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Van Gogh’s love affair with Japan

Van Gogh’s love affair with Japan

An exhibition in Amsterdam shows how Japanese art influenced his style

An exhibition in Amsterdam shows how Japanese art influenced his style

Joe Lloyd | April 11th 2018

“Plum Garden at Kamata” (1857) by Utawaga Hiroshige II

In 1854 America forced Japan, which had sealed itself off from the West two centuries before, to open its borders to trade. Over the next few decades, Japanese art flooded European markets. For the first time, Western audiences were introduced to ukyio-e or “pictures of the floating world”. This genre of coloured woodblock prints depicted landscapes, street-scenes, folk tales and subjects from nature. Paris’s impressionists were entranced. Édouard Manet, Claude Monet and Edgar Degas all studied ukiyo-e but no one absorbed its aesthetic as much as Vincent van Gogh. “All my work”, he wrote in a letter to his brother Theo, “is based to some extent on Japanese art.” 

“Van Gogh and Japan” at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam is, remarkably, the first large-scale exhibition devoted to this relationship. It contains more than 60 paintings and drawings by Van Gogh, which are matched with dozens of exquisite examples of ukiyo-e. Many of these were once owned by Van Gogh himself, who amassed a collection of 660 and pinned many to the walls of his studio (the layout is replicated by the exhibition’s final room). Knowing little about Japan apart from what appeared in the prints, he imagined it as a place of serenity removed from the disorder of his own life. When he moved, in February 1888, to Arles in the south of France, he framed the journey as a search for his own artistic Japan. “What is the equivalent of Japan,” he asked Theo, “the south? I believe that the future of the new art still lies in the south after all.”

The show focuses on a prodigiously productive period of his career, beginning with his move to Paris in 1886, following him as he relocated to Arles, and ending with his death two years later. His obsession with Japan began in Paris. He bought his collection of prints there and began to make copies of specific pieces. Gradually he began to incorporate the lessons of ukiyo-e – its bold outlines and fields of colour, truncated perspectives and shadowless figures – into his style. Three months after settling in Arles, he told Theo that he had begun to “see with a more Japanese eye”.  Although the strident brushstrokes and tumultuous colours of his paintings from this period may seem a world apart from the exquisite tranquility of ukiyo-e, his “Japanese eye” is in evidence in so many of his paintings, from the simplified background of “Sunflowers” (1888) to the diagonal perspective of “The Night Café” (1888).

 

“Courtesan (after Eisen)” (1887)

In Paris he made three copies of prints. He made this one by tracing the cover of Paris Illustré, a global affairs magazine. The cover reproduced a print by Keisai Eisen, a Japanese artist renowned for his bijin-ga, portraits of beautiful women, from society ladies to goddesses. In this case, however, his subject is less rarefied; Japanese viewers would have recognised the hair ornament and belt worn by courtesans. Van Gogh’s lily-pond border plays with these associations. Among the flora and fauna copied from other ukiyo-e prints are frogs and cranes, the French names of which were slang for prostitutes. The woman herself – whom Van Gogh rendered in brighter colours and broader strokes than the immaculately precise original – stands against a plain field of colour, a common trope in ukiyo-e portraiture, but a far cry from Western portraiture of Van Gogh’s time, which favoured a clear sense of place.

 

“The Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige)” (1887)

This painting is based on “Sudden shower over Shin-Ohashi bridge and Atake” (1857) by the ukiyo-e master Hiroshige. But it’s far from a mere copy. Like Hiroshige, Van Gogh captures the rain with thin vertical lines, but he transforms the smooth, brooding sky into a cloudy cluster of brushstrokes, exchanges the milkiness of the sea for rich green and replaces the unmarked border with a wider, more vibrant one, decorated with his take on kanji

 

“The Arlésienne” (1888)

“L’Arlésienne”, or “the girl from Arles”, depicts Marie Ginoux, the wife of the proprietor of a local cafe. The strong outlines of the figure, as well as her truncated torso, evokes Eisen’s okubi-e or “large-head pictures”, while the thin, brown border is reminiscent of those found in Hiroshige’s landscapes. 

 

“Self-Portrait” (1888)

One of Van Gogh’s aims in moving south was to create an artists’ colony. In advance of this idea, he asked fellow artists Paul Gauguin and Emile Bernard to paint their own self-portraits in return for one of his. Like “The Arlésienne”, this painting, inscribed “to my friend Paul Gauguin”, has a plain background, heavy outlines and a composition that zooms in on the head and shoulders. Writing to Theo in October, he described it as “all ashen grey against pale Veronese [green]”. By depicting himself with a shorn head of hair and eyes “in the Japanese manner”, Van Gogh cast himself as a Buddhist monk, calmly waiting for his friends to deliver on their side of the bargain.

 

“Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear” (1889)

Toward the end of 1888, after an altercation with Gauguin, Van Gogh slashed part of his left ear off, probably during an emotional breakdown. He spent the next year or so in and out of psychiatric clinics in Arles and Saint-Rémy. This famous self-portrait was painted after he returned to his Arles studio. The strikingly thick vertical brushstrokes are far removed from the flatness of ukiyo-e. And yet, on the wall behind him, Van Gogh has painted in great detail “Geishas in a Landscape”, a ukiyo-e print produced by Sato Torakiyo in the 1870s. Its presence shows how he continued to be preoccupied with his fantasy of Japan, even as his health was diminishing. 

 

“Almond Blossoms” (1890)

To 19th-century Japan, cherry blossoms were beautiful symbols of transience, and they appear in numerous ukiyo-e prints, sometimes in the background and other times as the sole focus. “Almond Blossoms”, painted while Van Gogh was at the Saint-Rémy asylum and intended to commemorate the birth of his nephew, captures the flower with extraordinary delicacy. Its blue background, which might be the sky or something more ambiguous, is similar to that in “Bullfinch and weeping cherry blossoms” (1834), a print by Hokusai which would have been too expensive for Van Gogh to own but which he may have seen in the dealerships of Paris. Shadowless and densely patterned, this painting has been endlessly reproduced on wallpaper, upholstery, cushions and canvas bags. Despite its overexposure, its power remains undimmed. 

Van Gogh and Japan Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, until June 24th