‘You Know, I Feel I’m in Japan’

Posted March 26, 2018 7:13 p.m. EDT

AMSTERDAM — In the soft, clear light of Provence, France, Vincent van Gogh saw the crisp skies of Japanese woodcut prints. The almond blossoms, gnarled trees and irises that dotted the French landscape reminded him of nature scenes painted in Kyoto. And in the locals at Arles cafes, he saw resonances with the geishas and Kabuki actors of a country he had never visited.

“My dear brother, you know, I feel I’m in Japan,” van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo, on March 16, 1888, not long after he had settled in Arles.

By June he was urging Theo and other Impressionist artists in Paris to join him. “I’d like you to spend some time here, you’d feel it,” he wrote. “After some time your vision changes, you see with a more Japanese eye, you feel color differently.”

For at least a year, van Gogh, who was Dutch, lived in Provence in a kind of Japanese dream. It was not a delusion, but rather an imaginative projection of an idealized vision of Japan onto the French landscape, said Nienke Bakker, curator of paintings for the Van Gogh Museum. The painter had been bitten by the bug of Japonisme, a mania for Japanese aesthetics that swept Europe in the 19th century, and which also afflicted painters such as Claude Monet, Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas.

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, in collaboration with three Japanese museums, has mounted the most comprehensive exhibition so far to explore that inspiration, “Van Gogh & Japan,” which runs through June 24. It tracks van Gogh’s early fascination with imported Japanese Ukiyo-e prints — colorful woodblock prints on handmade paper that were popular in Europe in the late 19th century. It also shows how, little by little, van Gogh integrated elements of Japanese art into his own style.

“It’s hard to imagine what his works would have looked like without this source of inspiration,” said Bakker, one of the exhibition’s four curators, referring to the influence of Japanese prints. “It really helped him to find the style that we all know,” she added. “He really chose that as the way to go.”

The sprawling exhibition — which is larger than a previous version that toured Tokyo, Sapporo and Kyoto — includes nearly all the major van Gogh paintings that make direct or indirect reference to Japanese art. These are hung near some 50 Japanese prints that played a role in the development of van Gogh’s distinctive style, as well as Japanese lacquerwork and painted scrolls.

Van Gogh first encountered Japanese prints in 1885 while working in Antwerp, the Belgian port city, whose docks he described as teeming with Japanese wares: They were “fantastic, singular, strange,” he wrote.

The Van Gogh Museum exhibition begins about a year later, when he moved into his brother’s apartment in Paris and discovered that the German art dealer Siegfried Bing, who sold Japanese art and decorative objects, had an attic full of Japanese woodcut prints at reasonable prices.

He immediately bought about 660 prints for just a few cents a piece. Bakker said that van Gogh originally held an exhibition trying to resell the prints, but it was unsuccessful. So instead he tacked them to his studio walls and used them for inspiration. About 500 survive in the Van Gogh Museum’s permanent collection. At first, van Gogh simply copied the works in sketches and oil paintings: For example, in 1887 he traced in pencil and ink the cover of an issue of the magazine Paris Illustré devoted to Japan and also made a large-scale oil painting, “Courtesan (After Eisen),” based on the image.

The Japanese art he pinned to his studio walls also appears in the backgrounds of a number of his portraits, such as his “Portrait of Père Tanguy,” who sits in front of a wall of prints. (This is the only major painting with Japanese influences that the Van Gogh Museum could not get for the exhibition; it belongs to the Musée Rodin in Paris, and, according to Bakker, was too fragile to travel.)

By the time van Gogh moved to Arles a year later, he was fully in the thrall of Japan. On the train from Paris, he repeatedly checked out the window, he wrote to his friend Paul Gauguin, “to see ‘if it was like Japan yet’! Childish, isn’t it?'”

“The first year in Arles, everything is Japan,” Bakker said. “Later, after his breakdown, that changes, and he still refers to it but it’s less important. The nature of his admiration had changed. It has become integrated into his style, but it’s no longer his artistic model.”

The impact was more subtle, more buried in his technique. For instance, he sometimes divided the canvas using diagonal lines, rather than using horizontal perspective planes, as was the norm in Western painting. And he would streak his paintings with diagonal rain, as he had seen in Japanese prints.

The Japanese dream had ended, perhaps, but the fascination with Japan had not. Tsukasa Kodera, a Japanese curator who worked on the exhibition, has studied van Gogh’s interest in his country for more than 30 years, and spent the past six researching the final phase of van Gogh’s life. He discovered that when van Gogh moved to Auvers-sur-Oise, outside Paris, in 1890, he pursued friendships with two artists with direct ties to Japan: Louis-Jules Dumoulin, a Frenchman who had traveled to the country, painting and taking photographs there, and Edmund Walpole Brooke, an Australian-born artist who had lived in Yokohama in his youth.

“He didn’t try to make contact with other painters in Auvers — only these two,” Kodera said. “His dream was broken, but he still was interested in Japanese art.”

After van Gogh’s death in 1890, Japanese artists and art lovers read his letters, which were translated into Japanese in 1915. They made pilgrimages to his grave in Auvers-sur-Oise in the 1920s and ‘30s. The home of van Gogh’s friend Paul Gachet, who was also his doctor and sometime model, became a destination for these kindred souls; more than 140 Japanese names can be found in the guest books.

“He was interested in our culture, and that says something to Japanese people,” Kodera said. Even though van Gogh’s art was not widely reproduced and accessible in Japan until decades later, he added: “They had also van Gogh visions, van Gogh dreams. Just as van Gogh imagined Japan as a country, they imagined him. It was a kind of two-way imaginary vision.”


Event Info

“Van Gogh & Japan”

Through June 24 at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam; vangoghmuseum.nl.