Getting the Most out of That Art Exhibition Vol.02 Van Gogh Exhibition – Van Gogh and Japan
Who hasn’t sometimes wondered what they should be looking at when they attend an art exhibition? Here, art writer, Makoto Murata, shares his insights into the unique aspects we should look out for with each featured exhibition.
To say that the Japanese are fond of Van Gogh would be an understatement. Although Van Gogh’s popularity is not limited only to Japan, there are probably few countries that stage Van Gogh exhibitions every two to three years, mobilizing hundreds of thousands of viewers, not to mention all the related publications that appear with each exhibition. The Van Gogh and Japan exhibition, currently showing in Kyoto, aims to please those Van Gogh fans.
A mutual love affair
Japan’s love affair with Van Gogh is nothing new. More than a hundred years have passed since artists and literary scholars from Japan’s Shirakaba-ha (White Birch Society) introduced Van Gogh to this county, around twenty years after the death of the artist. There being no Van Gogh paintings in Japan at that time, devotees headed for Van Gogh’s final resting place of Auvers-sur-Oise near Paris. Here they could view the artworks that had been entrusted to Dr Gachet, Van Gogh’s physician who was at his side when he died. They even made pilgrimages to Van Gogh’s grave – and all this before the advent of air travel and package tours!
What is it about Van Gogh that continues to captivate the Japanese so? Yes, the vivid colours and audaciously distorted forms in his paintings do have their own fascination. And the fact that Van Gogh left this world at the youthful age of thirty-seven, having barely sold a single painting, is certainly tragic. But, in all likelihood, the main reason why we Japanese are so fascinated by Van Gogh is due to his admiration of Japan. Van Gogh’s passion for Japan is not only evident in his letters, it is also embodied in his paintings. Perhaps Van Gogh’s love of Japan is why we Japanese feel such an affinity for his art.
So why was Van Gogh so enamoured of Japan? One answer can be found in Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints. Van Gogh first encountered ukiyo-e when he relocated to Paris. His colour palette, which, during his early years in the Netherlands and Belgium had tended towards dark brown hues, suddenly brightened. While this change is partially attributed to the influence of the Impressionists, Japanese ukiyo-e are also considered to have exerted a strong influence over the artist. This was the golden age of Japonisme and ukiyo-e prints were everywhere. Van Gogh collected and copied ukiyo-e, and even went so far as to arrange an exhibition of ukiyo-e prints in a Paris café.
The painting, In the Café: Agostina Segatori in Le Tambourin, depicts the proprietress of the café where Van Gogh’s ukiyo-e woodblock print exhibition was held, and who is thought to have been a lover of Van Gogh’s. Van Gogh’s interest in Japanese art is evident in what appears to be an ukiyo-e print of a courtesan on the wall to the right of this self-assured woman, with her cigarette and her glass of beer. As an aside, the tambourines from which the café derived its name appear in the shape of the table and stools in the foreground of the painting.
Ukiyo-e were the vehicle for Van Gogh’s intensifying yearning for Japan. In search of the clear light and vivid colour of his Japanese prints, Van Gogh moved to the south of France. Van Gogh’s Japan appears to have been more grounded in the world of his imagination than in reality – as any resident of Japan knows, the extreme humidity of Japan’s warmer months creates a hazy atmosphere. Upon arriving in Arles, Van Gogh found that the region was unexpectedly under snow. Not to be discouraged, he declared that the winter scene was just as if it had been painted by a Japanese artist.
In Arles, Van Gogh awakened to the possibilities of colour, and his unique artistic style blossomed rapidly. Bright, flat colours, clearly delineated contours, bold compositions – Van Gogh was no longer quoting ukiyo-e; he had absorbed its very essence into his painting. Take, for instance, Sower with Setting Sun (1888). The subject is borrowed from an 1850 painting by Jean-François Millet depicting a rural peasant sowing seeds, but Van Gogh’s motif, the tree that bisects the picture plane diagonally from lower right to upper left, is straight out of ukiyo-e. And Van Gogh wasn’t the only painter using the tree motif in the foreground of his paintings in this way; Monet and Cézanne also adopted this compositional device.
(Note: Another version of this painting, with almost identical composition, will be exhibited in the Impressionist Masterpieces from the E.G. Buehrle Collection exhibition at the National Art Centre, Tokyo, 14 February – 7 May, 2018.)
In fact, there was one more reason why Van Gogh idealised Japan so much. He was under the impression that Japanese artists, brimming with intelligence, lived a utopian lifestyle in commune with nature. Van Gogh never knew the reality of Japan, of course, and so perhaps these ideas about Japanese artists were manifestations of his own imaginative yearnings. Thus, the influence of Japonisme was not limited only to his artistic expression, it even transformed Van Gogh’s lifestyle and his way of seeing the world.
Unlike the imagination, reality can be brutal. With the intention of creating a community of artists who would live and work together, Van Gogh invited Gaugin to join him in the south of France. But the experiment was a bitter failure. The two artists, each with his own strong personality, eventually clashed violently. Van Gogh descended into mental illness and spent the remainder of his short life in and out of hospitals, finally moving to Auvers-sur-Oise, near Paris. Here he came under the care of Dr Gachet, who tended him until his death. Van Gogh is buried in Auvers-sur-Oise, which, two decades later, became the focus of the ‘Van Gogh pilgrimages’ of the Japanese literati. On display in the Van Gogh and Japan exhibition are three visitors books containing signatures of those early Japanese pilgrims, including yōga (Western-style) painter, Yūzō Saeki (whose very short life had much in common with Van Gogh’s), and influential poet and psychiatrist, Mokichi Saitō.
Van Gogh’s work did not receive critical acclaim until more than fifteen years after his death. Had Van Gogh lived long enough to experience this fame and had the opportunity to visit Japan, one cannot help but wonder what he would have made of this country. And what sort of reception would the Japanese have given him?
But Van Gogh’s Japan is a place of the imagination, and that is where we must leave it.
Van Gogh and Japan: 20 January – 4 March 2018 at the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto
A graduate in Fine Arts from Tokyo Zōkei University, Makoto Murata worked in the editorial department at the magazine, Pia, before setting out as a freelance art writer. He lectures part-time at Tokyo Zōkei University and is the principal of the BankART School (post-graduate school of art) in Yokohama. He has authored a number of books on art in Japanese.
Judy Evans is a high school teacher of English and Japanese, and a Japanese-English translator. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Japanese and Art History and has studied production horticulture and landscape design. Judy has a keen interest in the internet environment and has administered websites for a number of organisations. She lives on a small farm in rural New Zealand and is a frequent visitor to Japan.