Sèvres & Japonism
Frieze Masters, October 2018
‘If we study Japanese art, then we see a man, undoubtedly wise and a philosopher and intelligent, who spends his time - on what? - studying the distance from the earth to the moon?.... No, he studies a single blade of grass. But this blade of grass leads him to draw all the plants – then the seasons, the broad features of the landscape, finally animals, and then the human figure. He spends his life like that, and life is too short to do everything. Just think of that; isn’t it almost a new religion that these Japanese teach us, who are so simple and live in nature as if they themselves were flowers?’ — Vincent van Gogh writing to Theo, September 1888.
The influence of Japanese prints, paintings, decorative art, and indeed the (half-imagined) Japanese way of living, on the Impressionist and Modern Art movements is well documented. Japan was the central aesthetic bedrock – new and exotic – upon which Impressionism and its satellite movements were built. 1858 saw the beginning of diplomatic relations between France and Japan, and this hitherto closed country began to open up. Van Gogh, Monet, Whistler, Manet, Redon, Ensor, and many others were transfixed, and what they saw and collected transformed and inspired their work. This craze for Japan was reflected on teapots and vases, in the fabric of women's dresses, and in the way people arranged flowers.
The collection at Frieze Masters 2018, which totalled over forty pieces, told the story of Japonism in microcosm, and how it played out over thirty years at a single factory. Many of the ceramics took a Japanese glaze, shape or motif and reworked it with techniques and a style that is typical of Sèvres. Neither Japanese nor French they were Japanesque – distilling an imagined East. According to Eric Gasquet, whose counsel and knowledge helped shape this collection, ‘Manufacture Nationale de Sèvres for the first part of the nineteenth century devoted itself to the neo-classical style and after the splendour of the Second Empire (1852-70), went through an existential crisis.’ For him, ‘the meeting with Far Eastern arts and more specifically with the arts of Japan, allowed it to reinvent itself’.