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VAN GOGH & THE JAPANESE SPELL

Van Gogh found solace in Japanese art. Oriental colours, balance of strokes, attention to detail and inspiration from nature deeply invoked his artistic spirit.

In an age of appropriation and plagiarist trends dominating the contemporary art world, a show at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam becomes a testimony in telling the world of the role that a catalyst plays in the life of a modern mastermind – how an artist can use it as a foundation to evolve as one of the greatest artists in the world.

Sixty paintings and drawings by Van Gogh and a large selection of Japanese prints explore the extent of Van Gogh's admiration for this form of art and the fundamental impact it had on his work. Exceptional loans from museums and private collections all over the world are coming to Amsterdam, among them in the Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889, The Courtauld Gallery, London), a painting that has not left the UK since 1955 and has not been shown in the Netherlands since 1930.

Other highlights include priceless precious works on loan, Van Gogh's Self-Portrait (1888, Harvard Art Museums/ Fogg Museum, Cambridge, MA), Woman Rocking the Cradle (Augustine Roulin) (1889, The Art Institute of Chicago), Undergrowth with Two Figures (1890, Cincinnati Art Museum), La Crau with Peach Trees in Blossom (1889, The Courtauld Gallery, London) and The Arlésienne (Marie Ginoux) (1888, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). It is the first time that an exhibition of this scope and scale has been devoted to this subject.

The Japanese Spell

The oriental signature had an impact on European tastes, from prints to objects to cultural symbolism, there was an admiration for Japanese niceties, from paintings to fans and snuff boxes in the second-half of the 19th century. Vincent did not pay much attention to this Japonism at first, say the scholarly notes on the show.

The historian and curator of the show states that Van Gogh's encounter with Japanese printmaking played a decisive role in the direction he took as an artist. Defining his journey, it was his time in Paris (1886-88) that led to his fascination with ukiyo-e, nineteenth-century Japanese colour woodcuts – he began to collect these woodcut prints on a large scale.

His admiration for these colourful prints grew because he found that they were unconventional compositions. In the typical landscape of the Japanese lifestyle in the lap of nature, Van Gogh

studied and observed the large planes in bright colours and the focus on details in nature. The three remarkable paintings he made after Japanese prints while he was in Paris were his first exploration of this new artistic model.

"My studio's quite tolerable, mainly because I've pinned a set of Japanese prints on the walls that I find very diverting. You know, those little female figures in gardens or on the shore, horsemen, flowers, gnarled thorn branches," wrote Vincent to his brother Theo. (November 28, 1885)

Spatial effects and colour

History says that Vincent moved into his brother's Paris flat in early-1886. Together, they built up a sizeable collection of Japanese prints. Vincent soon began to view them as more than a pleasant curiosity. He saw the prints as an artistic example and thought they were equal to the great masterpieces of Western art history.

Van Gogh swiftly came to identify Japanese art as a benchmark for his work, as we learn from the letters he wrote from Arles, where he moved in early 1888 with the idea that the South of France was 'the equivalent of Japan'. He learnt to look 'with a more Japanese eye' and made 'paintings like Japanese prints'.

"Japanese art is something like the primitives, like the Greeks, like our old Dutchmen, Rembrandt, Potter, Hals, Vermeer, Ostade, Ruisdael. It doesn't end," opined Vincent.

Vincent adopted these Japanese visual inventions in his own work. He liked the unusual spatial effects, the expanses of strong colour, the everyday objects and the attention to details from nature. And, of course, the exotic and joyful atmosphere. We see that in his Woman on a Rocking Chair.

Vincent did more than simply copy Japanese prints. He was influenced in part by his artist friend Émile Bernard, who developed new ideas about the direction of modern art. Taking Japanese prints as his example, Bernard stylised his own paintings. He used large areas of simple colours and bold outlines. Vincent's Woman on a Rocking Chair and the quintessential Japanese courtesan in a kimono (Courtesan after Eisen) are both works that exemplify his approach. In the Japanese woman with the kimono, we see his thick strokes on the kimono unlike the delicate lithe felicity of the original woodcut. In the Woman on a Rocking chair, it is the treatment of expression in the face, the textures and the flowers in the background that talk to us about adoption and adaptation of techniques.

Japanese eye

Taking Japanese prints as an edifice on which to build modern art trends, Vincent began to suppress the illusion of depth in his works. "After some time your vision changes, you see with a more Japanese eye, you feel colour differently. I'm also convinced that it's precisely through a long stay here that I'll bring out my personality," he wrote to Theo. He combined his pursuit of flatness, however, with his characteristic swirling brushwork. He opted for compositions with a low horizon or none at all. La Crau with Peach Trees in Blossom is a heady impressionist work with short bristle multiple strokes that shimmer like the white moonshine creating islands of evanescent elegance.

Nature was the point of departure for Vincent's art throughout his life – subtle gradations, colour fields and the waning daylight – everything atmospheric was a part of his observational incandescence. Historians say that Japanese prints gave Vincent the example he needed to modernise.

Vincent was keen to respond to the call for a modern, more primitive kind of painting. Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige) is one such example. While you discern the Japanese-ism, you also see the expanse of colour and succinct stylisation, creating a counterpoint for bringing in the human touch without requiring to give up nature as a starting point. It was ideal. The division of the plane by the bridge and the umbrella-topped figures add an elusive aura.

Van Gogh & Japan shows how Van Gogh began increasingly to work in the spirit of the oriental example, with the emphasis on a bold, colourful palette. The portraits are a testimony to his genius. While many of the portraits from this period incorporate the cropped perspectives and jagged linearity in Japanese woodcuts of aristocrats and courtesans, we see hyper-individualised, introspective examples of the Dutch Golden Age portraiture of Rembrandt and Vermeer, painters Van Gogh had long admired. His Almond Blossom is a balm for the wounded soul, it echoes an ecological epithet in an age of terror, hatred, violence and bloodshed.

Images and notes extracted from: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

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