The recent exhibition at the Várkert Bazár (the “Castle Garden Bazaar”) in Budapest was the first of its kind that provides an insight into the paintings, drawings and illustrations of the Hungarian masters of Japonisme, side by side with ceramics, kimonos, lacquer boxes, and even some items illustrating premieres of plays involving Japanese subjects in Hungary. The visitor could also get a glimpse of the remarkable contribution offered by Hungarian collectors and researchers of oriental art. The works on display included a number of masterpieces from the oriental exhibitions that followed one another in quick succession in the early 20th century and are now predominantly held by the Ferenc Hopp Museum of Asiatic Arts, the Museum of Applied Arts, the Museum of Fine Arts – Hungarian National Gallery, the Janus Pannonius Museum in Pécs, and in private collections. The paintings, drawings, objects and photographs featured by the exhibition had been gleaned from no fewer than twenty-four museums. The exhibition – curated by Dr Györgyi Fajcsák, Dr Katalin Gellér and Mirjam Dénes – came with an impressive and comprehensive hardcover book, an annotated catalogue, courtesy of Péter Fertőszögi and Gábor Marosvölgyi of the Kovács Gábor Art Foundation.


The allure of the East, the inspiration of oriental art have been manifest and palpable in European art for centuries. Romanticism even engendered a new genre known as orientalist painting, the proponents of which were fond of depicting oriental landscapes, lifestyles, clothing, and customs. In Hungary, the nation’s sense of its roots in the East intensified the fascination and exerted powerful influence on researchers and collectors.

From the second half of the 19th century, Japan came into the focus of international interest. As the centuries-long era of military rule known as the Shogunate (1603–1868) came to an end, the hitherto isolated and unapproachable Japan, to which only the Dutch East India Company had been able to gain access, suddenly opened up itself to the world. After cracks had appeared in the blockade starting from the 1850s, the Empire of the Meiji period (1868–1912) flung its gates open to embrace free relations in all fields of life, including the arts. Bilateral agreements of cooperation and trade with the United States and European countries, including the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in 1869, were quick to follow, the latter enabling several Hungarian scholars and collectors, such as János Xantus, to travel to this remote land. At that point, Japanese art began to assert its influence in Western Europe and, with a bit of lag, in Central Europe, in all fields of life and art – and continues to do so to this day.

Initially, Japan’s attraction was confined to the exotic, particularly to its decorative motifs, as is evident in the works of Hungarian orientalist painters exemplified by Gyula Tornai. In 1909, concurrently with an exhibition of Japanese woodblock prints, Tornai showed his works painted in Japan and in India in Hungary and in several metropolitan cities around the world.

Previously, certain elements of orientalism and Japonisme had been alloyed in creative ways by Bertalan Székely in his masterpiece Japanese Woman (1871).* Székely may well have seen the Hungarian National Museum’s exhibition of objects collected during the expedition of János Xantus. The painting treats the Romantic subject of the odalisque. Following the trend of the times, the female figure is obviously a European woman, as is the case in paintings by the Austrian Hans Makart or the Croatian Vlaho Bukovac. Székely placed his woman in a Japanese setting and surrounded her with Japanese objects. Beyond simply depicting Japanese objects, Székely subtly incorporates in his overall style and compositional form several topoi of Japanese art, such as decorative cloud motifs and waterworld themes (reeds, water fowl) in the background. Although Székely painted the figure and the blooming shrub to the right according to European convention, his approach to the background must have created unease in the contemporary viewer due to its departure from the traditional European representation of spatial perspective. The decorative natural motifs suggest familiarity with Japanese woodblock prints. This assumption is surely borne out by the sketches and watercolours found in the artist’s estate, most of which hark back to the works of well-known ukiyo-e masters. One sketch is clearly based on Hokusai’s Manga. Conceivably, the artist placed a folding screen in the background, much as James Abbott McNeill Whistler did in his Rose and Silver: The Princess from the Land of Porcelain (1863–1864).

The European discovery of Japanese woodblock ushered in more than just a fad of colourful accessories and furnishings or the imitation of decorative motifs:by encouraging innovations in the formal language art, it became a major force behind the wholesale revitalisation of painting in the second half of the 19th century. In France, reports on the intriguing beauty of Japanese began to emerge from the mid-1850s, first and foremost in the letters and writings of Félix Bracquemond and the Goncourt brothers. In 1872 the critic Philippe Burt coined the term “Japonisme” to denote the increasingly influential vogue of things Japanese in art, and it quickly caught on among painters seeking to break out of the outdated academism, who saw their pursuits vindicated by Japanese woodblock prints.

Regarded an art form of inferior rank in its native country, the woodblock prints typically depicting the ukiyo-e or “floating world” of urban scenes, courtesans of the pleasure districts and actors mainly exerted their influence on the impressionists through their novel harmony of forms and colours. Considered more important than the theme itself, the combination of line and colour in ukiyo-e was perfectly compatible with the attitude and refined taste of the l’art pour l’art. These woodblock prints reconfirmed the European artists in their efforts to oppose the conventions of composition and colour treatment, representation defined by modelling, tonality, shading and central perspective, and the illusionism that had prevailed in European art since the Renaissance. It was under the influence of Japanese art that painters began to section their figures, emphasise surface, experiment with multiple simultaneous perspectives, and employ the so-called V-effect, the widening gap between receding lines. In the two-dimensional pictures, the figures are positioned without any steadfast rules, often one above the other, in a space delimited by a high horizon.

Apart from the unmixed, pure colours, unshaded colour planes, strong contour lines and the stylisation of natural forms that characterise Japanese woodblock prints, the greatest influence came from Japan’s sophisticated craft industries, best observed in ceramics and smaller articles for personal use such as the tsuba (the hand guard between the hilt and the blade of a sword) or the inro (an ornamental box, suspended from a girdle, with compartments for various small items such as medicines). A book written by one of the prominent Hungarian travellers, Count Ágost Zichy, in 1879 with the title Tanulmány a japáni művészetről. Építészet, szobrászat, festészet (“A Study of Art in Japan: Architecture, Sculpture, Painting”) already anticipated issues relevant to the renewal of the fine and applied arts around the turn of the century. Zichy emphasised that Japanese crafts served real- life purposes and affected all groups of society. Indeed, we have every reason to believe that the Art Nouveau would have taken a different direction without the influence of Japanese art.

Even though a comparatively populous fan base and group of collectors focusing on oriental art had formed during the 1870s and 1880s, it was not until 1908 and 1910 that Japanese woodblock prints were first exhibited in an appreciable number, in the Museum of Fine Arts of Budapest. The prints were collected by the honorary bishop Péter Vay on commission by the state. One of the best-known collectors, Ferenc Hopp (1833–1919), an optician, manufacturer of school supplies and avid oriental traveller, hoarded more than two thousand objects from Japan alone in his villa on Andrássy Avenue. In 1919, this private collection became the pillar of the newly founded eponymous institution, the Ferenc Hopp Museum of Asiatic Arts. Other major ethnographic and art collections sprang up in cities throughout the former Hungary as well.

In Hungarian painting and drawing, Japonisme gained wider currency from the turn of the century, and culminated around 1910. On the one hand, Hungarian artists studying in Paris in increasing numbers starting from the 1890s discovered the beauty and raging fashion of Japanese prints; on the other hand, domestic and international exhibitions provided access to the works of masters who painted in the Japoniste vein. Rippl-Rónai played a pioneering role in propagating the appreciation of Japanese and Chinese art. In 1900, at his first public exhibition in Hungary, hosted by the Hotel Royal, he showed his collection of Japanese and Chinese drawings alongside with his own works, a strategy invented by Vincent van Gogh for his exhibition at the Café du Tambourin in 1887. Rippl-Rónai relied on Japanese and Chinese drawing to validate his own efforts and help sway the puzzled general reception of both in his favour. In 1910, he was also the one who opened the exhibition featuring the collections of Lajos Kozma, architect and designer, and Miklós Vitéz, journalist and writer, in Kaposvár. The following year, the Művészház (House of Art) put on its Oriental exhibition, again based on the collections of Kozma and Vitéz, this time augmented by works lent by József Brummer, sculptor and art dealer. Although the works and objects on display included miniatures from China, Korea, Persia, Indo-Persia and, hinting at the impending avant-garde, even objects from Africa, the largest number of works shown came from Japan.

Without a doubt, the first Hungarian Japoniste was József Rippl-Rónai, who spent many years in Paris. The shift in the style of his painting in the 1890s cannot be separated from the influence of the French artistic milieu and the discovery of Japanese art. At first, Rippl-Rónai took note of Whistler, at the peak of his career in Paris at the time, and the Japoniste painters of the French Art Nouveau, Les Nabi. Perhaps the Japoniste stimulus is most manifest in his Slender Woman with Vase (1894). Modelled by the paintress Hélène Le Roy d’Étiolles, the delicate, ethereal female figure as she reaches upwards, the flattened silhouette of the body, might well have been directly inspired by Japanese woodblock prints.

Like many of his contemporaries, Rippl-Rónai decorated his home with Japanese works. A favourite recurring motif of his interiors was the “intense blue Japanese vase”. In his works in general, the emphasis on the graphic component and the subdued colours both attest to the artist’s affiliation with the Art Nouveau and Japonisme. Speaking of his “artistic kinship” in his Memoirs, Rippl-Rónai mentions Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh, the latter of whom was particularly fascinated by the art of Japan. “The three of us shared the same fondness for the Chinese, the Persians, the Egyptians, the Greek, Giotto, Masaccio, Fra Angelico and Orcagna, along with the Japanese”, he wrote.

Rippl-Rónai’s Les Vierges (1895), an album of coloured lithographs, was commissioned by Siegfried Bing, the preeminent collector and proponent of Japonisme, founder of the Art Nouveau Gallery. From the intensely stylised figures of women walking about and picking fruit to the technique of printing only one side of each page then folding the sheets together, the work is closely modelled on books of Japanese woodblock prints.

The intricate interplay and diverse provenance of influences can be seen in elongated works such as Girl with Cage (1892) and its embroidered counterpart, Lady in Red (1898). The graceful artifice of the female figures, the elegantly curved posture are both reminiscent of the Pre-Raphaelites and Japanese masters. The motifs of the fence and the foliage of the drooping, heavily stylised chestnut tree of Lady in Red crop up frequently in works around the turn of the century, while the decorative shaping of the flattened leaves recall the Japanese-inflected ornamental motifs of Eugène Grasset, Maurice Pillard Verneuil and especially Henri Rivière, whose Thirty-Six Views of the Eiffel Tower was inspired by Hokusai’s similarly titled series depicting Mount Fuji. The embroidery Lady in Red once adorned the main wall of the Andrássys’ dining room. Along with the furnishings, also designed by Rippl-Rónai, in terms of its significance and stature in Hungarian art, it can only be compared to Whistler’s Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room (1876–1877).

The same bird makes an appearance in István Csók’s Company of Revellers with Peacock (1916) and Women with Peacock (1917). The scissors-like widening of perspective and the asymmetrical composition employed here were probably observed by the artist in Japanese woodblock prints. An ardent collector of Chinese furniture and Japanese woodblock prints, Csók must have seen the pavilion which Alfons Mucha designed for Georges Fouquet in Paris, which has a Japoniste peacock ornament presented from a similar perspective. Equally important was the influence of the mushrooming collections in Hungary, both private and public. The director of the Budapest Museum of Applied Arts, Jenő Radics, purchased for the museum at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900 a number of outstanding French works, as well as ten Japanese objects including vases, statuettes and a folding screen. One of the highlights of the acquisition was the silver medal-winning Peacock, a coloured ink on silk, by Araki Kampo (1831–1915), which may have served as a source for the aforementioned Csók works.

A characteristic feature of Japanese woodblock prints, that of highlighting a single stylised and ornamental flower or animal, can be detected in a number of Hungarian paintings from the period, from Pál Szinyei Merse’s Apple-Blossom (1894) to Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka’s Heron (circa 1893). Several of the exhibited Hungarian works incorporate a “picture within the picture”, a compositional motif revitalised by Édouard Manet in his Portrait of Émile Zola (1868). Among other things, a Japanese scroll is visible in the background, just as Vincent van Gogh placed Japanese prints in the background of his self-portrait from 1888 as well as on the two occasions he painted Père Tanguy. Needless to say, the Japanese masters themselves often resorted to this type of picture, which can also be found in István Zádor’s portraits of his wife, Sándor Nagy’s Self-Portrait in Fur Cap, and in still lifes by Pál Jávor and Gyula Kosztolányi Kann. Interestingly, the woodblock print in the background of Jávor’s Still-Life can be viewed in the original at the exhibition. Presumably, Zádor was influenced by Whistler’s portrait of his mother, while the others probably drew on van Gogh. Each artist developed his theme as befit his intentions. The Japanese prints so often featured in the background must be seen as a tribute to them as sources of inspiration. For these Hungarian artists, they were part and parcel of modern art, which they typically discovered simultaneously with, or through the mediation of, the Art Nouveau, post-impressionist artists and the works of Cézanne.

Because in Hungary around this time the various style influences made themselves felt almost simultaneously, in the works of Hungarian Japonistes the direct impact of the original model often overlapped with its indirect manifestations as filtered through the great masters of impressionism and the Art Nouveau. A case in point is Ödön Márffy’s Woman with Cat (circa 1906), with its sedge motif and Japanese fan in the background, where the choice of theme also suggests inspiration by the French impressionists, in particular Manet, who were among the first to discover the unique beauty of Japanese art.

József Egry’s Land with Trees (1913) – a landscape somewhat out of kilter with the artist’s usual idiom, built around the sparing use of only two colours, the relief-like emphasis on the trees, and the ornamental arrangement of the clouds and the grooves – could hardly have become what it is without familiarity with Japanese woodblock prints. Ervin Plány’s Flower Garden (1910) brings to mind the intense contours and saturation with light of van Gogh’s renditions of the orchards at Arles. The painting section of the exhibit ends with János Thorma’s In the Field (1927), depicting a woman wearing a kimono as she walks away from the vantage point across a flowery meadow. Perhaps it is not an exaggeration to see this painting as both a summation and a nostalgic retrospective. For Thorma and his generation, who stepped on the scene around the turn of the century, the discovery of Japan coincided with their youth, the fascination with the exotic, and the great period of modernisation in the world of Hungarian art.

Japonisme exerted a powerful influence on Hungarian graphic design, owing in no small part to the efforts of Viktor Olgyai, who in 1906 assumed the Chair of Graphic Design at the Hungarian Royal Drawing School (Mintarajziskola), the predecessor of the University of Fine Arts. As early as in the 1880s, the library of this institution held a number of Japanese drawing books and prints to which the young painters had access. Kálmán Tichy’s Pomegranate Branch, a colour linocut, testifies to the artist’s familiarity with Imao Keinen and his Four Seasons Bird and Flower Albums (1891); the Drawing School had a copy. Beyond Tichy, the young graphic artists active from the 1910s onward often favoured such characteristic themes of Japanese woodblock prints as fruit tree branches in bloom or bearing fruit and various birds. Recurrent compositional features include the arrangement of trees in a rigorous ornamental order, diagonal orientation, and unusual perspectives. Apart from these traits, the works of Géza Wagner and Dezső Tipary are distinguished by the juxtaposition of planes with divergent patterns. A sheet in Attila Sassy’s series Opium Dreams takes us directly to Japan. Lajos Kozma’s collection of prints proves that it was not only through Aubrey Beardsley that the artist came to know and employ compositional solutions typical of Japanese art. The decorative arrangement of Hungarian folk motifs and the rhythmic alteration of blank and busy surfaces attest to Sassy’s indebtedness to both sources.

Porcelain manufactories played a vital role in the history and popularisation of Japanese influence in Hungarian art. As early as in 1851, Ignác Fischer, to whom the Herend factory owed its brightest period, introduced wares employing Japanese motifs to great acclaim at The Great Exhibition in London. In the Zsolnay factory, Júlia Zsolnay was predominantly responsible for designs featuring Japanese motifs. Little wonder that the word of theatre could not remain immune to the craze for things Japanese. Starting from the late 1880s, various plays, dramatic works and operettas with Japanese themes flooded stage after stage in the city. In 1906, the premiere of Madame Butterfly was attended by the composer himself. Beyond that famous opera, the sets and costumes of these performances were instrumental in the quickly spreading fashion of the kimono as a garment worn at the home instead of a gown.

Naturally, artists were among the first to jump on the kimono trend. For instance, Aladár Körösfői-Kriesch drew a portrait of the writer Renée Erdős in high Japanese fashion, and we happen to know that Margit Kaffka, the prominent novelist, would receive the celebrated poet Endre Ady’s visit wearing a burgundy kimono. The current exhibition at the Várkert Bazár and its accompanying catalogue feature several portraits of women donning a kimono (Pál Jávor: Red (1907); János Simon György: Portrait of Lilien).

On occasion, an artist would borrow a Japanese theme from a writer, and vice versa. Attila Sassy’s Self-Portrait (1911) takes the title of Kaffka’s poem Hu-Ro-Ki as its motto. “Your soul is a shrivelled, old Japanese soul / in a faraway land;” “Your love is like a cherry branch” – the poetess wrote. The covers and illuminations of books treating oriental themes frequently employ motifs familiar from Japanese objects. The libretto for Iván Hűvös and Miklós Guerra’s ballet Csodaváza (“The Magic Vase”) was published in 1907 with a colourful front cover in the Japoniste style. Álmos Jaschik’s illustration for Dezső Kosztolányi’s translation of Chinese and Japanese poems (1932) emulates Hokusai’s well-known woodblock print Under the Wave of Kanagawa.

Last but not least, the wide and enthusiastic reception of Japanese art was in no small measure due to Hungarians’ acute awareness of their ethnic origins in the East. In 1915, the foremost orientalist Zoltán Felvinczi Takács, who considered the art of the Far East as “a vital artistic resource across the board”, observed that “For us Hungarians, these lessons [i.e. those learned from oriental art] are even more valuable than for other peoples of the West. No matter how far we have drifted from our ancient culture, no matter how deeply we are entrenched in Europe, our roots still reach back to Asia.”

In all of its forms and manifestations, orientalism in Hungary went hand in hand with the notion of the original homeland, which each artist imagined in his or her own way by incorporating the widest variety of motifs from Japan, China, India and Persia. Working in the Gödöllő Artists’ Colony, Sándor Nagy placed Chinese-looking pagodas in the background of his tapestry Attila Returns from the Hunt. The theme of the burial of Attila is depicted on a folding screen after the design of Károly Kós, where the frames of the individual panels imitate kopjafa, a special type of carved grave post still found in Szekler-populated villages in Transylvania. Certain critics discussing the painting of Tibor Boromisza after his successive periods (Nagybánya, Fauve, cubist-expressionist) identified his Japoniste solutions as a Hungarian national trait. Between the two wars, Boromisza did indeed began to deliberately search for common features shared by Hungarian and Japanese art, and went on to create a number of paintings in the “ornamental Japoniste manner”.

Japonisme must be seen as one of the most fascinating chapters in the history of cross-cultural influence. As Lajos Fülep put it, “[European art] was inseminated, enriched, revitalised, and carved out new territories, without repudiating its true nature. On the contrary: it bent toward itself that which lured it to leave a well-trodden path.” In Hungary, Japonisme certainly played an essential part in the art revival around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Its distinctive motifs and compositional solutions were widely embraced and assimilated by artists open to integrating new influences with their own creative vision.

Translation by Péter Balikó Lengyel

Translator’s note: Throughout the study, for the sake of unambiguity and ease of reference, the English titles and designations of Hungarian works are given as they were translated for purposes of the Japonisme exhibition and its accompanying catalogue.

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