King Willem-Alexander recently opened the exhibition Van Gogh & Japan at Amsterdam’s van Gogh museum. The museum’s director reported the King thoroughly enjoyed this exhibition. So will you!
The museum mentions this exhibition sheds ‘light on the influence exerted by Japanese art on Vincent van Gogh’. This influence becomes clear the moment one enters it. On the first wall hang Japanese prints and van Gogh’s copies next each other.
Keisai Eisen created a stunning print of a Geisha in 1857? Van Gogh copies it. Utagawa Hiroshige’s prints of a bridge and plum trees blossoming? Van Gogh made nearly exact copies in 1887.
After America forced Japan to open to trade with the West, the West went crazy over Japanese goods, including woodcut prints. Vincent and his brother Theo were familiar with Japanese woodcut prints.
This is clear from a letter Vincent wrote, after he had bought a stash of Japanese prints, he hoped to sell. Vincent even organized an exhibition of them at his mistress’ pub. He painted her, sitting in her pub with a Japanese print on a wall in the background.
Yet Vincent was unable to sell the prints. After a while, he started studying them instead. He pinned them to the walls of his various homes.
Many of the prints are exhibited on the third floor of the exhibition. Some prints have pin-holes, oil and paint stains. They may have inspired Vincent; he treated them carelessly.
Van Gogh starts his study by creating exact copies of prints by Eisen and Utagawa Hiroshige. He is familiarizing himself with Japanese techniques. He experiments with composition cropping, strong outlines, unusual perspective, bold colours, decorative patters, and other characteristics.
Once he has familiarized himself with these, he stops creating exact copies. He absorbed what he needed and now incorporates it in his own art. He uses details, themes, ideas.
A print of a Japanese street by night, reminds one of Vincent’s scene of a French pub with yellow awning, under a night sky. Japanese prints of crabs, flowers, and birds? Vincent paints crabs in his own unique manner; as well as irises, a kingfisher and other images.
Vincent also started to idealize the lives Japanese artists led. This causes his idea of setting up an artist community in southern France. On the second floor, visitors find portraits of Paul Gauguin and other artists. Here are also self-portraits by Vincent.
Then tragedy strikes: Vincent suffers a break-down and cuts off his ear. He ends up in institutions. When he finally starts drawing and painting again, he copies examples of Western art.
Yet what he learned from Japanese prints, continued to influence his art. The famous self-portrait from the Courtauld Gallery, showing Vincent with bandaged ear? On the third floor, among other prints, hangs one showing a Japanese actor wearing some kind of cap tied under his chin. Did this print inspire this self-portrait?
The riddle will never be solved. The fact remains, that without Japanese prints, Vincent van Gogh would never have created his most important works. Think of his irises, sunflowers, landscapes, seascapes, crabs, boats, still-lives, portraits and his iconic spring almond blossoms against a clear blue sky.
This exhibition already toured Japan, drawing crowds. Now it’s your chance to be impressed: Amsterdam, van Gogh Museum: Van Gogh & Japan runs till 24th of June 2018.
Photos courtesy of and © Amsterdam van Gogh Museum