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