Monday 14 May 2018

How Vincent Van Gogh Fell in Love with Japan - by Lesley Downer

‘a little yellow house with green door and shutters, whitewashed inside - on the white walls - very brightly coloured Japanese drawings - red tiles on the floor.’ 

A couple of weekends ago I was in Amsterdam to see an irresistible exhibition - Van Gogh and Japan at the Van Gogh Museum. I wondered what Vincent, poor tormented soul, would have made of that vast glitzy museum devoted to his works and memory, with its mobs of visitors and museum shops selling everything from Van Gogh luggage to Van Gogh dog coats. He was not exactly poor. His brother Theo who worked for a Paris art dealer took care of him. But he never found much success either during his life. He only sold one painting to anyone other than Theo.

Sudden Shower over Shin Ohashi, Atake, Hiroshige (L)
Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige), Van Gogh (R)
In February 1886, when Van Gogh was thirty three, he arrived back in Paris after ten years roaming from Ramsgate to the Low Countries. He lived there with Theo for two years and made friends with artists such as Émile Bernard, Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Signac. 

He also became acquainted with the celebrated art dealer Siegfried Bing. Pretty much ever since Japan opened to the west in 1858 the west had been flooded with Japanese arts and crafts. All Paris along with half the western world was afire with Japonisme, unbridled enthusiasm for all things Japanese, and Siegfried Bing had largely cornered the market.

Over the following winter Van Gogh bought up more than 600 Japanese woodblock prints. He planned to sell them. But as he leafed through them he was transfixed by the dramatic designs, compositions, bright colours, strong lines and extraordinary viewpoints, all startling and fresh to western eyes.

It’s well known that Van Gogh was much influenced by Japanese art but this is the first exhibition to bring together so many of Van Gogh’s paintings alongside the prints that inspired them. It also broadens out the picture to reveal how much Van Gogh’s view of life was brightened by what he called these ‘cheerful prints’ - and how they played a part in shaping other aspects of his life.
Courtesan (after Eisen) by Vincent Van Gogh

Van Gogh’s first forays into Japanese art were to paint copies of three woodblock prints. One was Keisai Eisen’s Courtesan which featured on the cover of a special Japan edition of the magazine Paris Illustré. The others were landscape prints by Hiroshige which he had bought. It’s extraordinary to contrast Van Gogh’s dense impassioned brush strokes with the clean cool lines of the Japanese originals. The images are the same though he’s surrounded his courtesan with Japanese motifs - bamboo, cranes, frogs and waterlilies. But the techniques and mood and final effect are radically different.

He also painted a portrait of his art dealer, Julien Tanguy, against a backdrop of woodblock prints, including Van Gogh’s own courtesan painting.
Portrait of Pere Tanguy by Vincent Van Gogh

After two years in Paris he couldn’t stand the hustle and bustle any longer and in 1888 moved south. It was as if he was besotted with Japan, looking for it everywhere. On the way south he kept gazing out of the train window to see ‘if it was like Japan yet.’ He was sure he would find his dream of Japan there. He took with him a few woodblock prints, not famous or expensive ones but cheerful colourful depictions of landscapes and women.

In Arles, the natural beauty and bright light and cheerful colours recreated Japan for him. The southern light, he wrote, turned everything into ‘Japan’. There was a field of irises there which he painted and described as a Japanese dream. He writes of the landscape of La Crau with its peach trees, ‘Everything there is small, the gardens, the fields, the trees, even those mountains, as in certain Japanese landscapes, that’s why this subject attracted me.’ ‘I’m always saying to myself that I’m in Japan here,’ he said in another letter. ‘That as a result I only have to open my eyes and paint right in front of me what makes an impression on me.’ 
Rock of Montmajour by Vincent van Gogh

Hakone by Ando Hiroshige
In the exhibition Van Goghs paintings hang close to the Japanese prints which inspired them. He sought out subjects akin to those which he saw in the prints. There is a dramatic painting of a quarry, The Rock of Montmajour, dotted with trees, of which he writes, Youll well remember there are Japanese drawings where grasses and little trees grow there and there’. Hung opposite is Hiroshiges dramatic print of the crags at Hakone with a huge crag, with grass and trees growing out of it, dwarfing the people and hanging at an impossible angle over the water.
The paintings Van Gogh did in Arles are very different from his earlier work. ‘After some time your vision changes, you see with a more Japanese eye, you feel colour differently,’ he wrote to Theo. He plays with colour, laying on bright flat areas of intense colour with impassioned brush strokes. He painted The Yellow House set against a flat blue sky almost more solid than the house itself and his bedroom and yellow bed using ‘flat plain tints like Japanese prints,’ with strong outlines, flat colour planes and no shadows. Inspired by the Japanese prints which hung around his studio, he applied thick black contour lines and played with extraordinary perspectives and viewpoints. He painted Almond Blossom, seen from below against a dazzling turquoise sky, in honour of the birth of his nephew, Theo’s son. In The Sower, the dramatic diagonal of the tree trunk cuts across the picture, silhouetted against a huge yellow sun.

Self-portrait dedicated to
by Vincent van Gogh
In Arles Van Gogh hoped to enjoy his dream of a Japanese way of life. He imagined humble Japanese woodblock print artists living and working together like monks in a monastery and decided to set up an artists’ colony with his friend Paul Gauguin as the leader. Like Japanese artists, they exchanged self portraits. In the portrait he sent Gauguin he depicts himself as a very un-Buddha-like Japanese monk with a shaven head and intense wild eyes, somewhat slanted.

But as we know it didn’t work out. The collaboration with Gauguin came to an end, the artists’ colony fell through. Van Gogh cut off his ear, checked himself into a hospital and painted feverishly, producing a painting a day. When he couldn’t go outside he painted through the bars of his window.

The last part of this absorbing and fascinating exhibition takes us right inside Van Gogh’s studio, surrounded by the Japanese prints that he had pinned to the wall - unframed, working tools, some torn and paint-stained. He often mentions the cheeriness of the brightly-coloured prints of landscapes and beautiful women. Perhaps he hoped to find peace of mind by surrounding himself with such serene images. But alas, that was the one thing he was destined never to find.

Van Gogh and Japan at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, continues till June 24th 2018.

Lesley Downer’s latest novel, The Shogun’s Queen, an epic tale set in nineteenth century Japan, is out now in paperback. For more see

All Van Gogh images © Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)
All other images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


Unknown said...

I was in Amsterdam over Easter and visiting the Van Gogh museum was my main intent for the whole trip: I learned so much about this amazing artist. Hadn’t realised how influenced by Japanese art he was, but by the time I’d finished strolling through the rooms, I could see the effect. Great article!

Sue Purkiss said...

So sad that he died before his work came to be so much loved by so many people.

stenote said...

Good blog... keep-up the good work.... May I share an Interview with Vincent van Gogh(imaginary) in