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Vincent van Gogh:
Lessons from Japan


By Jan Krikke


"You may understand the change in painting when you think for instance of the colorful Japanese pictures one sees everywhere. Theo and I possess hundreds of these Japanese prints."

Vincent van Gogh
in a letter to his sister, 1887

A little over a century ago, in 1888, Vincent van Gogh was working in the south of France. It was a watershed year in the career of the Dutch artist. Most of vivid images that made him a legend were painted in 1888. One day during that year, while in melancholy mood, Van Gogh wrote a letter to his brother Theo in Paris. In his letter, Van Gogh lamented the cynicism that was gripping Europe. He had strong forebodings about the disastrous days that lay ahead for European civilization. But he also felt that people would become tired of "corruption and intrigue," and that they would, sooner or later, want to live "more musically." How would that come about? Van Gogh did not have the answer, but he thought it better to be positive about the future rather than await the disasters that would, in his words, "come flashing out of the sky like lightning, devastating the modern world and civilization through revolution, war, and the bankruptcy of corrupt states."

Van Gogh next thought of Japan, and he continued: "When we study Japanese art, we see a man who is no doubt wise, philosophical and intelligent. And how does he spends his time? Studying the distance between the earth and the moon? No. Studying the political theories of Bismarck? No. He studies a single blade of grass. But this blade of grass leads him the draw plants of all kinds, then the seasons, the overall aspects of the landscape, then animals, and finally, the human figure. This is how he spends his life, and life is too short to do the whole. Come now, isn't it almost a true religion which these simple Japanese teach us, who live in nature as though they themselves were flowers? And it seems to me that we cannot study Japanese art without becoming much gayer and happier, and we must return to nature despite our education and our work in a world of conventions."

Van Gogh never visited Japan. His knowledge of the far-away country was based mostly on Japanese wood block prints, the Ukio-e, and the book Madam Chrysanthème from the French author Pierre Loti. What made him believe that the Japanese were "wise and philosophical," and that they lived in nature "as if they themselves were flowers?" We may be tempted to discard his views of Japan as merely romantic, but then again, Van Gogh was not just anybody. He had sharp eyes and acute sensibilities.

 

Japonaiserie

Vincent van Gogh, of course, belonged the Impressionists, the art movement that started the Modernist Revolution. He shared his admiration for Japanese prints with artists like Manet, Degas, Monet, Renoir and Pissarro. The prints had a strong influence on Manet, considered the father of Impressionism. The wood block print were small, unpretentious pictures, "snapshots" as it were, of daily life in Japan. They had arrived in Europe in the 1860's, shortly after Japan had ended her her long period of national isolation. Increased contact with Japan resulted in the birth of Japonaiserie (or Japonism), a popularity of all things Japanese. The arrival of the wood block prints coincided with the revolt by modern-minded artists against the official French art academy. Artists were looking for an alternative to Europe's pictorial traditional based on of optical realism, and they found inspiration in the colorful wood block print from Japan.

Curiously, the Japanese themselves had no high regard for the prints. This was apparent from the rather unceremonious manner in which the prints arrived in Europe. Made of paper, the prints were used to wrap Japanese porcelain products for export to the West. The prints depicted kabuki actors, sumo wrestlers, geisha, and famous nature scenes like Mount Fuji. Cultured Japanese regarded the Ukio-e as a plebeian art. For them, the prints were frivolous, merely "posters" for the masses. Not the 19th century print artists Hokusai and Utamaro but the solemn 15th century (Zen) masters Sesshu and Shubun represented the pinnacle of Japanese art. But to the Europe eye, conditioned as it was by optical, "naturalistic" painting, the Japanese print was a window to a different world. Most notable, the highly stylized prints had an unusual clarity and visual immediacy. The contrast with Europe's naturalistic style of painting could hardly be greater.

In order to understand the fascination with the Japanese print among the early modernists, let's take a brief look at the at Europe's classic style of painting. European painting was traditionally based on optics, a science that had its origins in ancient Greece. It appears to have started with the so-called "scene painting" of Agatharchos of Samos in the 5th century B.C. Famous is the legend that Agatharchos painted a picture of grapes that was optically so convincing that birds approached and tried to eat them. Basic to the optical technique was the rendering of light and shadow, or clair-obscure, with the light source usually striking the object from the left or right. In the 15th century, artists of the Renaissance took the next important step in developing optical realism. They invented linear or "scientific" perspective.

The key to linear perspective was the vanishing point, or more specifically the single vanishing point, whereby the lines of projection meet at the horizon. The discovery of the vanishing point enabled artists for the first time to create a coherent images that conveyed a sense of three-dimensional space. In landscape paintings, optical faithfulness was further enhanced by "atmospheric" effects: colors were strong in the foreground but faded over distance, as if obscured by natural haze. Conceptually, the European painting had its roots in wall painting. With the invention of canvas, the painting was mounted in a frame that suggested a view of a landscape through an open window, hence the European painting came to be known as the "open window picture." By the 17th century, optical realism had become the convention in European painting, and clair-obscure and linear perspective would become an integral part of academic training.

 

Manet

By the middle of the 19th century, however, optical realism had become a stale mannerism. Opposition to the academy was growing. In the 1850's, the "socialist" Barbizon artists had shocked the art establishment with their paintings of exploited peasant and struggling farmers. But a bigger shock was yet to come. In the early 1860's, Eduard Manet exhibited a painting that violated the basic rules of painting. Manet's painting depicted a boy dressed in a blue uniform playing his flute. The boy was outlined with black lines, and the resulting planes were filled with flat, unmodulated colors. Manet did not use any halftones, and he largely ignored rules of clair-obscure. He was inspired by the Japanese wood block print, which likewise used outlines filled with unmodulated colors. Japanese artists used neither clair-obscure nor linear perspective, which gave their images their visual immediacy.

Audiences accustomed to optical realism ridiculed Manet's painting. Critics pointed at the lack of halftones and clair-obscure in Manet's painting, calling it "unfinished." They derided him as a "painter of playing cards." But Manet also received support for his attempt to developed a new pictorial style. Fellow artist Theodore Rousseau also questioning the convention of optical mimeticism. He wrote: "Trees ask to be spared from what in studio language is called relief, which usually consists of one side black-blue and the other side a mixture of halftones." Manet attracted a small group of admirers, most notably Monet, Renoir, Pissarro and Degas, who came to be known as the Impressionists. Like Manet, they wanted to "create" rather than "copy," and like Manet, they were fascinated by the Japanese wood block print. All the Impressionists collected Japanese prints, apparent not only in the vivid clarity of their paintings, but also in the choice of subject matter, the surprising "cropping" and compositions of their paintings.

The early modernist encountered vehement opposition from the art establishment, but they also found support among modern-minded critics and authors. They sensed that a new art was in the making, and some recognized that the impulse for this new art had come from the Japanese print. The famous critic Edmond de Goncourt used dramatic terms to describe this Japanese influence. He wrote: "When I said that Japonism was in the process of revolutionizing the vision of the European peoples, I meant that Japonism brought to Europe a new sense of color, a new decorative system, and, if you like, a poetic imagination in the invention of the ‘objet d'art', which never existed even in the most perfect medieval or Renaissance pieces." The critic Louis Gonse also pointed at the Japanese influence on the modernists. In the periodical Le Japon Artistique he wrote: "A drop of their blood has mixed with our blood and no power on earth can eliminate it."

 

The "Social Realist"

When Vincent van Gogh arrived in Paris in 1886, the Impressionist revolution was well into its second decade. No doubt the Dutchman blinked his eyes more than once when he first came face-to-face with the vivid images of Monet, Pissarro and Renoir. Before coming to France, Van Gogh's role model had been Jean-François Millet, a "social realist" artist of the Barbizon group. Like Millet, Van Gogh depicted the victims of 19th century social injustice. In fact, his concern with the poor predated his artistic career. Van Gogh had studied theology in Amsterdam, but his mentors deemed him unsuited for God's work. After a period of soul-searching he turned to art, and for six years, from 1880 to 1886, he struggled to master his new medium. He depicted farmers at their back-breaking work in the fields, textile workers laboring in sweatshops, and peasants in their somber, decrepit surroundings. His Dutch period culminated in The Potato Eaters, a dark, bitumen black canvas of poor farmers having their meal in a downtrodden shack.

Before coming to Paris, Van Gogh had heard about Impressionism from his brother Theo. But he was oblivious to the revolutionary nature of this new art. He was convinced that the social-realist Barbizon group represented the very avant garde in contemporary art. But once he came face-to-face with the vivid images of Monet, Pissarro and Renoir, he realized that the avant garde had taken on an entirely different dimension. Impressionism was different in style as well as subject matter. Instead of farmers and sweat shop workers, the Impressionists depicted festive bar rooms with gay people, boat outings on the river Seine, and tea parties on lush green lawns. Compared to the somber Barbizon images, these Impressionist paintings were tapestries of color.

Van Gogh soon realized that the Japanese wood block print had played a key role in the development of this new art. He had bought some Japanese print while in Antwerp on his way to Paris, but had not been aware of their impact on the Impressionists. Soon after his arrival in Paris, he discarded his old palette, and began experimenting with various Impressionist techniques, including the Pointillism of Paul Signac and George Pierre Seurat. He also found his way to the shop of Père Tanguy, the legendary purveyor of art supplies. Tanguy supported the struggling Impressionists, and accepted their paintings as payment for art supplies. Tanguy also sold Japanese wood block prints, and Van Gogh needed little time to amass a collection of more than two-hundred Japanese prints.

While in Paris, Van Gogh literally became captivated by Japanese art. He copied several Japanese prints in oil on canvas, including Sudden Rain at Ohashi Bridge from print master Hiroshige. Moreover, he honored Père Tanguy with a Japonaiserie portrait. The legendary art dealer was portrayed in front of a wall filled with Japanese prints. Van Gogh even arranged a exhibition of Japanese prints form his own collection, showing the best specimen at the Tamborin, his favorite restaurant in Paris.

 

The Midi

Van Gogh lived with his brother in Paris for two years, and then moved to the south of France. The Japanese prints had convinced him that Japan was a country bathing in sunlight, and he believed that working in a similar bright environment would help his artistic development. Shortly after arriving in the Midi he wrote a letter to one of his friends in Paris, the painter Emile Bernard. "Having promised to write you, I will begin by saying that this region seems to me as beautiful as Japan as far as the limpidity of the atmosphere and the effects of gay color effects are concerned. The waters forms patches of beautiful emerald and rich blue in the landscape, just as we see it in the crepons [Japanese prints]. Sunsets of a pale orange color make the fields appear blue. The sun is a splendid yellow. And all this while I have not seen the country in its usual summer splendor. The dress of the women is pretty. And on Sunday one can see on the boulevards well-chosen colors. And this will certainly become more gay in summer."

Van Gogh was now clearly focussed on color, or, more specifically, on the juxtaposition of pure colors. In traditional, optical painting this had not been an important issue. Traditionally, the European painter would mix two or more colors to obtain naturalistic tones with which to render things "fleshy" skin tones, trees, and the pale blue-grays of atmospheric haze. Painters seldom use paint straight from the tube. Moreover, in naturalistic painting, the colors were not juxtaposed, but mostly separated by clair-obscure effects. But the elimination of clair-obscure meant that pure colors were juxtaposed without intermediate halftones. Juxtaposing pure colors required a new sensibility for color combinations. In Paris, the Pointillist George Seurat had even consulted Michel Chevreul, the scientist who had identified two basic principles of color – the harmonies of analog colors and the harmonies of contrasts. Chevreal spoke of "simultaneous contrast" and "complimentary contrast." What happens with yellow is juxtaposed with green? How is red affected by blue?

Van Gogh felt the Japanese had already tackled the problem. The Japanese prints, free of half-tones, were essentially well-balanced color compositions. He addressed the issue in another letter to Bernard. He wrote: "A technical question. Give me your opinion on it in your next letter. Consider black and white, simply as the shopkeeper sells them to us; I'm going to put them boldly on my palette and use them as they are. When – and note that I am speaking of Japanese color simplification – when I see in a green park with pink walkways a man who is clad in black, a justice of the peace by profession . . . who is reading [the political magazine] L'Intransigeant. Above him is a sky of pure cobalt. Well, why not paint the said justice in ivory black and simply white for the magazine. The Japanese take reflections for granted, and place flat areas of color side by side, with characteristic lines marking off the movements and forms."

 

Internal Light

While van Gogh never specifically referred to optics, his remark that the Japanese "take reflections for granted" illustrates he was aware of the issue. The Sunflowers, Bridge at Arles, and the Harvest at La Crau, and the other images that painted that year all have something in common with each other and with the Japanese print. They convey a visual rather than an optical effect.

What is the difference between them? As we saw, Van Gogh eliminated clair-obscure from his painting. Clair-obscure, of course, is the result of light, or, more specifically, light external to the picture. When he banned shadows from his paintings, and used flat, "artificial" colors, he also eliminated external light from the picture. The Sunflowers, just like the shadowless Japanese print, has neither a light source nor shadows. The light in the painting is "internal." By using color as an independent reality -- independent of optical perception -- it followed that the painting assumed an independent reality. The painting is no longer an optical facsimili of the visual world, it was a reality in its own right.

The idea to treat a painting as a reality in its own right, of course, became the hallmark of the Modernist Revolution. The realization that a picture, before it is anything else, is an independent reality – a two-dimensional artifact – is still topical. Not only painting but contemporary electronic media are first and foremost two-dimensional, artificial media that are visually more expressive when treated as such. If contemporary Japanese imagery seems to have an unusually clarity, the reason is no doubt that the eye of the Japanese artists was never blurred, as it were, by the filter op naturalism. Esthetically speaking, Japan's traditional culture already possessed some eminently modern characteristics.

 

A Few Strokes

Vincent van Gogh, the "crazy" artists, never lost his concern with the poor, but his social consciousness became "colored," as it were, by the esthetics and the humanism of Japan's exotic culture. Perhaps more than any of his contemporaries, Van Gogh understood Japan's role in the modernization of European art. He expressed his debt to Japan on many occasions, but nowhere more dramatically than in one of last self-portraits he painted. After the incident with his ear, he portrayed himself with a bandaged head, and paid tribute to his source of inspiration. Behind him on his right was an empty painter's easel. On his left, hanging on the wall, was a small picture, a Japanese wood block print.

If Van Gogh's life was difficult at times, such is the faith of people ahead of their times. But then again, seeing what he saw and feeling what he felt – who would not give a year of his life to have just one day of his. In his letter to Theo, in which he referred to "those Japanese who live in Nature as if they themselves were flowers," he returned to Japan once more, and shared these thoughts with his brother:

"I envy the Japanese for the extreme neatness and clarity in their work. It is never tedious and never seems to be done in a hurry. Their work is as simple as breathing, and they draw a figure with a few sure strokes, as if it were as easy as buttoning a waistcoat. Oh, if only I could draw a figure with just a few lines. That will keep me busy all winter. Once I've mastered that, I'll be able to do people strolling on the boulevards, in the streets, and heaps of other subjects. While I have been writing this letter I have drawn about a dozen. I am on the track of it, but it is very complicated because what I am after is to sum up in a few strokes the figure of a man, a woman, a child, a horse, a dog – with a head, a body, legs, all in the right proportions. Good-bye for the present and a good handshake from

Ever yours, Vincent."


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