In February 1888, Vincent van Gogh left Paris, where he had been living for a couple of years, and headed for the city of Arles in Provence, in southern France. Exhausted by his time in the metropolis, and eager to recover some self-composure, he was seeking a simpler life that, he hoped, would revitalise both himself and his art. He was also keen to establish a community of artists, and felt excited by the possibilities.
More like this:
- Is destruction as powerful as creation?
- The dazzling art of a degenerate dynasty
- Secret symbols in still-life paintings
Curiously, in his elation, he viewed his new surroundings through the prism of a faraway country: Japan. In a letter written later that year to the painter Paul Gauguin, who would subsequently join him in Arles, Van Gogh recalled looking out of the window during his train journey from Paris to Provence “to see ‘if it was like Japan yet!’ Childish, isn’t it?”
Upon his arrival, he found that heavy snowfall had transformed the countryside, but the bright white fields still put him in mind of “winter landscapes” by “Japanese” artists. As the months went by, Van Gogh continued to associate Provence with Japan. “I’m always saying to myself that I’m in Japan here,” he wrote to his sister, in September 1888. “That as a result I only have to open my eyes and paint right in front of me what makes an impression on me.” Two weeks later, he reported to his brother: “The weather’s still fine here, and if it was always like that it would be better than the painters’ paradise, it would be Japan altogether.”
According to the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, “It was sun that Van Gogh sought in Provence, a brilliance and light that would wash out detail and simplify forms, reducing the world around him to the sort of pattern he admired in Japanese woodblocks. Arles, he said, was ‘the Japan of the South’. Here, he felt, the flattening effect of the sun would strengthen the outlines of compositions and reduce nuances of colour to a few vivid contrasts.”
Reading Van Gogh’s letters, it becomes clear that Japan held magical, mystical significance for him. In his imagination, the Land of the Rising Sun was a fountainhead of grace and well-being, a blessed utopia. Van Gogh and Japan – a major exhibition full of important international loans at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam – sets out to determine why this Far Eastern country that the artist never visited, and which he made no plans to travel to, exerted such a hold over his imagination – and how, in turn, this influenced his art.
Many past exhibitions have illuminated the impact of Japanese art upon Van Gogh’s painting, citing it as one of several influences alongside, for instance, the peasant paintings of Jean-François Millet, or Neo-Impressionism. This is, though, the first to shine a light solely upon the subject. And, as I learned on a recent visit to Amsterdam, it is full of fascinating new discoveries.
Of course, Van Gogh was not the only person obsessed with Japan during the 19th Century. When, in the 1850s, after more than two centuries of isolation, Japan opened to international trade, a plethora of Japanese goods began to be imported into France, and a bona-fide craze for all things Japanese was born. A vogue for interior decoration in the Japanese manner gripped the bourgeoisie, and department stores began offering Japanese porcelain, lacquerware, parasols, screens, fans, lanterns, trinkets, and objets d’art.
Artists, meanwhile, were infatuated with Japanese woodblock prints – in 1880, the French novelist Emile Zola observed that any artist worth his salt studied Japanese prints, “which everyone has nowadays”. Indeed, some artists, including Claude Monet and James McNeill Whistler, had been collecting so-called ‘ukiyo-e’ (pictures of the floating world) prints for years. Already by 1872, the French term ‘Japonisme’ had been coined, to describe the influence of Japanese art and design on Western culture, especially the visual arts.
In a sense, then, Van Gogh was late to the ‘Japonisme’ party: he first became attuned to the beauty of Japanese art while living in Antwerp in 1885, when he pinned a set of black-and-white prints to his studio wall, a year or so before he moved in with his brother, Theo, in Paris, then the centre of modernity. Stimulated, though, by discussions of Japanese art in journals, magazines and novels, his infatuation quickly grew.
Japan was, in Van Gogh’s mind, an entirely idealised realm, “a beautiful natural idyll”
In the winter of 1886 to ‘87, Van Gogh bought several hundred cheap Japanese prints (eventually, he owned more than 600 sheets), which he came across in the attic of an art dealer in Paris. As well as finding their colourful aesthetic pleasing, he hoped to make a little money by selling some of them: by spring 1887, he had amassed enough to organise an exhibition of prints, each on sale for the price of an aperitif, at Le Tambourin café, which was run by his lover Agostina Segatori in the working-class neighbourhood of Montmartre. (Van Gogh later called the show a “disaster”.) Tellingly, he painted Segatori, in a portrait from 1887, with a Japanese print of a geisha and her assistant in the background.
The impact of Japanese prints upon Van Gogh’s painting during this period is well known. In 1887, he made several copies of prints by Japanese artists, including, first, a pretty view of plum trees, and then another scene, this time depicting people scurrying beneath umbrellas along a bridge during an evening shower, both by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858). He also made a painting of a Japanese courtesan wearing a splendid kimono, which he copied from the cover of a magazine, and two portraits of the shopkeeper and paint dealer Julien ‘Père’ Tanguy, sitting against a flat, almost visually overwhelming background of colourful Japanese prints.
Ideal made real
In Arles, though, where Van Gogh also pinned Japanese prints to his studio walls (he subsequently asked Theo to send additional sheets from his collection in Paris), their influence on his own art became deeper and less literal. By then, in Van Gogh’s mind Japan was an entirely idealised realm, according to Nienke Bakker, co-curator of the exhibition in Amsterdam. It was specifically the “very different exotic world” evoked in colourful Japanese prints – “a beautiful natural idyll, with lots of women in kimonos, and flowers and birds”.
Van Gogh considered Japanese prints a model of pure artistic expression, uncorrupted by Western modes of representation: “Japanese art is something like the primitives, like the Greeks, like our old Dutchmen, Rembrandt, Potter, Hals, Vermeer, Ostade, Ruisdael,” he wrote to Theo in July 1888. “It doesn’t end.”
Van Gogh began experimenting with aspects of Japanese prints in his own paintings, including the use of bright, flat colours, unconventional cropping, and the omission of the horizon
Rather than simply continuing to copy Japanese prints, though, Van Gogh began experimenting with aspects of them in his own paintings, including the use of bright, flat colours and strong diagonals, close-up and bird’s-eye views, unconventional cropping, the omission of the horizon, and the isolation of prominent objects, such as large cut-off tree trunks, in the foreground. Inspired by the natural world, he painted flowers, including, on several memorable occasions, irises – comparing one of these springtime views to “a Japanese dream”.
He also produced still lifes with crabs, inspired by the motif in Japanese art, as well as vigorous, confident drawings, executed using a reed pen, which he felt were “in the style of Japanese prints”. With their dots and dashes, they deploy the visual vocabulary of the Japanese master Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), incidentally one of only two Japanese artists named by Van Gogh in his letters (the other was someone he called “Monorou”, a corruption of the 17th Century artist Hishikawa Moronobu). “The Japanese draws quickly, very quickly, like a flash of lightning,” Van Gogh wrote, “because his nerves are finer, his feeling simpler.”
Calm after the storm
In the summer of 1888, Van Gogh even depicted himself in a self-portrait as “a bonze”, as he put it in a letter to Gauguin, “a simple worshipper of the eternal Buddha” – ie a Japanese monk, with a shaved head. Meanwhile, in his famous Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889), from the Courtauld Gallery in London, he included his favourite Japanese ‘crépon’ (ie a print on wrinkled paper, like crêpe), depicting geishas in a landscape, on the wall behind his head.
It offers an optimistic note in an otherwise melancholic scene, as Van Gogh presents himself in a hat and overcoat, muffled up against the cold in his studio, with a blank canvas on the easel, after returning home from hospital having mutilated his own ear during a fit of insanity. Less than five months after that first breakdown, in December 1888, he was admitted to a mental asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, in May 1889.
Referring to the Courtauld’s painting, which has travelled to Amsterdam, Bakker explains: “He’s ill, Gauguin has left, and he has to start anew. And this print, with its beautiful, colourful world of nature and women, symbolises his enduring love for Japanese art. It represents his dream of the South as a painter’s paradise.”
Van Gogh said that somebody needed to do for portraiture what Monet had done for landscape, and make it modern – Nienke Bakker
By this point, the “dream” of Japanese art had thoroughly transformed Van Gogh’s approach to portraiture. Unlike connoisseurs of Japanese art, who were drawn to prints from the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, Van Gogh was attracted to more recent 19th-Century sheets: cheap, luridly coloured portraits of actors and performers, which most collectors overlooked. (They still do.)
One of the fresh insights offered by the Amsterdam exhibition is the juxtaposition of a selection of these “run-of-the-mill” (as Van Gogh put it) artworks, some of which he owned, alongside his extraordinary portraits of ordinary Provençal people, from 1888-89. The similarities – little remarked upon until now – are uncanny: intense, almost garish colours; flattened pictorial space; the use of fierce, semi-abstract pattern, as in the background of Van Gogh’s masterpiece La Berceuse, aka Woman Rocking the Cradle (1889), of which he made five versions.
“In one of his letters, Van Gogh said that somebody needed to do for portraiture what Monet had done for landscape, and make it modern,” says Bakker. “That was his ambition for his portraits of his friends in Arles.” One way he found to make his portraits “modern” was to incorporate within them pictorial devices borrowed from commonplace Japanese prints.
Ultimately, for Bakker, Van Gogh’s relationship with Japanese art far exceeded imitation. “It’s more than just saying, look, here is a blossoming tree in a Japanese woodcut, and there Van Gogh is doing the same thing. He’s not simply imitating. He’s studying these prints, and they shape his way of looking, the choices he makes in creating his own art.” She pauses. “After all, if you are just imitating, then, as an artist, you are no good.”
Alastair Sooke is art critic and columnist of The Daily Telegraph
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.