Floating Worlds: Klimt X Japan

Discover how Japanese ukiyo-e inspired Klimt’s late, great works, and his personal style

By Google Arts & Culture

冨嶽三十六景 山下白雨|Storm below Mount Fuji (Sanka no haku u), from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku sanjūrokkei) (ca. 1830–32) by Katsushika HokusaiThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Snow-capped mountains...

   

Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji: The Great Wave off Kanagawa (1830/1832) by Katsushika HokusaiTokyo Fuji Art Museum

Great waves...

     

Animals in the Flower garden (Right-hand screen) (late 18th century) by ITO JakuchuShizuoka Prefectural Museum of Art

Flora and fauna...

    

Geese descending on the koto bridges ( Kotoji rakugan) from the set 'Eight fashionable parlour views (Furyu zashiki hakkei)' (c.1768-70) by Suzuki HARUNOBUArt Gallery of South Australia

...and a healthy dose of debauchery.

     

Utagawa Hiroshige, 'Suidō Bridge and Surugadai' (Suidōbashi Surugadai), a colour woodblock print (1857/1857)British Museum

The Japanese art of the ukiyo-e period has become known worldwide for its color, its rich symbolism, and its depiction of scenes ranging from the profane to the seemingly sacred. 

This patterning of the sensual and the spiritual was a great influence on Gustav Klimt’s later paintings in Vienna.

    

Woman in Kimono, left shoulder bare (1917 - 1918) by Gustav KlimtMuseum of Fine Arts, Boston

Always a man of contradictions, Klimt was at once the most quintessentially Austrian of Viennese secession artists, and also the most prominent practitioner of ‘Japonisme’, the craze for Japanese styles and aesthetics which swept through late 19th-Century Europe.

Klimt was so absorbed by East Asian styles that, according to his friend Kijiro Ohta, he took to wearing “an indigo-blue gown resembling a kimono”. Kimonos and eastern-style clothing began to appear in his work.

Print (ca. 1900) by Itō JakuchūThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

‘Japonisme’ was kickstarted by the 1873 World Fair in Vienna. After the 1868 Meiji Restoration, an important political shift in Japanese history, the country was keen to build cultural and economic bridges with the West. 

Art historian, Svitlana Shiells, singles out Itō Jakuchū’s print, Golden Pheasant and Bamboo in Snow, on show at the 1873 fair in Vienna, as a direct influence on Klimt’s late portraits, particularly his Portrait of Sonja Knips (1898). 

The print’s contrast of darkness with explosive color…

...and the diagonal lines of its composition...

    

Adam and Eve (1917/1918) by Gustav KlimtBelvedere

...can be traced in Klimt’s portraits post-1873.

Adam and Eve are here reimagined as sensual human figures in a dark and unsure world. 

   

The Courtesan Ichikawa of the Matsuba Establishment (Late 1790s) by Kitagawa Utamaro (Japanese, b.1754, d.1806)Cincinnati Art Museum

Jakuchū’s prints are an example of the ukiyo-e school of woodblock printing which began in 17th century Edo (modern-day Tokyo). Ukiyo-e translates as “pictures of the floating world”. 

This is maybe not as transcendent as it sounds. The term describes the hedonistic, bohemian lifestyle - full of pleasure districts, courtesans, and erotic theatres - which flourished in Edo from the 17th to the 19th century. 

Print (ca. 1765–70) by Suzuki HarunobuThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

The school owes its vibrant color to Suzuki Harunobu. His picture calendar of 1765 was the first colored woodblock printing.

His use of color to communicate moods such as the red of passion in this scene of lovers reluctantly parting...

Print (1725/1770) by Suzuki HarunobuThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

...or the white of purity in this pastoral scene...

Seated Young Girl (1894) by Gustav KlimtLeopold Museum

...can be seen in Klimt’s post-1873 palette.

In this 1894 portrait, the young girl’s white dress communicates her innocence.

While the deep reds of the background and the chair’s arm surround her...

Possibly symbolizing the dark passions of her impending adulthood.

      

Print (ca. 1767) by Suzuki HarunobuThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Harunobu’s use of fabrics and patterns to blend the bodies of lovers into one another... 

    

Jong stel met brief (1765/1770) by Suzuki HarunobuRijksmuseum

...and the posture of his figures…

      

The Kiss (1908-1909) by Gustav KlimtBelvedere

...made their way into Klimt’s most famous work.

The Kiss (1907) synthesizes many ukiyo-e traits with Klimt’s own signature European fin de siècle (“end of the century”) style. 

    

Wien 13, Feldmühlgasse 11 (1918) by Moriz NährAustrian National Library

Klimt’s obsession with the far-east became well-known in Vienna, developing into part of his life as well as his art. It’s difficult to trace this, as there are no written catalogues of his personal collections.

But in an article published soon after Klimt’s death, a young Egon Schiele wrote that his friend and teacher’s sitting room had “a large number of Japanese prints covering the walls”. 

Costume Party with Gustav Klimt (1916) by AnonymousMAK – Museum of Applied Arts

Schiele also notes that Klimt’s home had “another room whose wall was entirely covered by a huge wardrobe, which held his marvelous collection of Chinese and Japanese robes”.

Death and Life (1910/15) by Gustav KlimtLeopold Museum

In 1892, Klimt lost both his father and his beloved brother, Ernst, who died within months of one another. From this point forward, his art became darker and more emotionally complex. 

The influence of Japanese art helped him express many things, from playful erotic energy, to the nostalgia and progress of turn-of-the-century Europe, to his own personal grief and fear of mortality.

Gustav Klimt with his cat in front of his studio in the Josefstädter Straße 21 in Vienna (1911) by Moriz NährBelvedere

Through studying and learning from ukiyo-e, Klimt was able to paint his own many floating worlds.

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