Japanese Prints in the Collection of Vincent Van Gogh

 

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[Image: Utagawa Hiroshige, The Outskirts of Koshigaya in Musashi Province, from the series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, 1858, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)]

In 1886 Vincent Van Gogh bought a batch of around 660 Japanese woodblock prints from a Paris dealer. He intended to sell them on for a profit, benefitting from the fashion for Japonisme that had been current since the Exposition Universelle in 1878. As it turned out, he did not buy especially good examples of prints, opting for quantity over quality. His February-March 1887 display at the Le Tambourin café was a commercial failure (in a catalogue essay Chris Uhlenbeck suggests Van Gogh overpriced) and Van Gogh and his brother were left with unsold stock. Those unsold prints became a resource for the artist. Van Gogh was already aware of Japanese prints before but now, with a large selection to hand, he could examine them at length and absorb the style of masters such as Utagawa Hiroshige, Utagawa Kunisada and Utagawa Kunisada.

This catalogue adds more to the recent exhibition Van Gogh and Japan (see my review here).

He used the prints to decorate his rooms and planned to trade them for works of art, though apparently this did not come to pass. Some prints went to his sister Willemien and after her death these returned to the collection of Vincent Van Gogh junior (son of Theo). Thus most of the 660 prints Van Gogh bought passed eventually to the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. The current count is 511 sheets.

The classic Japanese colour woodblock print was discovered in 1765, developing from the uncoloured print. It is characterised by prominent black linear designs separating flat planes of strong unmixed colour, strong diagonal and absence of chiaroscuro and shadow (in the early period). A lot of this fed into the paintings that Van Gogh made in south of France 1888-90. Indeed when he arrived in the region for the first time he wrote ecstatically to his brother about the intense light and vivid colours as being the Japan of Europe.

Hokusai’s manga (sketchbooks, published over many decades) included drawings of people, flora, fauna and supernatural beings. The manga were an inspiration for Van Gogh and led to his refining his drawing technique with ink and reed pen. This catalogue only touches upon that, as it is addressed in other books in detail.

Some sheets Van Gogh bought were only parts of triptychs. For practical reasons, Japanese prints used sheets at a standard size, so for larger pictures makers used multiple linked designs printed on individual sheets and hung them together. Uhlenbeck writes, “Van Gogh unfortunately never commented in writing on multiple-sheet compositions. It is possible that he did not know that many of the designs in his collection were incomplete, and this may have affected his conception of the Japanese rules of composition.”

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[Image: Utagawa Kunisada, View of the Spring Rain, central sheet of a triptych, 1820–29, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)]

 

There are a number of notable absences in the collection. There are few horizontal landscapes, which may have been in the Le Tambourin exhibition and later confiscated by creditors when the café was closed. The absence of war scenes may have been because fewer of those prints were exported by Japanese traders keen to downplay their country’s violent past. The absence of shunga (erotic prints) might have been because they were too pricey for Van Gogh. It is hard to know what exactly motivated Van Gogh’s choices, apart from cost and availability. Did he buy what he thought would appeal to general collectors or what he found appealing? Did he aim to collect work that presented a variety in terms of subject, age and format or were these aspects relatively unimportant?

While there are a number of fine prints, the majority are not outstanding pieces according to experts. For example, there are no prints by Hokusai, who was by 1886 already too well known and costly for Van Gogh. There are a number of prints featuring trees, particularly ones with jutting irregular trunks and branches and it is reasonable to assume that these images caught Van Gogh’s eye because they reminded him of the trees of his native Brabant. In these cases at least, Van Gogh was using his personal artistic taste in the selection.

Van Gogh was especially partial towards so-called “crépon” prints (technically chirimen-e), which were prints which had been subjected to a mechanical process which textured the paper. Uhlenbeck describes the process of crêping, which led to the paper crinkling and shrinking, the edges becoming uneven. He bought 20 examples. It seems at least some of the crépon prints in Van Gogh’s collection were recent and manufactured expressly for the export market.

This catalogue presents new information about the prints. Data regarding artists, subjects and dates have rounded out our knowledge about the collection. The conditions of prints have been assessed and the illustrations show the uncropped sheets, including the tattered margins and pinholes, showing how the prints were handled and used. Van Gogh is known to have pinned some to walls and specks of oil paint can be detected, meaning that they were hung near his easel. The prints that he copied have been identified. There are missing prints and Van Gogh did know other prints from books, magazines, illustrations and visits to galleries. Even so, this largely intact collection provides us with a useful resource which allows us to understand Van Gogh’s taste and knowledge.

 

Louis van Tilborgh (ed.), Japanese Prints: The Collection of Vincent van Gogh, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam/Thames & Hudson, 2018, hardback, $45, 224pp, over 170 col. illus., ISBN 978 0500 23 9896

© Alexander Adams

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French Lithography in the Nineteenth Century

Jules Chéret_Bal au Moulin Rouge, 1889_Color lithograph on paper_Collection Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers_Museum Purchase_Photo Jack Abraham

[Image: Jules Chéret, Bal au Moulin Rouge (1889), color lithograph on paper, Collection Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers, Museum Purchase, photo: Jack Abraham]

The invention of lithography by Bavarian chemist Alois Senefelder in 1796 revolutionised printing. His system of fixing a drawn design on to a stone surface in a new printing process would increase the speed of design, rate of printing and longevity of the design matrix, allowing prints to made faster, cheaper and more plentiful than ever before. Lithography was originally used to print sheet music more efficiently but its potential in every area of printing was soon recognised and by the second decade of the Nineteenth Century a lithography boom had begun. It was used to print sheet music, newspaper illustrations, posters, maps, timetables, menus, book plates, labels, forms, stationery letterheads and a huge range of other material featuring text and images. Lithography became a large, specialised and profitable industry. The variant of offset lithography is still the standard means of mass printing to this day.

The current exhibition Set in Stone: Lithography in Paris, 1815-1900 held at Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey (20 January-20 July 2018) contains many lithographs from this boom, with exhibited items taken from its expansive permanent collection. This review is of the exhibition catalogue. The survey of French lithography ranges from the Napoleonic era to the dawn of the Twentieth Century and the advent of High Modernism.

The technology of lithography advanced over the Nineteenth Century. The use of zinc plates meant that larger sheets could be printed – a key step towards the development of large posters in the 1860s. Registration was improved, allowing the production of three- and four-colour prints. The use of motorisation allowed the automated production of prints, superseding hand-cranking of presses. The ease of use and widespread availability of lithography drove reproduction engraving and etching to near extinction, where etching lived on as an artistic rather than industrial process. Transfer lithography was the development of sheets which could be drawn on before being transferred to the plate in the studio. This meant that artists did not need to come to the studio to draw directly on stones or plates.

Although not intended as an artist’s medium, fine artists were quick to explore the potential of the new medium. Unlike etching and engraving, the process was a simple one. The artist could simply draw on a stone or plate in wax crayon or ink and leave all other stages to master printmakers; however, full-time professional lithograph artists did become technically proficient in all aspects of the printing process. Print-sellers began to encourage and promote lithography as an artist’s medium and cultivate collectors.

The catalogue essays by Christine Giviskos are informative and wide ranging. Exhibited items include examples of art, book illustrations, lettering, reproduction prints, satirical images and posters, some in colour. Art styles covered in this catalogue cover Romanticism, Classicism, Pointillism, Post-Impressionism and the Nabis. Reproduction prints could act as transcriptions of paintings, drawings or prints and became the principal means of becoming familiar with the Old Masters.

Social history looms large in this selection. The after effects of the Napoleonic wars dominated public discourse in the 1810s and 1820s and caused seismic political divisions in the French population. Workless vagrant veterans from the Napoleonic campaigns were a constant reminder of France’s lost glory and ignominious defeats. Veterans were idolised as heroes but also feared as dangerous criminal vagabonds. The plight of soldiers in war and afterwards were presented in lithographs by Horace and Carle Vernet, Hyacinthe Aubry-Lecomte, Nicolas-Toussaint Charlet and Théodore Géricault. Also included are some of Géricault’s equine lithographs, some executed from scenes the artist encountered in London.

Théodore Géricault_The English Farrier, 1821_Lithograph on paper_Collection Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers_Museum Purchase_Photo Peter Jacobs

[Image: Théodore Géricault, The English Farrier (1821), lithograph on paper, Collection Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers, Museum Purchase, photo: Peter Jacobs]

The most influential humorous lithographer was Honoré Daumier. His social commentaries and satires had widespread popular appeal and commanded respect from critics and fellow artists alike. He moved fluidly between modes of approach and mediums. His satirical work is to the fore in this selection. Other prominent satirists (including JJ Grandville, LL Boilly) are included in the exhibition and discussed briefly in the catalogue.

Jules Chéret (1836-1932) was the star of French colour posters. His blend of strong colour, stylised figural rendering and dramatic lettering produced pieces such as the exhibited Bal au Moulin Rouge (1889). Other posters are classics by Toulouse-Lautrec, Bonnard, Maurou and others. There is a copy of Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen’s famous Chat Noir poster of 1896. Included is a Steinlen poster and the original stone that he drew on, allowing viewers to understand the process. The drawing includes the motif, some lettering and registration marks. The final version has extra elements and more lettering.

Painters such as Théodore Chassériau used lithography to make reproduction prints of paintings exhibited at the Autumn Salon, such as Venus Anadyomene (c. 1844). Henri Fantin-Latour developed a painterly approach to lithography, using a scraper to scratch dashes of light into shaded areas. The grainy, dark quality of lithography was ideal for Odilon Redon’s sfumato fantasies. Oddities in this selection include two lithographs by Eugène Carrière (1849-1906), who was famous for his chiaroscuro – nearly monochrome – oil paintings and charcoal drawings. The lithographs of a woman resting her head and a foundry scene are very mannered and suave, lacking the gravitas and melancholy of his paintings. Constant Meunier, the Belgian artist who specialised in scenes of industrial work, may have inspired Carrière’s foundry scene.

Édouard Manet created some lithographs illustrating Poe’s The Raven. His Le Polichinelle (1874) colour lithograph was intended to be an insert in newspaper Le Temps, however it was suppressed, perhaps due to political pressure. Manet seemed to be mocking a senior statesman and the police may have ordered the proofs to be destroyed. Only a few copies of the print survive. His Raven illustrations feature drawing in ink, showing how painterly lithography could be.

Late in the boom the journal La Revue blanche (1893-4) capitalised on aficionado appreciation for lithographs among dedicated collectors. It commissioned covers and posters by prominent artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec and some of the new generation, including Félix Vallotton, a young Bonnard and other Nabis.

Apart from the design decision to allow illustrations to cover two pages – thus obscuring the centre in shadow – this title is flawless. It forms an excellent introduction to the diversity of pictorial lithography in France during the first century of the technology. Readers are recommended to visit the exhibition.

 

Christine Giviskos, Set in Stone: Lithography in Paris, 1815-1900, Hirmer/Zimmerli Art Museum/Rutgers University, hardback, 184pp, 130 col. illus., $45, ISBN 978 3777 429946

Other reviews on printmaking in the Nineteenth Century

Prints in Colour, France 1880-1900: https://alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com/2018/01/25/prints-in-colour-france-1880-1900/

Prints in Paris, 1900: https://alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com/2017/03/07/prints-in-paris-1900/

© 2018 Alexander Adams

The Triumph of Discrimination

CultivatingJourney_front

Legacies are dangerous things. They endow wonderful treasures but make odd and awkward stipulations upon the recipients. Legacies are delicious traps set by the dead. A legatee receives a rich collection of art but one which cannot be tampered with. A great donation perpetuates the donor’s character and bows future custodians to his idiosyncratic will and its generosity is mixed with perverseness and not a little mischievousness. Every great deed has a touch of cruelty at its heart.

The pre-formed collection gathered on the basis of connoisseurship and bequeathed to an institution – bounded by restrictions on deaccessioning – is an antidote to the new self-lacerating identity-driven hierarchy-averse tendency that damages current trends in collecting and academic thought. Those dead white male plutocratic collectors, with their acquisitive tendencies, stubborn attachment to pleasure, independent views on aesthetics and wilful disregard of diversity-and-inclusion agendas, are actually bulwarks of the sheer love of art against forces of joyless political positioning. Connoisseurship is the apotheosis of discrimination – that is, of cultivating taste for the excellent and understanding that only the best, judged on its own terms, is sufficient of admiration.

The bequest of Herman Herzog Levy (1902-1990) to McMaster Museum of Art, Hamilton, Ontario has the delights and drawbacks of every bequest but an extra element. The current exhibition A Cultivating Journey (Vancouver Art Gallery, 3 March-21 May 2018; touring to Kelowna Art Gallery, 16 June-28 October 2018) catalogues the impressive collection of European art that Levy collected from the 1920s to the early 1970s.

Levy (who was born and resided in Hamilton) made his living in the gem trade. Habits of his profession carried over into his art collecting: the search for overlooked or undervalued works of beauty and rarity, the cultivation of discerning taste, long hours of contemplation and learning. All these qualities – combined with disposable surplus capital – allowed Levy to pursue his passion for art. He was civic minded and participated in many activities to benefit Hamilton and Hamiltonians. He was deeply involved with the administration of the Art Gallery of Hamilton and acquired works for it, as well as donating some of his own art. His taste was not parochial and he apparently had little appetite for Canadian art. He collected European fine art (particularly German prints), Chinese ceramics and Japanese woodcuts. His painting collection was donated to McMaster in 1984. In terms of the value that his bequest would provide to Hamilton, his European works of art provided a complement to donations of Canadian art. As a group, his collection forms a primer in European art, equivalent to that of a small regional museum in Europe.

What makes the Levy bequest unusual is that he set aside a legacy to be spent on non-North American fine art for McMaster. New works acquired with the fund were chosen to relate to the pieces in the collection and fill in gaps in areas. Areas of acquisition were Dutch painting, German graphics and School of London (Auerbach and Freud). The catalogue helpfully sets out which works were donated by Levy and which purchased later with his legacy.

The collection is eclectic. There are good prints by Dürer, Lucas Cranach the Elder and other Germans. The Dutch and Flemish portraits and still-lifes include one of only two identified paintings – a still-life including fish – by Philips Breughel (1635-c.1662), great-grandson of Pieter Bruegel the Elder and a fine anonymous still-life with oysters (possibly by Alexander Adriaenssen). Drawings include attractive works by Boucher, Gainsborough and Cassatt.

Bertin

[Image: Jean-Victor Bertin, Roman Figures in the Sabine Mountains (1825), oil on canvas, 82 x 114.5 cm, Herman H. Levy Bequest purchase 1993, McMaster Museum of Art]

Roman Figures in the Sabine Mountains (1825) by Jean-Victor Bertin (1767-1842) is an example of the academic tradition that dominated French Classical and Neoclassical painting, as practised in France and Rome. Bertin worked in Rome and is closer to the Classical than the Neoclassical. The latter more expressly political in content, was crisper in execution and – following the examples of David and Ingres – more coolly coloured than the Classical painting that came before. Bertin is much closer to Poussin than he is to his colleague Ingres. Like Poussin (who lived in Rome), Bertin went into the campagna to sketch and then compose his idealistic landscapes by combining motifs and observations from life. Bertin’s work is notable for being a last lingering of the Classical French painting made in Rome before the Neoclassicism, Romanticism and Realism overtook the approach.

There are good landscapes by Courbet, Monet and Pissarro. Albert Marquet’s river view in Hamburg is not his finest but strong. (Did Marquet ever let a bad picture out of his studio?) Marquet is at his best in the winter, capturing blues and greens and dank stone and foliage. This 1909 canvas of a sunlit view is too warm in coloration to be a classic. Other works of this period include an indifferent Sickert figure painting, Braque Cubist drypoint and a Klee watercolour.

There are curiosities such as bold but rather crude still-life by Émile Bernard and a sombre still-life by Bernard’s colleague Van Gogh. Still-life: Ginger Pot and Onions (1885) is an odd work.

Van Gogh

[Image: Vincent Van Gogh. Still-life: Ginger Pot and Onions (1885), oil on canvas, 34.5 x 49.5 cm, gift of Herman H. Levy, 1984, McMaster Museum of Art]

The oriental ginger pot (without lid) is contrasted with three onions. Painted in Neunen while the artist was living with his parents, it combines the aestheticism of a young painter keen to learn the technical and theoretical aspects of his craft while also reflecting ordinary life. The latter had drawn Van Gogh to painting peasants, miners and the urban poor and the onions – a staple food of the poor – can be related to the subject of frugal repasts. The ginger pot, probably owned by his parents, was an object of the exotic Orient coveted by the bourgeois for its inherent qualities and its status as an imported luxury. The painter may not have been concerned about symbolism and was more likely keen to add textural and colour variety to the ensemble. Whatever the inspiration, the muted colours and reciprocal rounded forms create a pleasing but slightly bleak picture.

OConor

[Image: Roderic O’Conor, Red Rocks and Foam (c. 1898), oil on canvas, 48.9 x 61 cm, gift of Herman H. Levy, 1984, McMaster Museum of Art]

One of the unexpected highlights of the collection is Red Rocks and Foam (c. 1898) by Roderic O’Conor. This marine by the Irish painter is an energetically painted, pungently coloured and robust picture that can be classed as an early Expressionist work. It has the exuberance of a Soutine landscape or a later Munch painting. O’Conor has used his own observation as the basis of the composition but improvised the brushwork and the serpentine forms of the foam. Dry-brush (scumbling) has described a speckling of spume and an ominous mauve sky has been briskly painted. Painted alla prima in bravura fashion, the painting need not have taken more than an hour to create. That vigorousness in approach – matching the energy of the waves – is part of the credo of Expressionism. The pathetic fallacy of Nature depicted as a mirror of the viewer’s emotions and the creator embodying what is present in Nature and conveying this in the art, both feed into Expressionist art as it was practised in the early decades of the Twentieth Century.

There is a typically thoughtful yet daring portrait by Chaim Soutine of a male painter. As the recent London exhibition attested, Soutine had acute sensitivity regarding his portrait subjects and never overwhelmed them by projecting too much of his own feelings in to his depictions. The subjects come across as quite different individuals.

Essays by specialists provide overviews of areas of the collection as well as selected commentaries on notable works. Many works are illustrated full page and a full list of works is included. All text is in English and French. The touring exhibition and catalogue are a fitting tribute to Levy’s generous bequest.

 

Barker, T. Bruce, L. DeWitt, I Holubizky, A Kidson, A McQueen, K. Ness, C. Pierre, A Cultivating Journey: The Herman H. Levy Legacy, McMaster Museum of Art, 2018, paperback, 250pp, col. illus., English/French text, ISBN 978 192 6632186

© 2018 Alexander Adams

Van Gogh and Japan

ENG softcover Van Gogh & Japan

 

For Vincent Van Gogh, Japan was an ideal – a place of light, pleasure and a productive society framed by awe-inspiring nature. Van Gogh had a typically Western view of the Orient, with Japan being a fantasy composition of familiarity with some cultural objects, travellers’ tales and assumptions. So, in many ways, the exhibition Van Gogh and Japan is an examination of the artist’s conceptions about a distant land he never visited and his deep involvement in the art of Japan, as it was understood in France of 1880-90. This review is of the catalogue for the current exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (23 March-24 June 2018; previously Hokkaidō Museum of Modern Art (Sapporo), Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, National Museum of Art (Kyoto)).

Although Van Gogh’s knowledge of Japan and its culture was fragmentary, the relationship was important to Van Gogh and influenced the artistic production of his last years. The influence is apparent in the art but there is a degree of uncertainty about how much the artist knew of Japanese art and culture. He perused the stock Parisian print dealers (including Siegfried Bing), bought as much as he could and discussed the art with others. His brother Theo was in the art trade and they frequently discussed the qualities of Japanese prints and tried to build a collection of the art that appealed to them. This was an easy task as Paris was still in the grip of japonisme, the craze for all things Japanese, especially art, clothing and furnishings, so there was much to see in museums, shops and new publications. This was the effect of Japan being opened up to the West in the 1860s. Japan, it seemed to Westerners, was a blend of the primitive and sophisticated – an exotic paradise that was culturally, linguistically and geographically inaccessible.

Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo in September 1888, “We wouldn’t be able to study Japanese art, it seems to me, without becoming much happier and more cheerful.” In the West there is the frequent longing for a return to simplicity to combat the effects of industrial production, complex social systems and political sophistication in a participatory democracy. The exotic non-Western society is a fantastic release from the demands and complexities of life. Such views tell us about escapism and discontent in the West, but not anything meaningful about the actual lives of those in the East.

Often idioms of non-Western cultures are used by to inject a dose of invigorating “primitivism” into Western art (Tahitian culture for Gauguin, West African masks for Picasso, Oceanic art for Surrealism, and so on). While such incorporations are often based on misapprehensions, they sometimes successfully introduce new elements or ideas into Western art. One of the most prominent examples of this is the art of Japan, as viewed by Vincent Van Gogh.

Van Gogh’s attitudes towards Japanese culture essentially matched the prevailing European view of Japan. In that respect he was conventional. What is distinctive about Van Gogh was how he found a way to express his admiration for an alien culture by incorporating elements of that into the Western art tradition. Certain elements of Japanese woodblock prints appeared in his art: emphatic contours; clearly delineated areas of strong unmixed colour; increased planar flatness as opposed pictorial depth; horizons placed high in compositions; aerial perspective; strong diagonals; cropping and enlargement of foreground elements; absence of chiaroscuro; emphasis on the decorative over the naturalistic description. Van Gogh’s success is not in how noticeable these elements are but in how well – generally – they mesh with the Western tradition within which he worked. The uninformed viewer comparing a late Van Gogh landscape to a traditional Nineteenth Century Dutch landscape will feel the former is powerful and dynamic but – apart from noticing the strong colour and visible brushwork – will not sense how Van Gogh’s art differs. Likewise, it is not clear to the average viewer that the influence is non-Western.

Included in the exhibition are two oval paintings made on wooden panels. The panels are Japanese in manufacture. Photographs show the reverse of the panels, complete with manufacturer’s name.

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[Image: Vincent van Gogh, Three Novels (1887), oil on panel, 31.1 × 48.5 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)]

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[Image: Back of Three Novels, with mention of the firm Kiryū Kōshō Kaisha, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)]

 

One aspect that seems to have passed unremarked is how the two still-life paintings are set on tables and the oval format evokes the shape of a round table viewed obliquely. Van Gogh, who was familiar with classic Dutch painting including illusionistic and trompe l’oeil painting, may possibly have used the unusual format to evoke perspectival distortion. It seems relatively unlikely. There is little in the way of visual wit in Van Gogh’s art. It was not in his outlook.

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[Image: Katsushika Hokusai, Bullfinch and Weeping Cherry, from an untitled series known as Small Flowers and Birds (c. 1834), from an untitled series known as Small Flowers and Birds (c. 1834), colour woodcut, 25.5 × 17.1 cm, The Art Institute of Chicago, Clarence Buckingham Collection, 1925, Photo credit: The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY/ Scala, Florence, © 2017]

 

In two double-page spreads, two versions of Portrait of Père Tanguy (both 1887) – which show a supporter of Van Gogh seated beside an array of Japanese woodblock prints – are juxtaposed with illustrations of the prints, allowing us to compare the sources with the transcriptions. The painter made substantial changes to the images but the spirit is carried over. For the artist, his positive feelings regarding his patron were expressed visually in a montage of Japanese art, which he associated with pleasure and exuberance.

On three occasions the artist transcribed Japanese prints as oil paintings, tracing the originals for accuracy. (The tracings still exist.)

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[Image: Utagawa Hiroshige, Sudden Evening Shower on the Great Bridge near Atake, from the series One Hundred Views of Famous Places in Edo (1857), colour woodcut, 33.8 × 22.6 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)]

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[Image: Vincent van Gogh, Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige) (1887), oil on canvas, 73.3 × 53.8 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)]

 

Inspired by the slightly wrinkled surface of prints on thin Japanese paper – called crépons by the French, after the uneven surfaces of pancakes – Van Gogh began to produce paintings with textured surfaces. The regular impasto brushstrokes formed a crinkled appearance. He adapted his drawing technique to imitate Japanese masters, by using blends of blue and black ink and working with reed pens. He adopted a stenographic style of drawing: creating areas of pattern by making rapid repeated (simple) marks. Thus with dashes, dots, circles and so forth, he could describe discrete areas of grass, foliage, roadway or sky in ways that had distinct vibrancy and density. These marks are clear enough to be legible but small enough to generate an overall impression. One could almost describe the vibrancy of the areas as “colour”. (Compare to Bonnard’s style of drawing, which took Van Gogh’s approach one step further by using differing weights of touch.)

The catalogue includes fascinating glimpses of Van Gogh’s enchantment – and possible late disenchantment – with Japanese art, including contact with two Western artists (Louis Dumoulin and Edmund Walpole Brooke) who had visited Japan. It seems Van Gogh was interested to hear first-hand testimony about life in the Far East or was assessing the practicality of actually visiting Japan.  One essay examines the Van Gogh brothers’ collection of Japanese prints.  The number of Japanese prints that entered the Van Gogh Museum in 1973 was 482. Originally there were at least 660 prints but some were disposed of by the brothers. Vincent bought 660 prints by early 1888, though apparently he never paid the full price due. The artist had initially thought of exhibiting and selling on the prints but had little success in the one display he arranged. His admiration was genuine and daily acquaintance with his stock influenced his art. His collection included a wide range of subjects – except for warrior and war scenes and erotic prints – and items varied in quality and condition. It notably excludes Hokusai, whose prints were more highly priced than those by other by other printmakers. Chris Uhlenbeck concludes that “Van Gogh quickly formed the collection, within his own limited means, based on aesthetic considerations such as outspoken colour, striking compositional elements in landscapes or sumptuously clad beauties in kimonos. The collection, together with other Japanese art that the artist may have encountered in Paris, provided a new, exotic aesthetic that profoundly influenced Van Gogh’s own artistic voice.”

The catalogue includes a chronology covering Van Gogh’s links to Japanese art and covers some works only tangential to the subject, which gives the publication a satisfying breadth of scope. The reproductions are crisp and largely accurate. For anyone interested in understanding key stylistic aspects of Van Gogh’s art, this catalogue will become essential.

 

Louis van Tiborgh, Nienke Bakker, Cornelia Homburg, Tsukasa Kōdera & Chris Uhlenbeck, Van Gogh and Japan, Van Gogh Museum, 2018, paperback, 240pp, 200 col. illus., €29.95, French & Dutch versions available, ISBN 978 9 462 302204

Prints in Colour, France 1880-1900

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Laurence Schmidlin (ed.), Enraptured by Color: Printmaking in Late 19th-Century France/Vertige de la couleur: L’estampe en France à la fin de XIXe siècle, Scheidegger & Spiess (in co-operation with Musée Jenisch Vevey), 2017, 248pp, 217 col. illus., paperback, English/French text, €48, ISBN 978 3 85881 798 3

 

Coloured prints have existed for as long as printmaking itself. The earliest woodcuts were made in the expectation that that they would be coloured by hand, usually in aqueous medium, and some prints seemed to have been designed accordingly. The print designer and cutter – often different individuals – had little control over how that colouring was done. The exact extent of the practice is unknown. The vast majority of prints – not just proofs but all proofs of certain designs – have been lost. The attrition rate for prints is very high and for the majority of history, prints were not considered valuable or even worthy of collection. They were little more than newspapers or posters, roughly tacked to walls or pasted to furniture.

Chiaroscuro woodcuts (mainly Northern Italian) were developed using multiple plates – generally not more than three per image. True colour printing, using interaction of three colour plates which overlaid colour to build a range of other colours, was developed by Joseph Christoph Le Blon around 1710. The red- yellow-blue system was expanded to include one for black, which allowed tonal gradation.

This exhibition catalogue covers forms of colour printmaking from the late Nineteenth Century up to 1900, concentrating on French printmakers. The final decades of the Nineteenth Century saw a boom in colour printing in France, primarily Paris. The introduction of colour lithography led to a proliferation of colour-printed images including periodicals, posters, maps, packaging and other commercial products, which transformed the streets of major cities with splashes of vivid eye-catching colour. This change was not welcomed by many art critics and art connoisseurs, who found the colour to be garish and vulgar. This view permeated attitudes within the artist communities. The Bracquemond Pictorialist strand of art – characterised by the heavy inking of monochrome etching – was the dominant approach in printmaking. So alarmed was the Société des artistes français by the uptake of colour printing by fine artists, that it stipulated in 1891 that “no work in colour will be admitted” to the society’s exhibitions of prints.

The Impressionists did relatively little colour printmaking. Mary Cassatt and Pierre-Auguste Renoir were the artists who spent most time in the area. Paul Cézanne’s brief forays into colour etching are shown here also.

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[Image: Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), Le chapeau épinglé, first plate (1897), lithograph in nine colours on laid paper, 600 × 492 / 794 × 572 mm (image / support), private collection]

 

It was younger artists such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec who felt a kinship with commercial artists such as Jules Chéret (who made posters using colour lithography) who embraced colour printmaking. In 1887 Toulouse-Lautrec made his first colour poster and broke with the monochrome aesthetic and blurred the boundary between commercial applied art and fine art. Other artists soon followed. The transfer was also in the other direction, with commercial posters being taken up as fashionable decoration and appreciated for their aesthetic quality. (For further discussion, see my “Prints in Paris, 1900” article.) Examples of posters by Toulouse-Lautrec, Chéret, Henri-Gabriel Ibels and James Ensor are included. The large size and areas of ungraduated tone present within poster-printing led artists to explore the depiction of space by the use of flat colour. That is an aberration in the development of post-Renaissance art, which developed artistic methods and conventions directed towards naturalism (albeit tempered by idealism).

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[Image: Paul Signac (1863–1935), Saint-Tropez – Le port, plank for L’Album d’estampes originales de la Galerie Vollard (never published) (1897–1898), lithograph in six colours on wove paper, 435 × 330 / 520 × 405 mm (image / support), Private collection.]

 

More complex conceptions of colour were investigated by the Neo-Impressionists. The Neo-Impressionists (a definition which overlaps to a degree with Divisionism and Pointillism) who most worked in colour printmaking were Paul Signac and Maximilien Luce. (Seurat did not make prints.) Félix Féneon was the critic who provided a theoretical underpinning for ideas of broken colour, complementary colour, colour circles, juxtaposition and so forth, drawing upon the writings of chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul, who had pioneered scientific analysis of colour. Artists have always had mixed approaches to theory, generally relying relatively less on theory than is often assumed. When confronted with clear choices, artists usually opt for the artistically satisfying course rather than the theoretically pure course. Printmaker Auguste Delâtre assisted painters in translating their art into colour etchings.

Test proofs with artist’s instructions to the master printmaker demonstrate how much adjustment and compromise was involved in the process of making satisfying products. On trial sheets Paul Signac notes for the attention of the master printmaker faults concerning colour separation and registration. Such working material is not commonly preserved, so these are illuminating documents.

The influence of Japanese prints encouraged new views on colour use and composition. Most Japanese art was transmitted to the West in the form of colour woodcut prints employing elaborate inking techniques. Some French artists went beyond taking aesthetic inspiration from these prints and actually began to make their own colour woodcuts with multiple blocks in the Japanese manner. Examples of prints by these artists – Henri Rivière, Henri Guérard and Auguste Lepère – are discussed by Valérie Sueur-Hermel. One print by Rivière is composed of 18 colours from eight blocks. While some of these prints are effective, none are as striking or flawless as the Japanese master printmakers, understandably so considering their lack of apprenticeship and lack of understanding of the art form’s unique skills and methods. The sheer difficulty and hard work required to produce these prints defeated even the most committed practitioners. Colour woodcuts did not become a widespread printmaking form in Europe. The woodcuts of Edvard Munch, Paul Gauguin and the German Expressionists drew on non-Japanese sources and left a more lasting mark on Western printmakers.

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[Image: Edouard Vuillard (1868–1940), Intérieur aux tentures roses II, plate 6 of the serie Paysages et intérieurs (1899) (1898–1899), lithograph in five colours on China paper, 340 × 270 / 393 × 309 mm (image / support), Musée Jenisch Vevey – Cabinet cantonal des estampes, collection de la Ville de Vevey]

 

The Nabis were a group of young Post-Impressionist artists interested in domestic subjects and scenes of everyday life, which they depicted in colour and with areas of pattern and decoration, influenced by posters, commercial art and Japanese woodcuts. The catalogue includes colour prints and posters by painter-printmakers Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard, Félix Vallotton and Maurice Denis. Author Gilles Genty notes that between 1894 and 1900 no fewer than 57 group shows including Nabi prints were held. The Nabis were encouraged – and their colour printmaking – was financed by publishers and dealers such as Ambroise Vollard, whose speciality was the publication of illustrated books and print portfolios. By 1900 most artist attention was turning from posters to small prints for portfolios and books.

There are many curious and little-known pieces included in this catalogue. Théophile Alexandre Steinlen used rudimentary colour lithography for covers of the journal Gil Blas. Charles Maurin’s drypoint in two colours (depicting a woman washing an infant) is particularly beautiful and an example of the power and effectiveness of restraint in colouring and the effect of colour drawing.

This book – which includes an extensive glossary of technical terms – supplies useful information, introduces surprising ideas and presents a wide variety of colour prints.

Marketing Van Gogh

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Stefan Koldehoff & Chris Stolwijk (eds.), The Thannhauser Gallery: Marketing Van Gogh, Mercatorfonds/Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 2017, hb, 328pp, fully illus. mono/col., (Dutch version available), English version: ISBN 978 9462 301 665

 

We are so used to encountering art by a single art in the form of a monographic exhibition or book, where the items are used as a chain linked by the fact that all the works are by a single author. When we look through a catalogue we barely notice the ownership of the works; the information is on labels and relegated to lists of lenders at the end of the book but it does not greatly inform our understanding or appreciation of the art. Yet there are many ways of looking at art works: as products of a certain artist, as objects from a specific region, as items bought and traded. Art is assuredly also property and its transfer through commerce tells us much about the status, reception and understanding of art over a long period of time. It is this study that shapes a new book, The Thannhauser Gallery: Marketing Van Gogh.

In 1905 Heinrich Thannhauser (1859-1935) co-founded branches of galleries selling Secession art in Berlin and Munich; his son Justin (1892-1976) joined the business in 1916. The Thannhausers operated galleries in Berlin (1905-37), Munich (1905-28) and Lucerne (1920-30); they soon featured the most advanced art of the period. They held a ground-breaking retrospective of Van Gogh’s art in 1908, in Munich. The Thannhausers did not treat art of the Modernist avant-garde merely as property but as part of a culture of a historically important movement, to be carefully documented, curated and researched. The gallery’s illustrated catalogues became valuable reference sources for the trade. Thannhausers’ clients were public and private collectors, the private ones being a mixture of Europeans, with a few Americans. Museums which hold ex-Thannhauser Van Gogh paintings include the Hermitage, the Metropolitan Museum, MoMA and many other museums, especially American ones. Promotion by Thannhauser and other dealers helped accelerate Van Gogh’s elevation to the canon.

The Thannhauser Gallery proved to be an important link between German audiences and non-German Modernist art. Thannhauser exhibitions, publications and informal stock sales were the way many Germans were introduced to the art of leading avant-garde artists, including the Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, Matisse, Picasso and Van Gogh. Although Thannhauser Gallery was not the sole Modernist dealer in Germany, it was one of the most prominent and highly regarded. A network of assistance, internal dealership and rivalry existed between the few dealers of Modernist art in pre-1939 Europe, all with a vested interest in disseminating information about the wave of new art.

Gallery stock is an unpredictable mix of what was available and acquired from private sources, other dealers and auction houses and artist’s estates. That peculiar scattershot quality gives collections and gallery stock their individual characters. This catalogue documents and illustrates 107 paintings and drawings attributed to Van Gogh that passed through the Thannhauser Gallery (and later Justin Thannhauser as a private dealer) between 1905 and 1963. There may have been more but incomplete documentation does provide enough information for listing in this publication. What is particularly rewarding about this project is that it includes fakes and copies that were once considered genuine and sold as such. Most current catalogues raisonnés do not include sections on known fakes; the present situation in the USA means that such sections are often inadvisable, as the legal and financial repercussions for declaring a work fake can be serious. The fate of future publication of catalogues raisonnés is in doubt.

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This catalogue includes essays on the way the gallery did business and communicated internally, how it recorded client details and an overview of the client base. Individual works are illustrated and a full provenance given – usually stopping at the point Thannhauser sold the work. Sources, bibliography and cross-references are given. Notes discuss the story of the item was acquired, how it was marketed and its fate. One of the masterpieces was Cypresses (1889), now owned by the Metropolitan Museum. Other works span the artist’s whole career and every subject: portraits, landscapes, figure studies, flowers, still-lifes, even a rare nude. They range from large oil paintings to ink drawings, drawings from letters down to a casual scribbled observation of figures on a street.

The Wacker scandal of the 1920s damaged collector confidence in purchasing art by Van Gogh. Van Gogh is an easy artist to fake in a superficially persuasive manner. Otto Wacker Galerie had sold numerous fakes as genuine works and once this became publicly known a cloud of suspicion descended on the Van Gogh market. Clients threatened to sue Wacker and a number of art appraisers (including prominent art historian Julius Meier-Graefe) were implicated in issuing certificates of authenticity for non-genuine works. Wacker was tried for fraud. Looking at the pictures illustrated we can test our skills of appreciation. Some works are relatively persuasive while others are obvious forgeries. Even great artists can have off-days and there are a number of genuine but poor Van Gogh paintings here. They have the bonus of unfamiliarity. You won’t have seen them in the usual books or the big museum exhibitions.

The catalogue illustrates the fakes – some now confined to the basements of museums. A handful of paintings cannot be traced and go unillustrated, leaving us with general titles, such as Woman, Landscape and so forth. These may be actual works still missing, fakes which have fallen into obscurity or already known works whose provenance has become obscured. There is a slight possibility that they are stock-keeping errors. A melancholy alternative is that these are paintings that perished in the war.

With the rise to power of the Nazi party and the increasingly onerous restrictions on Jewish ownership of businesses, Thannhauser looked to move stock abroad and divest himself of ownership of the Berlin branch. He relocated to Paris and began dealing there. In 1939, with clouds of war gathering, Thannhauser sent much of stock abroad for exhibition, seeing that it would be safer out of Europe. Thannhauser senior died in 1935; and in 1940 Justin, his wife and two sons left Switzerland, departing for New York. He was unable to retrieve all his stock, some of which was confiscated by German authorities. Much of that was destroyed during wartime bombing. In addition to the gallery stock, much of the archives, correspondence and library were also lost or destroyed during the war. The remaining records have been transferred to ZADIK, Central Archive for German and International Art Market Research, Cologne, where they have been consulted for this publication.

Thannhauser did not open a gallery in New York but instead sold stock privately and via galleries and auction houses until 1963, when he announced that he would donate 75 significant pieces from his private collection to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. This included two paintings, four ink drawings and three letters by Van Gogh.
The donation remains at the museum as a permanent legacy, paying tribute to his family, his adopted homeland and Modernist art his family championed.

24 October 2017

 

The Madness of Vincent Van Gogh

“Until now, the way of testing whether or not someone had good biographical knowledge of Vincent Van Gogh was to ask them about the famous ear-cutting incident. The answer ‘he cut off his ear’ informed you the speaker had only a hazy comprehension, whereas the knowledgeable person replied ‘in actuality, Van Gogh cut off only part of his ear’. Now new information suggests that Van Gogh did indeed cut off his whole left ear. On the Verge of Insanity: Van Gogh and His Illness, a new exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (closes 25 September), accompanied by an excellent catalogue, attempts to get as close as possible to the truth about Van Gogh’s physical and mental illnesses.

“The confusion about the ear incident sprang up during Van Gogh’s lifetime. On the 23 December 1888, Van Gogh was living with Paul Gauguin at the Yellow House in Arles. Gauguin announced his intention to leave Arles after persistent rows with Van Gogh. Deeply anxious and depressed, Van Gogh slashed his ear with a razor. He presented the ear wrapped in newspaper to a prostitute at a local brothel. The next day police discovered Van Gogh unconscious in his house surrounded by blood…”

Read the full review at Spiked, 26 August 2016 online here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/the-madness-of-vincent-van-gogh/18680#.V8WS0PldU5k

 

 

Pierre Bonnard: late still-lifes & interiors

“When Picasso acolyte Christian Zervos slighted Bonnard as clinging ‘to what is facile and agreeable’, Matisse was incandescent. Matisse considered Bonnard to be one of the century’s great painters. Picasso did not think Bonnard was a painter at all. Despite repeated efforts, the installation of Bonnard as a top-flight artist has foundered on his perceived adherence to domestic subjects, lack of obvious stylistic and thematic development, and Impressionist technique. His work does not fit comfortably into a linear, movement-centred narrative of art history…”

Read the full review at THE ART BOOK REVIEW, 19 January 2010:

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-8357.2010.01076_7.x/full

Vincent Van Gogh: letters

“When young Dutchwoman Jo Bonger met picture-dealer Theo Van Gogh, she was intrigued by the stream of yellow envelopes that arrived for him from the south of France. These were from his brother Vincent, an unsuccessful painter intent on creating a school of independent avant-garde painters in Arles. Little did she know how significant these letters would become in her life.

“The bond between the brothers Van Gogh is at the core of the artist’s letters, which are now considered an outstanding part of world literature. Theo provided Vincent with support and advice during the turbulent years Vincent endured during his short (and usually disastrous) stints as an art dealer, bookseller, schoolmaster, preacher and missionary. Later, when Vincent’s relationship with his father deteriorated to a point when his parents could no longer countenance his eccentric and obstinate ways, Theo agreed to take over paying the allowance their father had previously provided…”

Read the full review at SPIKED, 19 December 2014:

http://www.spiked-online.com/review_of_books/article/van-goghs-deeply-human-letters/16387#.Vd9K7PldU5k