Slow Movements and Small Trouts: Gerhard Munthe and Japonisme

By Yu Funahashi.

Art crosses national boundaries, language barriers, and it moves people’s hearts universally. It could be said that people have been inspired by various kinds of art since ancient times. Also, foreign culture and art influenced artists, and in the past, artists changed their style, topics, and techniques inspired by foreign culture. In the midst of globalization, many countries around the word stimulate trade liberalization and each country has the opportunities to learn about the distant countries. It means people can come into contact with a different culture. Other countries’ culture and art had had a significant effect on artists. For example, Japanese art had an effect on impressionism. Also, Pablo Picasso who is known as the founder of cubism was influenced by African sculptures. Diversified cultures, art, and ideas underlie the art.

This is the case the works of Gerhard Munthe. He is one of the artists who got the inspiration by Japonisme. According to Michael & Deborah (2010), Japonisme is a French term and created by Philippe Burty in 1872. In the 19th century, many European artists showed a great interest in Japanese art, culture, and aesthetics. We can see the influence of Japonisme on European artists, for example, the works of Edgar Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Paul Gauguin. The main formal features of Japosinme is the asymmetrical composition, the flat patterns, and pure colors.

According to the exhibition wall text, Munthe devoted his life to designing and decorative art. He performed as the first industrial designer in Norway in the late 19th century. Also, he was active in various fields of art, for example, interior designs, book bindings, font designs, and tableware. Not only the Norwegian folk art, but also other countries’ art influenced his works, such as Assyrian, Japanese, and Egyptian art. Especially, Japanese art and design served as a catalyst for thinking about the industry and Norwegian pattern. Its simplified art and stylized design provided him with the inspiration of creating a new style of Norwegian patterns.

One of his work that can be seen Japonisme is Small Trouts and Marsh Marigolds. It is a wallpaper pattern. Also, colors in this work have something in common with his work of the fairy-tale watercolors. As emphasized in the wall text, it was also inspired by Japanese textiles and color prints. In his work, Small Trouts and Marsh Marigolds, he used asymmetrical composition and flat pattern. Also, he used muted and light colors. It creates a peaceful and relaxing space. He drew small trouts, marsh marigolds, waterweeds, and water. There are only two trouts and they seem to be small. Also, they are drawn in the corner of the composition. One trout draw on the bottom-right corner, and the other drawn on the left corner, but they look like swimming smoothly and freely. The marsh marigolds might be the most striking formal feature because of their color and numbers. The flow of water might be slow and quiet. The waterweeds seem to envelop the marigolds and trouts. When gazing at this artwork, the beholder might get a peaceful feeling from this work. In my opinion, the main theme that Munthe wanted to tell people might be gentle harmony with nature. Everything in this work lives harmoniously. We can feel it respects and accepts each other’s individuality and diversity. However, looking at the real world we live, it is difficult to coexist in harmony without conflict of interest or find a way to coexist without friction. Therefore, when we see his work that everything co-existing together in harmony, we can remind to have a feeling of peace and a calm mind.

Another work is Katagami. It is a stencil, and it seems to be a paper cutout. Katagami means a pattern in Japanese and is the traditional craft art in Japan. One of the well-known katagami around the world is ise katagami. According to Ise katagami cooperative association (2013), ise katagami has about a millennium history, and it has been used for kimono, yukata, and yu-zen (Japanese traditional clothes). Munthe’s work, Katagami, considered to be influenced by Japanese katagami because he used Japanese word in the title and the pattern is quite similar to Japanese katagami, such as black-and-white color and delicate patterns. In addition, he used cherry blossoms, one of the Japanese symbol, as the main motif in this work. Also, they bring up the image of kimono. They look like wave in the refreshing slight breeze. The vertical lines which are associated with tree branches or long-stem emphasize the beauty of cherry blossoms because of its stylized design. I interpret this work as the main theme that is the natural flow of nature, the continuous stream of slow movements, the flow of the life. In the modern society, many people get overwhelmed with busy schedules and sometimes forget a relaxed sense of time. They are too busy to live a slower-paced lifestyle. Thus, this work might have an appeal for many people living in the contemporary society and make the opportunity for them to think about the mode of slow movements.

Through his works, Small Trouts and Marsh Marigolds and Katagami, it can be said that he created patterns that have a nature motif. These works can make people feel peaceful and relaxed because of its color, shape, and composition. Although Munthe drew inspiration from Japanese art, and it is possible to identify Japonisme in his works, he was not only borrowing Japanese art, but also creating a mixture of both cultures, Norway and Japan. When I saw his works inspired by Japonisme for the first time, I did not have any previous knowledge of his works, but I felt that Japanese art impressed him and he created his own interpretation of it to take it into his art forms.

"Christmas 1890 he received a book about Japanese art and design which inspired him to think about 'the industry', and that there had in fact never been a Norwegian pattern used in or wallpaper, textile porcelain industry. Every pattern had been internationally sourced. Thus, he engaged in drawing patterns, and in accordance with many of his contemporaries he abandoned naturalism for a more stylized vocabulary. Munthe wanted to create a genuine style based on Norwegian patterns, plants and colours combined with a certain inspiration from Japan in the simplified and stylized forms." (Gerhard Munthe. Enchanted Design, exhibition wall text, The National Museum Norway, 2018).

A Japanese art and design book influenced his art both his style of art and his way of thinking about the industry in Norway. He found that Norwegian industry had never used patterns originating in Norwegian folk culture and realized that Norwegian patterns had been made by the combinations of patterns from other countries. From this quote, we can see the globalization might have both positive and negative effects. It invites a new perspective, changes how things are perceived, sows the seeds of revolution, and questions national identity. On the other hand, it threatens national identities or local communities, sometimes causes a clash of cultures, and establishes a competitive environment. However, Munthe found the way to co-exist harmoniously with other cultures by making his artworks. Thus, it can be said that his works give us a much better understanding of a way to make peaceful coexistence with nature and cultures. Also, it reminds us to the importance of having a mental space to lead a slower-paced life.


Ise Katagami kyoudokumiai (Ise Katagami corporative association). (2013). Ise katagami ni tsuite (What is Ise Katagami?) Retrieved September 4, 2018, from http://isekatagami.or.jp/?page_id=16

Michael, C., & Deborah, C. (2 Ed.). (2010). The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art Terms. Oxford University Press.

The National Museum. (2018). Gerhard Munthe. Enchanted Design, exhibition wall text