[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.”
[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