Van Gogh was a genuine and unconditional admirer of Japanese art. In the late 1887, he made three paintings in which he translated scenes from Japanese artists Hiroshige and Eisen. The love for Japanese art is particularly evident in Van Gogh's letters from Arles. In these, he explicitly frames his current work as the fruit of his admiration for Japanese woodcuts in particular. He wrote that he created ‘paintings like Japanese prints’ in Arles, that he learned to ‘see with a more Japanese eye’ and he even stated that all his work was ‘based to some extent on Japanese art’ (Letters 707, 620, 640). Van Gogh's fascination for this art did not blossom spontaneously but arose, surprisingly enough, out of commercial considerations.
Colourful and readily saleable
Vincent's brother Theo, who worked as an art dealer in Paris, stimulated Vincent to create more modern art. Somewhat reluctantly, Van Gogh started to paint in a more colourful way, following the example of the French Impressionists. Van Gogh's skills developed rapidly, and he toyed seriously with the idea of trying his luck in Antwerp and later also in Paris. Aside from incorporating more colour, Van Gogh had little idea of what the art market in those cities would expect of him.
That changed after Van Gogh read Edmond de Concourt's 1884 novel, in which he realized that japonisme was one of the latest trends. Armed with this information, Van Gogh set off for Antwerp towards the end of 1885, where he began to purchase loose black-and-white prints from illustrated Japanese books. He was intrigued by the exotic and different character of the prints in these books. In early 1887 in Paris, Van Gogh purchased no fewer than 660 Japanese prints in one go, with a view to selling them on and earning some money. Although his little business venture came to nothing, Van Gogh now fell entirely under the spell of this art.
Inspiration from Japan
The exhibition Van Gogh & Japan set out to illustrate the inspiration Van Gogh drew from the Eastern example. In this sense it was a fllow-up to previous exhibitions like Van Gogh & Millet (1988-1989 and again in 1998-1999), Van Gogh and Gauguin (2001-2002) and Daubigny, Monet, Van Gogh (2016-2017). All these exhibitions were organised to explore the 'influence' of these masters on Van Gogh's artistic achievements.
The exhibition Van Gogh & Japan opens with Van Gogh's free translation in 1887 of Hiroshige's Sudden Evening Shower on the Great Brigde near Atake and closes with Van Gogh's brilliant yet downbeat Rain - Auvers. Doing so, it was a perfect way of showing how this inspiration from Japan developed. Van Gogh made Rain - Auvers in the final weeks of his life. The latter work has a dramatic power that is lacking in the first, and also in the Japanese woodcuts on which it was based. It illustrates the extent to which Van Gogh was able to take the example and make it his own. Working in the spirit of Japanese artists proved much stronger than merely assimilating certain of their formal characteristics.
With hindsight, Van Gogh's 'imitation' of Japanese art was shaped by a number of factors. The first was commercial in character, and it was this motivation that originally drew him to an art perceived as exotic and 'primitive'. It was only in the autumn of 1887, when he embraced the aesthetic of a more decorative painting, geared towards ‘flat’ effects that it came to function as the point of reference for his artistic aspirations. Finally, at almost the same moment, there was a revival of the so-called cultural primitivism in France: a utopian longing for a ‘pure’, uncomplicated society with an art to match, which would expose the failures of the West’s own civilization.
Happier through art
In the period when he painted The Potato Eaters, Van Gogh felt that art with 'something fresh and friendly' about it (Letter 325), wasn't really for him. Three years later, by contrast, he wanted to produce works with both an iconography and style that testified to a light almost musical existence, following in the footsteps of Japanese printmakers. Van Gogh believed that kind of light could only be found in the southern climes. He couldn’t look at a Japanese print ‘without becoming much happier and more cheerful’ (Letter 686). Although Van Gogh's own life and prospects were largely gloomy, presenting the same kind of blissful, paradisiacal existence in his own work that he found in Japanese art, made his fate more bearable. In Saint-Rémy and later in Auvers, it turned out this didn't always work that way. Nevertheles, many of the works in the exhibition are still convincing in their visual testimony to Van Gogh's dreams of ‘sunshine and love and gaiety’ (Letter 670).