05 January 2012

Franz Melchers & Japonisme In Belgium

This is a story that ends in New York City and began in Belgium.   I've written before about the two decades it took from the time I bought a calendar of prints by Franz Melchers at the Metropolitan Museum until the day I held in my hands a copy of L'An, the book that the prints  were created for, from the collection of New York University Library.

The date is February 2, 1889.  Two exhibitions opened in Brussels on that day, one at the Belgian Royal Museum of Fine Art and the other at a private home on la rue Royale.  Both the public and the critics eagerly anticipated the sixth exhibition of the avant garde group Les Vingt (The Twenty), knowing it would provide delicious gossip.  With new works by Fernard Khnopff and his rival James Ensor, as well as Georges Lemmen and Theo Van Rysselberghe, and the French contingent of Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, and Georges Seurat, lively conversations were guaranteed.

The other event was a gathering at the home of musician Edmond Michotte (1831-1914), a man of many friends, notably  artist Fernand Khnopff.    Michotte was a japanophile and the owner of a remarkable collection of art, some purchased  from his friend, the Parisian dealer Siegfried Bing.   Michotte, also a convinced Wagneriite, often hosted  salons to show off his latest acquisitions to his friends,  the cream of literary and artistic Brussels. 

On view were  prints by the likes of Houksai, Hiroshige, Harbunobu, and Tokoyuni. The press, sensing the moment, took enthusiastic notice.  "Le tout Bruxelles est japonisant. Le japonisme a conquis droit de cité chez nous ; il est à la mode et c'est tout dire."   The death of the 'Anglomania' fad was declared; whether Michotte' friend and Anglophile Fernard Khnopff saw it that way is doubtful.  A critic for La Jeune Belgique rhapsodized with all the cool detachment of a bee reeling from flower to flower of  "radiant art that blossoms spontaneously, as naturally as a flower" (translations mine).  Japan, according to M. Destree who had never been there, was "a wonderful and charming country." 

If japonisme in Belgium was born that day, it had gestated in Michotte's salon for some time. At his urging, the Belgian government purchased  several works for the Royal Museum of History and Art.  (The collection is considered to be of the finest quality,  its preservation from fading that has altered many ukiyo-e prints a rarity.)  Other exhibitions followed at the Association for Art in Antwerp in 1892 and 1893.  Along with works from Michotte and Bing, more recent collectors Georges Lemmen and Theo Van Rysselberghe loaned works.

 The diagonal, a staple of linear perspective since the Renaissance, appeared as a new invention in the hands of Japanese artists.  Rather than lines that converge at a single point, their images balanced and divided by vertical lines and created a sense of depth with multiple but not directly connected planes. 
Soon there was even a new magazine La Libre Esthetique (The Free Aesthetic). The Japanese influence is obvious in these images, especially that of Hokusai's Great Wave Off Kanagawa (c. 1832).   Typically, the influence appears stronger in the graphic arts., where two dimensions are the  given. Where the wave cuts across Lemmen's poster for Les Vingts like a caesura through a line of verse, it organizes Auguste Donnay's Jardin sous la neige by a series of meandering diagonals.  Decades Later Tin Tin and his fox terrier Milou ride the great wave  to adventure. 

Back to  L'An (The Year) is a book of sixteen poems by Thomas Braun, one for each season and each month of the year, a common organizing principle for books. Les glaces de Janvier, Les jardins de Fevrier, Les barques du printemp, Les tempetes de Mars, Les chansons d'Avril, les vergers de Mai, Les Fontains de Juin, Les fenetres de l' Ete, Les Papillons de Juillet, Les roses d'Aout, Les meules de Septempbre, Les feuilles de l'Automne, Les labours d'Octobre, Les brumes de Novembre, and Les sapins du Decembre. 
The illustrations are color lithographs, a printing process that had been invented in 1796 by a Bavarian printer Aloys Senefelder, but only became used  widely in the 1890s thanks to the popularity of Toulouse-Lautrec's works in the medium.  The book takes its shape from Melchers's illustrations; it is large and square.  Melchers achieved the effects of color separations seen in Japanese woodblock prints through a laborious process of hand-tinting.

Franz Melchers (1868-1944) was born in Munster in northwestern Germany. He studied art in Brussels and  later at The Hague with Jan Tooroop. He exhibited at the the International Exposition at Paris in 1889. Melchers died at Anvers (Antwerp) in occupied Belgium in 1944.
Continuing for the rest of this year, The Blue Lantern will begin each month with a Franz Melchers lithograph  from L'An

1. Herge - Nous sommes perdis, Milou, 1934, from Les Cigares du Pharoun, castmern, Brussels.
2. Georges Lemmen - Les Vingts, 1891, Bibliotheque Royale Albert 1er, Brussels. 
3. Auguste Donnay - Le jardin sous la neige, Musee de l'Art Wallon, Liege.
4. Georges Lemmen - The Beach At Heist, 1891,  Musee d'Orsay, Paris. 
5.Theo Van Rysselberghe - La Libre Esthetique, 1894, Bibiliotheque Royale Albert 1er, Brussels.
6.Gisbert Combaz - Interpretation de paysage, 1902, City Hall Museum, Brussels.
7.,8.,9.,10. Franz Melchers - Frontispiece, Spring, Summer, Autumn, from L'An, 1897, Brussels.


JJP said...

Thank you for sharing the art of Franz Melchers! I love his work. Would it be possible to get high resolution images of the photographs you've taken from "L'An"?

Jane said...

Hello, JJP. The works by Franz Melchers here and throughout this year (on the first day of each month) were scanned from the copy of L'An that is in the collection of New York University. They were scanned on a public scanner and are my only source. I was very lucky - and grateful - for the chance to look at this book. Copies that have been offered for sale at amazon.com have quoted prices in the range of $2,750.

Sharyn Alice said...

Thank you so much for sharing any information about Franz Melchers. I purchased the same calendar from Metropolitan Museum and have since been obsessed with this man's art. I'm so happy to know more about him.

Jane said...

Sharyn, I'm happy that you found this. Melchers's work does this to people. Information is hard to come by - at least in English. I read recently in a book about William Degouyve de Nuncques (in French) that Melchers was nominated for membership in the avant-garde group Les XX in Brussels in 1889. Thanks for your comment, fellow Melcher-ite!

Sispony said...

I also bought the calendar showing Franz M Melchers illustrations for the book L´An and have been a fan ever since so thank you for sharing your photos and comments I just wish I could find another calendar again of his works.

Jane said...

How nice to hear from you, Sispony. I have seen a few other works by Melchers on the internet and none have been as charming as "L'An". But others may be out there.