(Saint-Gilles 1889 - 1927 Algiers)
Portrait of a woman with long hair
Signed and dated lower right 19 WS 19/ Walter Sauer
Pencil on waxed paper
20 ½ x 8 7/8 inches (52 x 22.5 cm)
Belgium established formal diplomatic relations with Japan soon after the island ended its period of isolation and opened its boundaries in 1853. In 1866 both countries signed the Treaty on Amity, Commerce and Navigation establishing a new exchange of art and customs. Japanese culture became widely known to Belgians through the images in ukiyo-e, woodcut prints often depicting scenes of folklore and rituals. Images of Kabuki dramas became particularly popular in Europe as a viewpoint into Eastern culture. These plays, though performed exclusively by men, often investigated relationships between men and women through highly stylized choreography and elaborate makeup.
Walter Sauer befriended the Asian Art antiquarian Murakami while studying under Constant Montald at the Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels. The current picture is a striking example of Murakami’s influence on Sauer during his formative years as an art student. Sauer’s work did not immediately reflect his introduction to Japanese prints, but rather emerged as the artist developed his interest in psychological portraiture. This delicately rendered floating head is reminiscent of the Japanese Yūrei, the ghost of an individual with an unresolved conflict to rectify before the soul may enter the cycle of reincarnation. Often these figures are women, whose emotional ties to the physical world were believed to be stronger than those of men. Sauer’s monogrammed initials in the middle of his signature also allude to Japanese hanko, personal seals or stamps used to sign letters and official documents. The long and narrow format of the work itself is also a nod to the vertical format of calligraphic scrolls or popular eighteenth century prints depicting full-body images of Japanese actors, called yakusha-e.
Sauer was far from alone in his fascination with the East. Comparable works of note by Gustav Klimt and Gustave Moreau reflect a widespread interest in Japanese techniques and motifs. Sauer’s drawing is reminiscent of Moreau’s famed 1876 painting L’Apparition, in which the severed head of Saint John the Baptist rises above Salome in a supernatural burst of light. Alternatively, in Klimt’s Judith I from 1901, it is not the severed head of Holofernes that bears similarity with Sauer’s Portrait of a woman with long hair. Historically mistaken for a seductive Salome, Judith too has flushed cheeks and pink lips, sensually separated to reveal her teeth.