mikhailovskaya (a student at the School of the Imperial

Society for the Promotion of the Arts where the ‘World of Art’ members, including Bilibin,

were teaching) wrote:

    I.Ya. [Bilibin] often brought engravings or prints to the art school. He showed us

    Japanese woodblock prints by Hiroshige, Utamaro and Hokusai. Among them were

    the views of Mount Fuji by Hokusai, his series of thirty-six and one hundred

    drawings; as a result, that volcanic mountain became as familiar to us as Ayu-Dag

    and Ay-Petri in the Crimea.32

    Bilibin’s fascination with Hokusai manifested itself in his illustrations to the Tale of

Tsar Saltan by A. S. Pushkin (1905, Figure 10,): we see here the transformed Under the

Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa no Namiura) by Hokusai or his other great wave scene

from the series One-hundred Views of Mt. Fuji (Fugaku Hyakkei) modified ‘Russian-style’

to match Pushkin’s poetic lines: ‘Clouds racing in the sky, the tub in waves tossing high…’

Hokusai’s Wave equally held attraction for other Russian artists and architects who used it,

‘quoting’ and modifying its visual idea in their works. Bilibin returned to the wave motif

more than once, for instance, in his picture Sindbad the Seaman (Sindbad morehod, 1932).

Vadim Felileyev was another graphic artist who produced a Russian variation of the

Japanese wave in his pictures mentioned above. Another of the impressive ‘waves’ in

Russian art of the early twentieth century, again inspired by Hokusai, is the marble

sculpture of ‘The Wave’ (1900), made by Fyodor Shekhtel, a Russian architect of the Art

Deco era.

    According to Dobuzhinsky, it was under the influence of Bilibin that Narbut began

studying prototypes, inducing an earnest interest in Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) and

Japanese masters of the woodcut. Bilibin invited Narbut to live in his house and took a

near paternal interest in his work. He recommended him to Nikolai K. Rerikh, then the head

of the School of the Society for the Promotion of the Arts, also an admirer and connoisseur

of old Russian art. Besides, Narbut made friends with M. V. Dobuzhinsky, an expert and

collector of Japanese woodblock prints.

    Narbut abandoned the style of his mentor but adhered to the Russian lubok (popular

print or broadside) technique, absorbing other models as well, including the refined graphic

manner of Audrey Beardsley. He was especially concerned to illustrate childhood

memories and impressions. Here for inspiration he drew heavily on Japanese woodcuts

from Kitayev’s exhibitions and from collections owned by his friends (Bilibin,

Dobuzhinsky, Grabar) or known to him from his study at Munich. A Japanese flavour was

thus added to his earlier commitment to the ‘graphical creatures of nature’ (Narbut’s own

wording), herbs, flowers, butterflies’.

    Narbut’s illustrated tale, Little Tower-Chamber and the Spider (Teremok Mizgir’), is at

once his most ‘Japanese’ work and most devoted to childhood memories.33 The cover

shows an eerie skull—an object used in Ukrainian villages as a protective charm and hung

over the roof of sheds, barns, etc.—framed by horse-tails and butterflies, bees and bumble-

bees rendered with entomological precision. Such a cover was bound to cause a

philosophical mood in the reader, introducing the ‘sinister theme’ so typical of the fin-de-

siècle art. The visual attraction of the skull and cobwebs and the unorthodox composition

were enhanced by the colour fills and flat manner characteristic of Japanese woodcuts.

The composition is magnificent; almost symmetrical, but skilfully animated by artfully

introduced asymmetry. The colour schema of the cover completely imitates the manner of a

woodcut. The onlooker’s viewpoint is that of a mosquito looking at the world around it—

upwards. At the same time, it introduces the haiku world where things lose their

proportions, seemingly getting closer to the observer and becoming larger. Critics wrote

that ‘the tales chosen by Narbut sent his fancy flying to the farm of his childhood where he

discovered a Japan of his own, like an Englishman who beheld it on the banks of the


    Opening this small volume, the reader is immediately presented with a ‘Japanese’

winter landscape with a huge mosquito hovering beneath inspired by Japanese engravings

and looking as if it is taken from the pages of Hokusai’s Manga (which has crabs rendered

in a similar manner) sharing the same page (Figure 11). A critic noted that ‘this landscape

can be regarded as a visual dedication to Japanese artists.’35 The ‘sinister theme’ is also

present in the illustration of a black bear with halberd that resembles the drawings of frogs

in the famous animal cartoons (dobutsu giga) of the very end of Heian epoch and the

beginning of Kamakura period; the ‘Japanese sky’ and the ‘Japanese rain’ are obvious

borrowings from the woodcuts by Hiroshige and Hokusai.

    The same ‘Japanese sky’ and ‘Japanese rain’ can be seen in another book illustrated by

Narbut, The Toys (Igrushki, 1911, Figure 12): a lady carrying an umbrella and leading a

small dog (which looks like a Vyatka toy) walks across a green meadow with gingerbread-

looking houses and church in the background with rain pouring from the thunderclouds in

the sky. The rain motif is set by a line from the song ‘Oh, You Rain, Rain’. We see here an

amazing harmonious combination of the two supposedly opposite styles: the purely Russian

Vyatka lubok and the Japanese woodcut. Indeed, Narbut’s fairy-story drawings derive from

various sources: Russian and Ukrainian popular prints (lubok), German engraving (e.g.

DÜrer), Japanese woodcuts, especially Hokusai and Hiroshige (it is to the woodcut that

Narbut owes the unerring precision of his lines, as if cut by chisel). It is impossible to

overlook the influence of the Secesssion and Art Nouveau movements, as well as that of the

general atmosphere created by the ‘World of Art’, primarily Bilibin. The Japanese ‘strand’

was organically woven into the texture of pictures illustrating Russian fairy stories,

enhancing the general style rather than contradicting it, infusing a new hybridity into the

totality of Russian art.

    This chapter presented a mosaic of pieces which forms a pattern of sorts defining the nation

through a characteristic process of adaptation and localisation of the alien cultures, including

‘things Japanese’. Intrinsic stimuli for the impressive cultural adaptation of Oriental exoticism

during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, called in Russia ‘Serebryaniy vek’ (the Silver

Age), exists deep within the history of Russia and its contacts with Islamic world, India, South East

Asia, China and Japan. In this context it is easy to understand why the Russian poet of the Silver

Age Marina Tsvetayeva, called the capital of Russia ‘Buddhist Moscow’, a perfect metaphor for the

bewildering diversity of the city. This Russian tradition of adaptation and modification of outside

cultural influence is vividly portrayed in the work of Pavel Kuznetsov, especially his Still Life with

Japanese Woodblock Print where, as discussed above, ties between a Russian ‘context’ and

Japanese ‘core’ define the essence of a new artistic reality.

    There are many examples of such cultural hybridity at the end of the nineteenth and the

beginning of the twentieth centuries as we have seen in the illustrations by Bilibin and the creative

works of Narbut. At work here is the persistence of Russian folk elements, the traditional component

of the synthesis between East and West that determines the originality of Russian character and

therefore the humanitarian value of its experience.

       Russian interest in Asia, and Japan in particular, dramatically increased as a result of rising

political, economic, and military friction in the late nineteenth century, reaching a crescendo during

and after the Russia-Japan war of 1904-5. This was a time when naval officers, travellers and

adventurers, missionaries, officials, collectors of exotic objects, and finally artists and poets (for

example, the Symbolist poet Konstantin Balmont travelled to Japan in 1916)happened to be in Japan

because of war or out of their own curiosity. The beginning of the twentieth century also saw the

emergence of Russian academic works on Japan, including grammars, dictionaries, and translations

from Japanese literature (many translated from French, German and English). Japanese art, religion

(especially Buddhism) and literature became objects of serious study. Names such as Nikolai Konrad,

Nikolai Nevskiy, Evgenii Polivanov, and Anna Gluskina, were first representatives of an emerging

academic tradition, based largely on a philological approach. Japan, thus, remained an enigma beset

by multiple images and modes of understanding. Alongside the real politic of diplomacy and war,

and the cold eyes of the scholar, eager to apply academic tools to an understanding of ‘things

Japanese’, artists were hard at work to establish a romantic and symbolist vision of Japan as fairy-

tale, as dreamland, as a utopia of cultural creativity—a vision that has endured in the Russian psyche

to the present day.

1   A collection of works inspired by the East has recently been published. See Vostochnyye

motivy: Stikhotvoreniya i poemy (Oriental Motifs: Verses and Poems), P.A.Grintser (ed.),

compiled by L.Ye.Cherkassky and V.S.Muravyev, (Moskwa: Nauka, 1985). For an

extensive bibliography see: P.I. Tartakovsky, Russkaya poeziya i Vostok, 1800-1950; Opyt

bibliographii (Russian Poetry and the East, 1800-1950; A Bibliography), (Moskwa: Nauka,

2    Maximilian Voloshin (1877-1932) was a poet and artist influenced by the Parnassian

School and French symbolists, as well as the Japanese art. He settled in Koktebel, in

Crimea, where his house became the pivot of intellectual life, attracting many artistic

personalities of the ‘Silver Age’. His house is now the only surviving house of the ‘Silver

Age’ in Russia.
3    Ayako Ono, Japonisme in Britain. Whistler, Menpes, Henry, Hornel and Nineteenth

Century Japan, (London, New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003), p. 1.
4 N.        S. Nikolayeva, Yaponiya—Yevropa. Dialog v Iskusstv, seredina XVI—nachalo XIX v.

(Japan—Europe. Dialogue in Art, from the Middle of he 16th Century Till the Beginning

of the 19th Century), (Moskwa: Izobrazitelnoye iskusstvo, 1996), p. 370; on perception of

Hokusai in France see: Shigemi Inaga, ‘The Making of Hokusai’s Reputation in the

Context of Japonisme’, Japan Review. Journal of the International Research Center for

Japanese Studies, no, 15, 2003, pp. 77-100.
5    Taichiro Kobayashi, Hokusai to Doga (Hokusai and Degas), (Osaka: Zenkoku Shobou,

6   Siegfried Wichmann, Japonisme: The Japanese Influence on Western Art in the 19th and

20th Centuries, (New York: Harmony Books, 1980).
7   V. G. Voronova, ‘Sergei Nikolayevich Kitayev i yego yaponskaya kollektsiya’ (Sergei

Nikolaevich Kitayev and His Japanese Collection), in: Chastnoye kollektsionirovaniye v

Rossii: materialy konferentsii ‘Vipperovskiye chteniya’ (Private Collection in Russia,

Materials of the Conference ‘Vypperovsky Readings’), 1994, Issue 27, pp. 160–165.
8   Ibid.
9   Katsu Ishigaki, ‘Sergei Kitayev and His Second Motherland Japan’, in Mitsuo Naganawa

and Kazuhiko Sawada, Ikyo-ni ikiru. Rainiti roshiajin-no sokuseki (Living in a Foreign

Country. Footprints of Russians in Japan), Yokohama: Seibunsha, 2001, pp.105-120.
10    N. Alexandrov, ‘Genial’nye deti [Yaponskaya khudozhestvennaya vystavka]’ (The

Genius of Children [The Japanese Art Exhibition]), Birzhevye Vedomosti, December 15/17,

1896, no. 346, p.3.

11   Andrey Bely, Arabeski (Arabesque), Moscow: Musaget, 1911, p. 62.
12   Abramtsevo is one of the most beautiful Russian country-side estates with out-buildings

and park founded in the middle of the 18th century. From 1843 it belonged to a prominent

Russian writer Sergei Aksakov, ‘the singer of the beauty of Russian province’. Aksakov

was one of the most educated men of his time, many well-known writers, artists and critics

came to Abramtsevo, which flourished for many years. In 1878 Abramtsevo Artistic Circle

was founded; the members of the circle – artists, actors, composers, architects, designers,

artisans etc. created what was called the New Russian Style in arts and craft.
13   Talashkino is the name of a village not far from Smolensk city in the central part of

Russia. It consisted of an old country house with a big park, which belonged to the artist

and collector M.K.Tenisheva. She has founded an artistic manufactory where objects of

everyday life, such as embroidery, pottery, ceramics, furniture, etc. were produced. The

tradition of Russian art was combined with the principles of Art Deco. Many artists,

sculptors, composers, Paolo Trubetskoy and Igor Stravinsky among them, often visited

14   Lous Gonse (1846-1921) – prominent collector and art critic, author of L’Art Japonais

(1883); Michel Revon is known for his Etude sur Hokusai published in 1896; Michael

Tomkinson (1841-1921) – entrepreneur and art collector, author of A Japanese Collection,

2 Volumes, 1898.
15   Andrey Biely, Arabeski, p. 52.
16   Ibid., p.53.
17   Igor Grabar, Yaponskaya tsvetnaya gravyura na dereve (Japanese Colour Woodblock

Prints), Moscow, 1903.
18   Igor Grabar, Yaponskaya tsvetnaya gravyura na derive, p.27.
19   M.V. Dobuzhinsky, Vospominaniya (Reminiscences). Moscow, 1987, p. 164.

20   M.V. Dobuzhinsky, Vospominaniya, p. 192.
21   A. Benoit, Moi Vospominaniya (My Reminiscences), Moscow, 1990, p. 369.
22   The words by Shcherbatov are recalled by Alexander Benois, in A. Benois, Moi

Vospominaniya, p. 269.
23   A. Benois, Moi Vospominaniya, p. 370.
24   A. P. Ostroumova-Lebedeva, Avtobiograficheskiye zapiski (Autobiographical Notes),

1900—1916, Leningrad and Moscow, 1945, pp. 38, 39.
25   Grafika O.P. Ostroumovoi-Lebedevoi (Graphic Works of A.P. Ostroumova-Lebedeva,

Engravings and Watercolors), Compiled by M.F.Kiselyov, Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1984, p.67.
26   V. D. Falileev, Ofort i Gravyura Reztsom (Etchings and Engravings by Chisel), Moskwa

and Leningrad, 1925.
27   Ye. L’vova, ‘Natyurmort s Yaponskoy Gravyuroy’ Pavla Kuznetsova’ (Still Life with

Japanese Woodcut by Pavel Kuznetsov), Voprosy iskusstvovedeniya, 2-3, 1993, pp. 87–95.
28   A. A. Rusakova, Pavel Kuznetsov, Leningrad, 1977, p. 159.
29   The exhibition ‘Blue rose’ was sponsored by a patron of literature and art Fiodor

Ryabushinski. Prominent artists like Kazemir Malevich, Natalia Goncharova, Mikhail

Larionov have participated in this famous exhibition, which was held in the house of

Russian chinaware factory-owner Kuznetsov.
30   N. S. Nikolayeva, Yaponiya— Yevropa. Dialog v Iskusstve, p. 370.
31   See: P. Beletsky, Georgi Ivanovich Narbut, (Leningrad: Iskusstvo, 1985), p. 31.
32   Quoted in: G. V. Golynets and S. V. Golynets, Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin, Moscow, 1972,

p. 68.
33   See: P. Beletski, Grigori Ivanovich Narbut, p. 30.
34   P. Beletsky, Grigori Ivanovich Narbut, p. 32.
35   Ibid., p. 31.


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