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Appropriation and the Art of the Copy (May 2015): Cultural and Transcultural Appropriation in the Colonial Period

By Elizabeth Mix

Cultural and Transcultural Appropriation in the Colonial Period

Cultural appropriation refers to borrowing that occurs across cultures.  Thorstein Veblen coined the phrase in The Theory of the Leisure Class, and applied it to products obtained through international trade and colonialism.  Veblen stated that physical, spiritual, aesthetic, or intellectual desires were satisfied through appropriation of foreign cultures.  He identified "useful things" as appropriated when they are "not owned by the person who appropriates and consumes them."[1]  Implicitly, though, he expressed the idea that the ability to appropriate was one of the benefits afforded specifically to a ruling class, who in Veblen's time benefitted from the spoils of colonized Native Americans.  Edward Said in his seminal 1978 text Orientalism added "repressions, investments and projections" to the reasons cultures were appropriated in the colonial period.[2]  The term "cultural appropriation" can be used to describe a wide variety of artistic styles, including chinoiserie, described brilliantly by Oliver Impey in Chinoiserie: The Impact of Oriental Styles on Western Art and Decoration, the Egyptian taste that informed the Neoclassicism of Jacques-Louis David (as a result of Napoleon's campaign into Africa), and Japonisme (the taste for things Japanese) that profoundly influenced Impressionism, Postimpressionism, Art Nouveau, and indeed the entire trajectory of modern art, on which there is a substantial body of scholarship, including Siegfried Wichmann's Japonisme: The Japanese Influence on Western Art since 1858.

When artists who practiced Japonisme appropriated from Japanese works of art, they worked referentially by adopting formal characteristics, such as form lines, flat color, cropping, shifting perspective, and also specific subject matter, including actors, women in domestic situations (including courtesans), and landscapes.  Critics such as Champfleury, and notably Philippe Burty, tried to find, and occasionally "invented," stylistic similarities such as asymmetry, movement, and color as a way to promote Japanese art as similar to yet different from French art.  The role of critics, collectors, and exhibitions in popularizing this practice is traced in Klaus Berger's Japonisme in Western Painting from Whistler to Matisse.  Berger illustrates Japanese influences on Manet, Degas, James McNeill Whistler, Gauguin, Cezanne, Georges Seurat, van Gogh, and James Ensor and identifies a second wave of Japonisme in the work of Mary Cassatt, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the Nabis, Paul Signac, and Aubrey Beardsley.  The latter portion of the book treats Japanese prints collected by Western museums in America and Europe, and Japonisme's effect on design reform, including Art Nouveau.

Several important exhibitions organized by Gabriel Weisberg furthered scholarly understanding of the effect of Japonisme over the past three decades.  Japonisme: Japanese Influence on French Art, 1854-1910 placed into context the Japanese sources available to French nineteenth-century printmakers and decorative artists.  The catalogue includes Japanese source books, illustrated books, print types; specific Japanese prints owned by collectors who called themselves Japonistes; and French printmakers who were influenced by them (Félix Bracquemond, Manet, James Tissot, Whistler, and Degas from 1854 to 1882; and Odilon Redon, Félix Vallotton, Mary Cassatt, Paul Gauguin, Paul Ranson, Edvard Munch, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Théophile Steinlen from 1883 to 1910).  Smaller sections are devoted to later publications on Japanese art (including Artistic Japan), its influence on French painting (including Claude Monet, Gauguin, and van Gogh), and French decorative arts.  Japonisme Comes to America: The Japanese Impact on the Graphic Arts 1876-1925 (coauthored by Julia Meech) documents how Japanese works influenced American artists Henry P. Bowie, Helen Hyde, Bertha Lum, Charles Hovey Pepper, Arthur Wesley Dow, Edna Bois Hopkins, Frank Lloyd Wright, B. J. O. Nordfeldt, Elizabeth Colwell, Alice Ravenal Huger Smith, Alvin Langdon Coburn, and Arnold Genthe.  In 2011, Weisberg pushed the dialogue even further in The Orient Expressed: Western Art and Influence of Japan, 1854-1918; the essays included in this volume began to link the phenomenon of nineteenth-century Japonisme backward to chinoiserie, the earlier influence of Chinese art on eighteenth-century rococo, and forward to consider it specifically as cultural appropriation.

James O. Young, in Cultural Appropriation and the Arts, defined different types of cultural appropriation, focused not on the method of appropriation, but rather the nature of the original, which he determines to comprise the style, motif or subject appropriated, or, in the case of an artifact removed from the original culture, the actual physical object.  The case of the so-called Elgin marbles, housed in the British Museum, but removed from the Parthenon in Greece in 1802 by Lord Elgin, and the large number of Egyptian sculptures residing in the Louvre in Paris that were acquired under Napoleon, typify this type of object appropriation.  Greece and Egypt have long fought to have these culturally important artifacts returned.  This type of appropriation is particularly problematic because the colonizer appropriates the cultural artifact as an act of power and the subsequent display of functional cultural objects as art devalues their original significance.  Deborah Root, in Cannibal Culture: Art, Appropriation and Difference focuses on the colonization of North and South America, documenting the recontextualization of such objects.  Root extends the list to include the land taken from Native Americans, the use of textile patterns during some periods of Western fashion, the depiction of Native Americans in tourism advertisements, and the entire New Age movement, which Root sees as an appropriation of Native spiritual practices.

The term "transcultural appropriation," as described by Gerardo Mosquera in "Stealing from the Global Pie; Globalization, Difference and Cultural Appropriation," describes back-and-forth or multiple levels of cultural exchange.  The Japanese prints and objets d'art as well as the underlying religious practices that fueled Japonisme contained cultural appropriations from China.  At the same time, the prints stimulating Japonisme were showing the influence of Western art as a result of the longstanding trade with The Netherlands, as explored by Kaufmann and North, Mediating Netherlandish Art and Material Culture in Asia.  Similarly "Blue and White" porcelain came to be associated with China, Japan, and Holland through the fabrication practices of the Dutch East India Company, as detailed by C. G. A. Jörg in Porcelain and the Dutch China Trade and Jan van Campen and Titus Eliëns in Chinese and Japanese Porcelains for the Dutch Golden Age.  Transcultural appropriation between France and Africa is treated in the twenty-two essays in Wesley Johnson's Double Impact: France and Africa in the Age of Imperialism.  Divided thematically, art and architecture are treated among literature, economics, politics, education, race relations, and prejudice from the perspective of the French colonialists and the Africans who were colonized.  An essay by Gerard Le Coat explains how African art objects made their way to France and profoundly influenced the work of Pablo Picasso, Amadeo Modigliani, and many others.  Marian Johnson, who argues that European patronage influenced African craftsmanship and aesthetics, addresses influence in the other direction.


[1] Thorsten Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions, Modern Library, 934, p. 23.

[2] Edward Said, Orientalism.  Pantheon Books, 978 (CH, Apr’79), p. 8.