Mon, Jun 28, 2021

Japanese art according to Sophie Richard: Inspirational power of Japanese art

From the “Charlotte Perriand et le Japon” exhibition at the Modern Museum of Art, Kamakura, in 2011-12

Japanese art and design have been a powerful and abiding source of inspiration to Western creators. From the second half of the 19th century, when a fashion for everything Japanese swept over Europe, to today, Japanese art has undoubtedly been a rich source of inspiration to countless artists in the West.

A myriad of European and American artists have been drawn to Japanese aesthetics and responded to their exposure to it in innumerable ways. Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, James Abbott McNeill Whistler (who all collected Japanese prints), Emile Gallé, the Nabis, are well-known for the influence Japanese art had on them. But there are also the Pre-Raphaelites, Scandinavian artists such as Edvard Munch …. In fact, I cannot count the times when, while looking at a range of artists or researching an unrelated subject, the influence of Japanese art comes up.

Eileen Gray’s interest in Japanese lacquerware

Recently, I was thinking about two female designers whose careers were touched by Japan, each in different ways. One never visited the country, yet her output was markedly influenced by it, while the other spent a period working there. Born a generation apart, Eileen Gray (1878-1976) and Charlotte Perriand (1903-99) were two pioneers.

Eileen Gray was Irish, trained as an artist in London and Paris, and is renowned for her work as a furniture and interior designer and as an architect. She died in Paris in 1976. It is there that, in the early years of the 20th century, she learned cabinet making and, remarkably, lacquer work, with a Japanese craftsman. 

Japanese lacquerware had been admired by Europeans since it was initially imported in the late 16th century and Japan’s reopening to western trade from the middle of the 19th century meant more objects in the medium entered the art market and museum collections. Gray developed an interest for lacquerware and, intent on mastering the technique, she met with in 1906, Seizo Sugawara (1884-1937), a Japanese craftsman recently arrived in Paris. Sugawara taught her the demanding process associated with Japanese lacquer and she went on to collaborate with him for decades; the two shared a workshop for a long time.

Attracted by the lustrous surface of lacquer, Gray experimented with materials, colours and finishes. She imported materials from Japan and employed Japanese craftsmen who, like Sugawara, were living in Paris. Gray successfully established herself as a leading designer and among other works she produced pieces in lacquer: small objects, furniture and notably the lacquered screens so in vogue during the Art Deco period.

For nearly twenty-five years, she kept a notebook recording her experiences, recipes and assiduousness with the task (her lacquer notebook is now in the archives of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London). ‘Lacquer always fascinated me,’ Gray declared in the film ‘Aquarius – Lacquer Lust: Eileen Gray’ (1975). 

From the “Charlotte Perriand et le Japon” exhibition at the Modern Museum of Art, Kamakura, in 2011-12
Charlotte Perriand reinvents furniture

Charlotte Perriand studied decorative arts in Paris, where she was born. Her interest for modern materials and technology resulted in her entering the studio of Le Corbusier, as a student of architecture and an associate in charge of interior equipment. There she forged relationships with Japanese colleagues, which lead to her being invited by the Japanese Ministry of Commerce and Industry to advise on design and industrial arts. Arriving in Japan in 1940, she would end up staying for two years in the country and this experience profoundly influenced her designs. In turn, she would transmit her practical sensibility to Sori Yanagi (1915-2011), who had been appointed her official guide for the programme of visits to craft centres and artisans she embarked on all around Japan. After having visited the Katsura Imperial Villa outside Kyoto, which left her enchanted, she said that it was ‘a complete agreement between architecture, humanized nature and man, a perfect projection of interior and exterior architecture.’

From the “Charlotte Perriand et le Japon” exhibition at the Modern Museum of Art, Kamakura, in 2011-12

Perriand reinvented pieces of furniture she had worked on previously, upon discovering the technical properties of local materials. Bamboo, for example, delighted her thanks to its elasticity and its resistance and she translated the tubular steel chaise-longue designed by Le Corbusier, herself and Pierre Jeanneret in Paris in the late 1920s into bamboo strips on a wooden base. In response to what she saw in Japan, she devised practical proposals for new designs that made use of traditional local knowledge; this resulted in an exhibition held in 1941 at the Takashimaya department store in Tokyo and Osaka, titled ‘Tradition, Selection, Creation.’

From the “Charlotte Perriand et le Japon” exhibition at the Modern Museum of Art, Kamakura, in 2011-12

Perriand was impressed by the flexible use of space in Japanese interiors, as well as the intimate relationship between the inside and the outside. In her post-war work she will continue to make references to Japan, for example in her own chalet in the French Alps where the organisation of the internal space and the sliding features of doors and storage elements are inspired by Japanese design. Her iconic modular bookshelf ‘Nuage’ (French for cloud) derives from what she had observed and admired in imperial villas in Japan years before, in particular the asymmetrical arrangement of ‘shelves resting like clouds.’ A great traveler and an indefatigable worker, Perriand returned to Japan in the late 1950s.

From the “Charlotte Perriand et le Japon” exhibition at the Modern Museum of Art, Kamakura, in 2011-12

Today, Eileen Gray and Charlotte Perriand are the two best-known women of Modernist design. Hugely creative throughout their lives, they produced work that was in their time considered bold and original — even today, their creations appear remarkably modern. I like the fact that they also share the trait of having been deeply inspired by Japan.



Art Historian


Born in Provence and educated at the Ecole du Louvre and at the Sorbonne in Paris, Sophie worked in the art world in New York before moving to London where she now resides. She has been a regular visitor to Japan for the last 15 years. Passionate about Japanese arts and culture, she set out to explore the country’s many museums. In the course of her research she has visited close to 200 venues across the country. Her articles on Japanese museums have appeared in the United Kingdom, the United States and Japan. Her first book on the subject was published in 2014 and then translated into Japanese. Her new book “The art lover’s guide to Japanese museums” was published in July 2019. In 2015, Sophie received the Commissioner’s Award from the Agency of Cultural Affairs in Tokyo, in recognition for her work in bringing Japanese culture to a wider audience. (Photo©Frederic Aranda)



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