Vincent van Gogh loved Japanese art. The artist was greatly influenced by Japanese prints, and it showed in his art. This spring and early summer, the Van Gogh Museum investigates the special relationship between Japan and Van Gogh. It is the first time this theme has been the focus of a large-scale exhibition.
Japanese Print Making
It was during Van Gogh’s time in Paris when he first encountered the art of Japanese printmaking. He fell in love with the so-called ukiyo-e, 19th-century color woodcuts. He admired their compositions, which differed so much from his own. The expanses of colors and attention to nature’s little details also greatly appealed to him. Van Gogh started collecting these kinds of prints vigorously, at first with the idea of dealing in them. But it would turn out to be one of the biggest inspirations for his own work.
“It was during Van Gogh’s time in Paris when he first encountered the art of Japanese printmaking. He fell in love with the so-called ukiyo-e,19th-century color woodcuts.”
Van Gogh didn’t stop at merely collecting Japanese prints but soon started making paintings after them. Gradually the colorful style and imagery became the ultimate goal for Van Gogh himself as an artist. His move to Arles was partly initiated by the artist’s notion that the South of France was the equivalent of Japan, as letters from that time teach us. Van Gogh himself described his working in Arles as “seeing with a more Japanese eye”. He started to position himself as an artist in the Japanese tradition, which earned him a reputation with his contemporaries.
Van Gogh & Japan is a collaboration of the Van Gogh Museum and several other museums in Japan, where the exhibition has been held over the course of 2017 and the beginning of 2018. For this occasion, Japanese and Dutch art historians and curators have worked together on the subject, sharing their research and views. As a result, Van Gogh & Japan shows us in detail how Van Gogh increasingly worked in the spirit of Japanese artists, with the emphasis on a colorful and distinctive palette. The show comprises around 60 paintings and drawings by Van Gogh and is complemented with a rich selection of Japanese artworks. They demonstrate the artist’s admiration for Japanese prints and how his work significantly changed as a result of it.
Dutch and Japanese collaboration
Nienke Bakker, curator at the Van Gogh Museum, shares her thoughts on the show with Hello Amsterdam. “In 2006, a book was published by senior researcher Louis van Tilborgh, Vincent van Gogh & Japan. It initiated the idea of creating a large-scale exhibition on the subject because of the importance of the relation between Japanese art and Vincent van Gogh. In 2013, three Japanese museums reached out to the Van Gogh Museum with a similar plan. That’s when we decided to work together on creating a large-scale exhibition. The collaboration with the Japanese curators like Van Gogh expert Tsukasa Kodera has been inspiring.”
“The show answers questions about the influence of Japanese art on Van Gogh. Why was that particular art form so appealing to him? And what was his actual knowledge on the subject? The expo shows us how Japanese art is reflected in Van Gogh’s art in a grand exhibition divided into seven themes. We exhibit Van Gogh’s works, but also a selection of Japanese prints that were collected by Van Gogh himself. Because Vincent was more of an admirer than a knowledgeable and wealthy collector, the quality of those prints was not the best available. So we added a selection of high-quality prints from other collections. By doing so, we can truly admire this art in all its beauty and show the audience why Vincent was understandably fond of it.”
“Famous works by Van Gogh from museums and private collections all over the world have been brought to Amsterdam for the occasion. Among them is the fragile work Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889).”
World-famous works by Van Gogh from museums and private collections all over the world have been brought to Amsterdam for the occasion. Among them is the fragile work Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889). It is remarkable that we are able to see it at the Van Gogh Museum since it has not left the United Kingdom since 1955. The work testifies to the importance of Japanese art to Van Gogh because of the Japanese print in the background. Another highlight of the exhibition is Self- Portrait (1888), in which Vincent van Gogh portrayed himself as a Buddhist monk from Japan. The work is excellently demonstrates the extent to which Van Gogh identified himself with the Japanese. This impressive painting has, very exceptionally, been loaned for Van Gogh & Japan and will only be shown in Amsterdam.
“Van Gogh himself described his work in Arles as “seeing with a more Japanese eye”. He presented himself as an artist in the Japanese tradition, which earned him a reputation with his contemporaries.”
The Mesdag Collection
Next to its own collection in Amsterdam, the Van Gogh Museum has also managed the Mesdag Collection in The Hague ever since 1991. Simultaneously to Van Gogh & Japan, the Mesdag Collection presents a similar show. It hosts an exhibition about Mesdag & Japan, with a special focus on Japanese applied art that was collected by Mesdag himself. The exhibition consists of more than 200 objects, ranging from Samurai swords to Satsuma vases.