Japonism in Scandinavia


Japanese art and design had a profound influence in the Nordic countries during the final decades of the 19th century and well into the 20th. Several museums and galleries in Oslo, Norway, exhibit Japan-inspired art this summer.  

It was the art critic and collector of Japanese art, Philippe Burty, who coined the term “Japonism”, which has become an international art movement that refers to the influence of Japanese art on the West. “Japanomania” swept the Western world in the early 1850s. By the 1870s the Nordic countries, not surprisingly, became interested, since Nordic art shares the love for and influence of nature.

Japonamia in the north. Exhibition in Oslo
Japonamia in the north. Exhibition in Oslo

This summer’s major exhibitions in Norway are made in collaboration with other museums across the world. Exhibitions at the National

Professor Gabriel Weisberg
Professor Gabriel Weisberg

Gallery and The Museum of Decorative Art and Design in Oslo exhibit “The Influence of Japan on Nordic Art and Design”, consisting of two parts: the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design devotes its attention primarily to applied art, while at the National Gallery the principal emphasis is on fine art.

Not everyone sees the clear impact of Japanese art on Scandinavia. Three years ago, US Professor Weisberg attended a conference on

Japonisme at the University of Rennes in France. A Japanese professor asked him what he was working on, and Weisberg explained that he was beginning a project examining the impact of Japanese art on Scandinavia. Weisberg recalls: “He said, ‘There’s no such thing.’ And I said: ‘You’re going to be proven wrong.’”

Three years later, Weisberg made good on that promise. In February he traveled to Finland for the opening of Japanomania in the Nordic Countries, 18751918 at the Ateneum Museum in Helsinki. Now the show has traveled to Oslo, where it will remain through 16 October.

270916-japanomania-in-the-nordic-countriesThe major trend when it comes to Norwegian museum exhibition this summer is not related to styles or art forms, but the act of cooperation. As a result, you get people queuing up for an hour or more outside the museums, which is something you rarely see in Oslo. Still, that was the case at the Yayoi Kusama exhibition at Henie Onstad Kunstsenter this spring.  The exhibitions at the National Gallery and The Museum of Decorative Art and Design show record number of visitors.

Evening interior Harriet Backer 1890 Photo Nasjonalmuseet part of the exhibition Japonmania in the North
Evening interior Harriet Backer 1890 Photo Nasjonalmuseet part of the exhibition Japonmania in the North

Experience the exhibition in the the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design in 360 degrees

After Japan opened its borders in 1854, Japanese objects soon found their way into world exhibitions and famous department stores in Paris and London. It was in these metropolises, around 1860, that this East-Asian culture first had an impact. Internationally, the movement became known as Japonism.

A show like this has never been done before. Yet it is important for several reasons, not least highlighting that Japanese art actually has had (and continues to have) an impact on Scandinavian countries and that it takes place in the Nordic countries, giving visitors a chance to reflect upon and understand the influence outside of the gallery walls.

It opens up new territory and gives people new ideas about Scandinavian art. “It is unique, and it’s different, and it’s my swan song,” Weisberg says. “The show is scholarly, but it is developed in a way that it can reach the average person.” That is the point of what Weisberg does: he wants to reach and educate the public.

The great wave off Kanagawa
The great wave off Kanagawa

Japanese art and design were seen as something new, fresh and exciting. The emphasis on asymmetry, simplification and stylisation – combined with a profound respect for the smallest of nature’s details – had a liberating effect on artists and designers, who increasingly wanted to consign older styles to history and create something new. Japonism formed a prelude to Nordic modernism.

Japonism in Scandinavia, written by Tor Kjolberg