English illlustrator W. Heath Robinson (1872-1944) was hardly an adventurous guy. Meek and withdrawn, he loved to stay at home surrounded by his books. For excitement he puttered in his garden.

In just about every way you can imagine-- his wardrobe, his manners, his relationships, the food he ate, his morals-- Robinson lived a cloistered life. He courted his future bride on Sunday afternoons dressed in a top hat, frock coat and high collar. Even after he mustered the courage to propose marriage, their engagement lasted for nearly five years (he didn't believe in acting impetuously).

Yet, Robinson fell instantly in love with Japanese woodblock prints-- an exotic art form that had newly arrived in England by way of Paris.

He loved their flat decorative patterns, their asymmetrical and diagonal compositions, their creative use of high viewpoint, and their stark use of negative space. He was smitten by the clean, simplified line and highly stylized designs of Utamaro, Hiroshige and Hokusai.

Robinson adapted these qualities to his own work. He went from drawing in the conventional style of English illustrators of his day: drawing with a cleaner line, using checkerboard and other decorative patterns to enhance his designs:

Note that Robinson didn't plagiarize Japanese images. This is not a story of cultural theft. Instead, it is a story of the wonderful panmixia that characterizes the language of forms. Robinson combined the abstract qualities of Japanese prints with his own style to come up with a genuine hybrid approach. (He was not alone-- the arrival of Japanese woodblock prints in Europe also came as an inspiration to artists from Aubrey Beardsley to Van Gogh).

I especially like the fact that Robinson, who was a cultural hermit in every other respect, immediately understood and appreciated the intentions of artists who were geographically, culturally and socioeconomically on the opposite side of the planet.

Robinson had never traveled, spoke no foreign languages and had no exposure to different cultures and styles. But geographic boundaries and language restrictions are no barrier to the appreciation of forms. Forms travel without a passport and communicate instantly in a global language.

This kind of cross-fertilization continues today in the work of illustrators such as Yuko Shimizu, who are far more open to the potential of other cultures than Robinson was:

Technology also facilitates this cross fertilization of images and styles. When you think how long it took for that first steam ship to introduce exported prints from Japan to European audiences, our own advantages in this area seem overwhelming today.

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