When Japanese woodblock prints first made their way into nineteenth century Britain, they were taken for the most part at face value. Victorians were besotted by portraits of colourfully-clad ladies and gentlemen, depicted in elegant surroundings and appearing to be having a jolly good time, and they lapped up idyllic images of sweeping landscapes filled with jovial peasants. Such images were perceived as accurate representations of the Japanese and their way of life. They became all the rage, with British artists and designers incorporating elements of Japanese art and design into their own work; Japan became an aesthetic vogue.
The Victorian Japoniste, when he conjured up images of his Eastern Utopia, imagined willowy ladies in perfumed gardens or elegantly arranged apartments. If his imaginings took him out into the Japanese countryside, the images captured in his mind's eye did not look at all like the photograph below.
No, for the Victorian Japoniste magical Japan's rural inhabitants looked more like the women in the print below, with their pale skins, immaculate oiled coiffures, cheerful expressions and entirely clean clothes.
It was Japan's remoteness that rendered it the perfect candidate for extreme idealisation and romanticisation. Most of the people who were filling their homes with Japanese fans, prints and ceramics, and Japanesque furniture and ornamentation, had never been to Japan. They'd never seen a Japanese person, let alone conversed with one in order to ascertain his true nature or gain some insight into life in Japan. The Victorians were attracted to the parallels they perceived to exist between Japan's traditional, unchanging society and that of Mediaeval Britain; ironically, while the British (along with other Europeans and the Americans) daydreamed about Old Japan, this 'unchanging' country was actually undergoing a rapid modernisation and the Japanese themselves were adopting a more Western way of life. The Japan of Victorian daydreams, had it ever existed, was fast disappearing.
And the Japanese prints that had captured the imagination of the Victorian public had never been intended as accurate representations of Japan or its people in the first place. Their designers had very good reason not to attempt depictions of real life even if they had been inclined to do so. The law forbade the production of any material critical of the government's regime; social comment was absolutely out of the question in eighteenth century Japan. Poor housing, starvation and disease all existed, but none of it found its way into the work of artists like Utamaro and Hokusai, whose prints had been so well received in Europe.
Artists, like writers, create fictions. The Japanese artists who created woodblock prints, like the Victorian public who enthusiastically collected such images - and the Victorian artists and designers who emulated their content - were influenced more by perceptions of reality than the reality of Japan itself.
I'll come back to this subject at a later date, but for the moment I'll leave you with this from Oscar Wilde:
'No great artist ever sees things as they really are. If he did, he would cease to be an artist. Take an example from our own day. I know that you are fond of Japanese art. Now, do you really imagine that the Japanese people, as they are presented to us in art, have any existence? If you do, you have never understood Japanese art at all. The Japanese people are the deliberate creation of certain artists. If you set a picture by Hokusai, or Hokkei, or any of the great native painters, beside a real Japanese gentleman or lady, or beside a photograph of a Japanese gentleman or lady, you will see that there is not the slightest resemblance between them. The actual people who live in Japan are not unlike the general run of English people; that is to say, they are extremely commonplace, and have nothing curious or extraordinary about them. In fact the whole of Japan is a pure invention. There is no such country, there are no such people... the Japanese people are, as I have said, simply a mode of style, a whimsical fancy of art. *
*The Decay of Lying: a Dialogue', in The Nineteenth Century: A Monthly Review. Vol. XXV. January-June, 1889. Pp. 35- 56. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, & Co.