Art Culture

William Littlejohn’s New ‘Japonisme’

Nestled within the basement of the Royal Scottish Academy, William Littlejohn’s lesser-known works are on display whilst also being up for sale. A celebration of Japan’s vibrant iconographic history, Littlejohn explores ‘Japonisme’ in an evocative, abstract style.

Littlejohn, who was Scottish, was heavily inspired by Japanese style after being given the opportunity to travel to Japan upon winning an RSA Gillies Award. His art continues the tradition of ‘Japonisme’, which inspired many impressionist artists before him, including the likes of Degas, Renoir and Van Gogh.

I particularly enjoyed the second of the two rooms, which displays some of his later works. They are largely watercolour on paper, a departure from his earlier works of oil on canvas. What struck me most was their identifiable Japanese character, in spite of initially seeming like paintings that simply demonstrate an eye for colour theory and geometric repetition.

Fish and River by William Littlejohn”, Photograph by Katya Sanigar.

My favourite work in this room was Fish and River from 1992. Whilst clearly reflecting the natural world, there was something very whimsical in its use of shapes and splodges. The mossy-green peripheral background is set in contrast to the rest of the painting. The flowery collage-like objects are evidently representing lily pads. The playful integration of light pinks and reds ties together the nostalgic effect of the painting. However, to me, the best part of this painting is the koi fish. Its brown colour makes it initially hidden amongst the geometric chaos, but upon further inspection, its famous shape can clearly be seen.

This is a subtle but endearing ode to Littlejohn’s love and inspiration taken from Japan. 

Sunset Harbour by William Littlejohn”, Photograph by Katya Sanigar.

Once noticed, the theme of ‘Japonisme’ is so clear throughout the exhibition! Another of my favourite works from the exhibition was still a departure from the natural world but clearly displays Japanese iconography. Sunset Harbour, from 2005, makes use of Japan’s sobriquet, the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’, through the stark red circle that looms over the rest of the composition. Less obvious are the black strokes that, to me, reminisce on the brushwork of traditional calligraphy. Finally, and perhaps the most ingenious aspect of the painting, Littlejohn paints a small Japanese pottery seal, the small character at the bottom of the painting. 

Through this, Littlejohn recognises the hallmarks of great traditional Japanese art: calligraphy and pottery making. He integrates himself into the Japanese art tradition, using metallics and paint splatter to recreate this feeling of an aged piece that belongs with the other greats.

Overall, I would highly recommend the exhibition. Littlejohn’s homage to and appreciation of Japanese art shines through whilst still sticking to his own style. The eclectic use of colour is a unique spin on traditional Japanese art, securing its place in the modern world.

William Littlejohn: In New Light is on show until Sunday, 12th February at the Royal Scottish Academy off Princes Street. All works are available for purchase.

Image credits: All photographs are taken by Katya Sanigar with permission from the exhibition.