Daily life is addressed in two exhibitions in Quebec City, one showing magical artifacts from ancient Egypt, the other an examination of how Japanese art and culture arrived in Europe just as the Impressionists were looking for new ways to express visual ideas.
Egyptian Magic at the Musée de la civilization in Quebec City displays more than 300 objects between 2,000 and 5,000 years old that relate to what a magician — a combination of priest, physician, herbalist and psychoanalyst — could do to protect people from disease and bad luck.
At the Musée national des beaux-arts, work by Impressionist painters hang alongside the Japanese prints that inspired their composition, colour scheme and subject. Looking East: Western Artists and the Allure of Japan displays 130 works by 100 artists, including such Impressionist luminaries as Van Gogh, Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, Gauguin and Cassatt, in an exhibition from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Japanese art and culture inspired and influenced all aspects of European life, and it was disseminated by department stores selling Japanese lacquerware as much as by artists. Western culture took Japanese fashion, design and decorative arts and made them its own.
In art, graphic Japanese prints known as ukiyo-e that stress the intimate aspects of life and its ephemeral nature resonated the most. The Japanese engagement with daily life encouraged the Impressionists, whose own depictions of bourgeoisie pleasures were dismissed as frivolous by an academic art world still in thrall to the lessons of history.
“These Japanese artists confirm my belief in our vision,” wrote the Impressionist Camille Pissarro, after seeing an exhibition of ukiyo-e prints in 1893.
Ukiyo-e prints, with their bird’s-eye views and asymmetrical compositions, were a revelation for Western artists trained to depict the world from a single perspective, according to the exhibition catalogue.
The Japanese use of decorative motifs and flat, contrasting colours also attracted Western artists accustomed to using shadows and modelling to create convincing three-dimensional forms. Paul Gauguin’s Landscape with Two Breton Women is an example.
A painting by Mary Cassatt of a woman embracing her child reflects a similar intimate scene by Kikukawa Eizan that hangs on a nearby wall.
Japan burst into the European consciousness after U.S. gunboats forced Japan to begin trading with the West in 1853. World fairs in London in 1860 and Paris in 1867 played a pivotal role in the dissemination of Japanese culture, said Anne Eschapasse, the museum’s exhibition coordinator.
Japanese goods arrived through the port of Le Havre, where Claude Monet was raised and saw Japanese prints used as wrapping paper, she said.
It was a question of timing, Eschapasse said, noting that the arrival of Japanese prints in Paris came as Impressionists were challenging the academic canon. Impressionist painters studied and collected Japanese prints, which provided a new freedom to look at emotions, imagination and a sense of the moment.
Japanese art also offered a range of formal possibilities to artists experimenting with abstraction and symbolism. Both Art Nouveau and Art Deco arose from Western fascination with Japanese art and design.
Charles Louis Tiffany described his work, an example of which is on display, as striving to be “even more Japanese than the Japanese themselves,” according to an essay in the catalogue.
Eschapasse said Looking East is the first exhibition in Canada to examine the Japanese influence on Western art. Surprising, but understandable given how the ingrained the influence is.
Looking East: Western Artists and the Allure of Japan continues to Sept. 27 at the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, National Battlefields Park, Quebec City. Information:mnbaq.org.
Magic allowed Egyptians to feel they could influence their fate in a positive way, said Monique Lippé, coordinator of the exhibition, which was organized by the van Oudheden museum in Leiden, Netherlands, and includes objects from the Louvre and the British Museum.
“Egyptian magic should be viewed as the desire for health, happiness, love and success — the same things we want,” Lippé said.
Magicians were among the thin strata of Egyptian society who were literate. Writing itself was sacred and afforded magical protection from evil spirits and demons.
A papyrus letter attached to a wood statue from 1300-1100 B.C. asks a man’s deceased wife to leave him in peace and let him sleep at night. The magician assures the wife of her husband’s fidelity.
On a leg of a woman’s birth bed from the same era, inscriptions asked the gods to protect the mother and newborn child from evil spirits. A window grill was inscribed with incantations to keep demons from entering a house.
Yvan Koenig, an Egyptologist, compares the magician’s role to that of a psychoanalyst. The suffering person expressed his or her pain and the magician provided an explanation, he writes in the exhibition catalogue. “Then he offered his suffering patient the opportunity to transfer his pain to the god who would bear his suffering.”
Magic was also for the hereafter. Two mummies are in the exhibition, one with its ornately painted wooden coffin and a second mummy that is unwrapped, its skin like leather.
Belief in a physical afterlife endured for thousands of years. An early example from prehistoric Egypt, about 3,000 B.C., is a ceramic model of a boat with a man in a fetal position, sailing to the afterlife where he will be reborn.
The “opening of the mouth ritual” allowed a mummy to see, breathe and eat. It also allowed the soul to return to the body. The mummy was entombed with magical versions of food, along with the necessary servants and gods. One example has a miniature kitchen staff in the act of preparing food and making beer.
Ancient Egypt may seem alien to us, yet it influenced all the cultures of what we call the Middle East, as well as the Greeks and Romans whose culture is the foundation of our own, and who took turns ruling Egypt.
Michel Guay, archeologist and scientific adviser to the exhibition, suggests a way to understand the Egyptian belief system: The magical world of gods and afterlife was as real to Egyptians as the idea of virtual reality is to us.
Egyptian Magic continues to April 10 at the Musée de la civilisation, 10 Dalhousie St., Quebec City. Information: mcq.org
by John Pohl
Source: Montreal Gazette