Tag Archives: Vincent van Gogh

Osamu Dazai: No Longer Human – Art and Ghost Pictures

10 Feb

Osamu Dazai’s novel No Longer Human is a really fascinating book I’ve read recently and I’ve already reviewed it here. In this post we’ll take a look at the main character, Oba Yozo’s connection to art and the paintings of Western painters such as Modigliani and Vincent van Gogh.

1918-amedeo-modigliani-a-young-girlAmedeo Modigliani, A Young Girl, 1918

Oba Yozo was interested in art and painting since primary school and wanted to go to an art school, but his father put him into college, with an intend to make a civil servant out of him. Yozo obeyed, like he always did in his life, but he couldn’t really identify himself with the role of a student, or soak himself in the ‘college spirit’, so he often cut classes and spent days at home, painting and reading – which is totally more useful for imagination and the soul than the boredom of classrooms and patronising professors at college. He also attended art classes given by a painter in Hongo, and practised sketching for hours. He said: ‘I owned a set of oil paints and brushes from the time I entered high school. I sought to model my techniques on those of the Impressionist School, but my pictures remained flat as paper cutouts, and seemed to offer no promises of ever developing into anything.’

With the help of a friend he realised the artistic truth: sometimes it’s more important to portray the truth and work from the soul, than to create perfect, lifeless pictures with a lot of skill and precision. He also says: ‘What superficiality – and what stupidity – there is in trying to depict in a pretty manner things which one has thought pretty. The masters through their subjective perceptions created beauty out of trivialities. They did not hide their interest in things which were nauseatingly ugly, but soaked themselves in the pleasure of depicting them.’ From that moment on, he began making self-portraits, which is kept a secret, and showed one only to Takeichi, and no one else. In his free time, he painted these ‘ghost pictures’, but in school he kept his style strictly conventional. Later, at college, he meets a fellow art lover and painter, Horiki, who lures him into the ‘mysteries of drink, cigarettes, prostitutes, pawnshops and left-wing thought’.

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with a Grey Felt Hat, March/April 1887

Here, Yozo and his friend Takeichi are discussing the so called ‘ghost pictures’, and the name itself is so intriguing to me. ‘Ghost pictures’ – what is meant by that? It puzzles me, especially since I adore both Modigliani and van Gogh, but I never thought of their art in that way. A certain fragility, melancholy and sadness lingers through Modigliani’s portraits, that’s for sure, but now I can’t help but to notice the wraith-like quality of his women, with elongated faces and sad eyes, or his nudes in ‘coppery skin’ tones.

Takeichi made one other important gift to me. One day he came to my room to play. He was waving with a brightly coloured picture which he proudly displayed. “It’s a picture of a ghost,” he explained.

I was startled. That instant, as I could not help feeling in later years, determined my path of escape. I knew what Takeichi was showing me. I knew that it was only the familiar self-portrait of van Gogh. When we were children the French Impressionist School was very popular in Japan, and our first introduction to an appreciation of Western painting most often begun with such works. The paintings of van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne and Renoir were familiar even to students at country schools, mainly through photographic reproduction. I myself had seen quite a few coloured photographs of van Gogh’s paintings. His brushwork and the vividness of his colours had intrigued me, but I had never imagined his pictures to be of ghosts.

I took from my bookshelf a volume of Modigliani reproductions, and showed Takeichi the familiar nudes with skin the colour of burnished copper. “How about these? Do you think they’re ghosts too?”

“They’re terrific.” Takeichi widened his eyes in admiration. “This one looks like a horse out of hell.”

“They really are ghosts then, aren’t they?”

“I wish I could paint pictures of ghosts like that,” said Takeichi.

1916. Modigliani 'Female Nude'Modigliani, Female Nude, 1916

Yozo later draws for comic books and magazines, and, at the very end, ends up copying pornographic drawings which he would then secretly peddle, to earn just enough money to buy gin. Still, despite leaving his original artistic intentions behind, he mentions these ‘ghost pictures’ again:

At such times the self-portraits I painted in high school – the ones Takeichi called “ghost pictures” – naturally came to mind. My lost masterpieces. These, my only really worth-while pictures, had disappeared during one of my frequent changes of address. I afterwards painted pictures of every description, but they all fell far,  far short of those splendid works as I remembered them. I was plagued by a heavy sense of loss, as if my heart had become empty.

The undrunk glass of absinthe.

A sense of loss which was doomed to remain eternally unmitigated stealthily began to take shape. Whenever I spoke of painting, that undrunk glass of absinthe flickered before my eyes. I was agonized by the frustrating thought: if only I could show them those paintings they would believe in my artistic talents.

1888-self-portrait-with-straw-hat-van-goghVincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Straw Hat, 1888

Yellow Stands for the Sun: Vincent van Gogh – The Sower

25 Jul

My life project is making my Mondays happy. Well, one of my life projects. Yellow is a cheerful colour and lately I’ve been fixated on artworks with yellow colour, and of course Vincent van Gogh was the first artist that came to my mind.

‘How lovely yellow is, it stands for the sun.’ (Vincent van Gogh)

1888. Vincent van Gogh, The SowerVincent van Gogh, The Sower, 1888

Vincent van Gogh loved yellow colour. He adored it. He worshipped it. After all, he said that yellow stands for the sun, and, like many artists before and after him, Vincent found his artistic haven under the sun of Provence, in Arles, where he would paint some of his most famous works such as The Sower. Whether painting stars, wheat fields or sunflowers, Vincent used yellow in abundance, but this painting in particular has that pure, intoxicating, magnificent shade of yellow that makes it so special. The painting shows a sower as a small blue figure against the vast field and sky that surrounds him. There’s a narrow path in the foreground that leads nowhere. A few crows are present. Van Gogh will reprise both of these elements in his beautifully intense and sinister painting Wheatfield with Crows, which was to be one of his last works. Mood of The Sower is different however – there’s still hope.

Vincent’s joy and ecstasy for living is woven into every tiny detail of this painting; from the soil, painted in warm brown tones with dashes of blue to the row of bright orange wheat behind the sower, crowned with magnificent, protruding amber yellow – the sun. Rays of sun are so pervading that the sky lost its blueness and became a golden oriental rug or a dress on one of Klimt’s ladies. Such is the beauty and importance of the sun in this painting. Whenever van Gogh painted in yellow or orange colour, he used blue as well. Blue and yellow were a match made in heaven according to Vincent, and you’ll see this in many of his paintings. In this painting, van Gogh switched the natural colours with his own expressionistic vision; blueness of the sky wowed itself into the soil, and the sun coloured the sky with such intensity that it seems to be burning rather than shining.

In the book Lust for Life, Irving Stone vividly describes Arles and Vincent’s thoughts upon arriving at that hot, incredibly and unbearably hot place where cruel sun and mistral drive people to madness. He describes the architecture of the town, river Rhone, and how the houses were all made with bright red tiles but their redness exceeded into light lavender, orange or brown colours under the strong rays of Provence sun. May I add that Vincent spent hours painting outdoors, in wheat fields often not even wearing a hat. The sun eventually drove him crazy too but for some time it was simply a muse that helped him create some of his finest paintings.

And now some beautiful paintings with yellow colour from various art periods:

1888. Summer Evening, Wheatfield with Setting sun, Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh, Summer Evening, Wheatfield with Setting sun, 1888

1839. Mary Ellen Best - Self-portrait

Mary Ellen Best, Self-portrait, 1839

1899. Max Kurzweil, Dame im gelben Kleid

Max Kurzweil, Dame im gelben Kleid, 1899

1908. The Kiss (Lovers) by Gustav Klimt

Gustav Klimt, The Kiss (Lovers), 1908

1821. Portrait of Henrietta Shuckburgh Provenance by Margaret Sarah Carpenter

Margaret Sarah Carpenter, Portrait of Henrietta Shuckburgh Provenance, 1821

1823. Amalie Auguste, Princess of Bavaria and Queen of Saxony

Joseph Karl Stieler, Amalie Auguste, Princess of Bavaria and Queen of Saxony, 1823

1781. Thomas Gainsborough Mrs. Peter William Baker

Thomas Gainsborough, Mrs. Peter William Baker, 1781

1778. Lady Grace Elliot mistress to George IV, by Thomas Gainsborough

Thomas Gainsborough, Lady Grace Elliot mistress to George IV, 1778

1854. L'impératrice Eugénie à la Marie-Antoinette

Winterhalten, L’impératrice Eugénie à la Marie-Antoinette, 1854

1647 Mary, Princess Royal and Princess of Orangea

Gerard van Honthorst, Mary, Princess Royal and Princess of Orange, 1647

1635. Anthony van Dyck - Portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria

Anthony van Dyck – Portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria, 1635

1705. Anne, Queen of Great Britain 1

Michael Dahl, Anne, Queen of Great Britain, 1705

1833. Evening Dress, Bright Yellow, La Belle Assemblee

Evening Dress, La Belle Assemblee, 1833

1917. Starlight by Emile Vernon

Emile Vernon, Starlight, 1917

1665. Peter Lely - Diana Kirke, later Countess of Oxford

Peter Lely, Diana Kirke, later Countess of Oxford, 1665

1665. Mary Parsons later mrs Draper perh PL ely 1665

Peter Lely, Mary Parsons, 1665

1863. Helen of Troy - Dante Gabriel Rossetti (model - Annie Miller)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Helen of Troy – (model – Annie Miller), 1863

1867. In The Country by Alfred Stevens

Alfred Stevens, In The Country by Alfred Stevens, 1867

Egon Schiele – Melancholic Sunflowers

19 Mar

Egon Schiele was just one of many painters who gave identity to sunflowers; he painted them laden with a heavy burden of melancholy and alienation. Gazing at Schiele’s sunflowers, for me, raises an awareness of the haunting fragility of life. I hope you’re intrigued by the oxymoron in the title.

1911. Sunflowers, by Egon SchieleEgon Schiele, Sunflowers, 1911

Artist most widely associated with the sunflower motif is Vincent van Gogh, who painted the flowers using quick, ecstatic brushstrokes, in thick coat of intense, almost fire-like, burning yellow-orange colour, their petals almost dissolving on canvas, and saw them as symbols of blinding sun which, in the end, causes madness, or even death. While his vision of sunflowers may have something to do with his over indulgence in absinthe and the fervent sun of Arles, Egon Schiele’s sunflowers are pure sceneries of the soul.

Schiele’s sunflower scenes are gentle portraits of human alienation. He was twenty-one years old when he painted this painting, titled simply ‘Sunflowers’ (1911), but he already showed a profound interest and understanding of the world and society around him. At the age of fifteen Schiele lost his father to syphilis, and he quickly took off the rose-tinted glasses of childhood and became an adult, or at least he tried. My point is that his work is very mature and thoughtful. His self-portraits from the same year show his pondering on the question of identity, and his place in the society. In the same way, these sunflowers here represent the state of his soul, not the scenery he saw before him.

1911. Sunflowers - Egon Schiele Egon Schiele, Sunflowers, 1911

In 1913, Schiele wrote to an art collector Franz Hauer: ‘I also do studies, but I find, and know, that copying from nature is meaningless to me, because I paint better pictures from memory, as a vision of the landscape – now, I mainly observe the physical movements of mountains, water, tress and flowers. Everywhere one is reminded of similar movements made by human bodies, similar stirrings of pleasure and pain in plants. Painting is not enough for me; I am aware that one can use colours to establish qualities. – When one sees a tree autumnal in summer, it is an intense experience that involves one’s whole heart and being; and I should like to paint that melancholy.*

The melancholy that Schiele so eloquently described in the letter (he was a poet as well), is exactly the feeling which overwhelms me when I look at this painting. In stingy colours, using light brushstrokes Schiele created a true psychological study. His sunflowers appear tired and weary at first sight, and believe me, the second sight only intensifies the first one. Murky yellows, muddy browns, shades of green – neither of which is fresh or relaxing, all indicate a certain fatigue of the soul, decay of traditional values. Notice the sparse petals: some are missing while others are wildly protruding. Their stems are weak, dry, directionless, about to break – ‘heads’ of sunflowers resemble a tired head of a disappointed, forlorn man carried on fragile shoulders. The scene inevitably reminds me of these verses ‘Broken thoughts run through your empty mind‘ and ‘Endless hours in bed, no peace, in this mind/ No one knows the hell where innocence dies‘, again by Manic Street Preachers (Sleepflower). I may be aggravating with these verses, but I think similar themes often occur in many artworks, regardless of the time-period and style, don’t you?

1908. Sunflower - Egon SchieleEgon Schiele, Sunflower, 1908

A poem that would go well with Schiele’s vision of sunflowers:

Georg Trakl: The Sunflowers

You golden sunflowers,
Feelingly bowed to die,
You humble sisters
In such silence
Ends Helian’s year
Of mountainous cool.
And the kisses
Make pale his drunken brow
Amidst those golden
Flowers of melancholy
The spirit is ruled
By silent darkness.

1906. Gustav Klimt - The Sunflower, 1906, Oil on Canvas. 110 x 110 cmGustav Klimt, The Sunflower, 1906, Oil on Canvas. 110 x 110 cm

Unlike Schiele’s isolated sunflowers, imbued with sadness, Klimt’s sunflowers have a mystical aura about them. He painted these sunny flowers incorporated in garden scenes. Whereas Schiele isolated his sunflowers, exposed their anguished heads and tired stems, Klimt’s fear of ‘horror vacui’, ‘fear of empty space’, drove his to fill the entire surface of his garden scenes with flowers, whether in form of tiny red dots and green dashes, or in a form of true flowers such as sunflowers. Klimt painted them with their heads looking in different directions, their green leafs dancing in the wind like tulle skirts. Jewish Hungarian journalist and author, Lajos Hevesi (1843-1910), noticed the contrast between bright yellow petals and ‘dark and mysterious’ inner space. Their appearance resembles the solar eclipse. Sunflowers did have a cosmic meaning to Klimt after all.

1913. Farm Garden with Sunflowers, 1913 by Gustav KlimtGustav Klimt, Farm Garden with Sunflowers, 1913

Vincent van Gogh – Almond Blossoms or ‘Fragile Beauty’

12 Mar

A few days ago I nicked a branch of an apple tree from someone’s garden. It looked lovely in my vase, but the whiteness and delicacy of the blossoms didn’t last very long, and my ‘stolen good’ quickly withered. First sight of this apple blossoms reminded me of Vincent van Gogh’s painting ‘Almond Blossom’.

1890. Branches with Almond Blossom by Vincent van GoghVincent van Gogh, Almond Blossom, 1890

Vincent van Gogh painted his painting ‘Almond Blossom’ in February 1890, during his stay in Saint Remy hospital. He obviously had an urge to capture the nature’s awakening because he painted the almond blossoms on many occasions. Vincent painted this particular blue version, this artistic ‘vignette’ to commemorate the birth of his nephew; son of his brother Theo and his wife Johanna. Lush white blossoms are sprouting from what were, not that long ago, just a few frozen branches, and, like heralds of spring, they announce the beginning of new life. These almond blossoms are symbols of fertility, new life and new beginnings – both in nature and referring to his little nephew. This is what Vincent wrote to his mother, on 20 February 1890;

Dear Mother,

I intended to answer your letter many days ago, but I could not bring myself to write, as I sat painting from morning to evening, and thus the time passed. I imagine that, like me, your thoughts are much with Jo and Theo (…) I started right away to make a picture for him (the nephew), to hang in their bedroom, big branches of white almond blossom against a blue sky.*

Alongside almond blossoms and their symbolism, there are other interesting elements of this painting. Firstly, the gorgeous cerulean or sky blue (as you wish) that graces the background. Secondly, calm and confident brushstrokes which, knowing van Gogh’s passionate nature, most have required some restraining and admirable patience.  Painting ‘Almond Blossoms’ always reminds me of these verses:

One day I realise oil on canvas
Can never paint a petal so so delicate‘ (Manic Street Preachers – Life Becoming a Landslide)

I agree with this thesis; tree in bloom is surely a lovelier scene in nature than on canvas. But if there’s one painter capable of beautifully capturing the delicacy of the almond blossoms, it’s Vincent van Gogh.

When I gazed at my apple blossoms in the vase, I was saddened by their decay. And then a though occurred – I realised what the Japanese were on about with their cherry blossom viewing. The beauty of flowers lies in their transience. Every spring flowers adorn the tree branches, but for Vincent the spring of 1890 was the last one of his life (he died in July 1890). Next year almond trees blossomed again, in the radiant sun of Provence, but Vincent wasn’t there to witness and admire their fragile beauty.

Vincent van Gogh and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in a Nightclub

6 Dec

Nightclub in Paris. 1887. Absinthe. Garish lightning. Harmony of orange, yellow and indigo. Clinking sound of glasses. Distant laugh. Air is heavy with smell of cigarettes, perfume and sweat. Twenty-three years old Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Across him sits thirty-four years old Vincent. A few light, sensitive strokes in pastel and Henri creates the most lyrical and most emotional portrait of van Gogh ever.

1887. Portrait of Vincent van Gogh, by Henri de Toulouse-LautrecPortrait of Vincent van Gogh, by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1887

Henri and Vincent met in February 1886, soon after Vincent arrived from Antwerpen where he stayed with his brother Theo, and despite their different temperaments and origins, they soon befriended. Both of them attended painting course in studio of Ferdinand Cormon and both of them were outsiders. As soon as talkative Henri noticed Vincent’s strange and wistful personality, he approached him and undoubtedly helped him to make friends with other young painters at the studio, such as Emile Bernard, Charles Laval, Eugene Boch and Louis Anquetin who soon became Vincent’s friends as well.

One evening in 1887, Henri and Vincent were sitting in a nightclub, probably the last ones to stay out drinking. With only few pastel strokes on cardboard, Henri captured the manic and passionate personality of this interesting red-haired stranger. This portrait, impressionistic but not quite, is the most emotionally charged portrait of van Gogh, and it managed to capture something that Vincent himself never did; physical accuracy. Henri precisely drew Vincent’s hooked nose and thin, light, almost nonexistent eyebrows: traits common in van Gogh’s family. At the same time he captured his rich inner life, his intensity, excitement and anxiety, his outsider chic. Intense yellow and purple-blue colours and striking brushstroke, as if they were taken in a hurry, all bring intensity to van Gogh’s appearance and his very position in that nightclub, dressed in battered clothes, sitting in silence, with a glass of absinthe in front of him. Henri drew Vincent as everyone saw his; as a wild animal waiting to jump at every second.

As I am writing this, a picture of David Bowie and Iggy Pop in a nightclub in Berlin in the late 1970s comes to my mind. Iggy is to be blamed though, and his song ‘Nightclubbing‘ from the album The Idiot (1977):

”Nightclubbing we’re nightclubbing
We’re what’s happening
Nightclubbing we’re nightclubbing
We’re an ice machine
We see people brand new people
They’re something to see
When we’re nightclubbing
Bright-white clubbing
Oh isn’t it wild?”

Vincent van Gogh – Explosion of Colours in Arles

30 Mar

Van Gogh, born on 30 March 1853, is a painter whose works I greatly admire, whose letters I consider an endless source of inspiration, whose paintings are one of my dearest subjects to write about. He managed to passionately and eloquently express his deep sadness, loneliness and despair and turn them into the most magical, most captivating and intriguing paintings ever painted. With those brush strokes of magical blues and ecstatic yellows, Van Gogh is saying to us that despite all misery, poverty and painful solitude ‘…there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me.’

(c) The National Gallery, London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation1888. Van Gogh’s Chair – Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh moved to Arles in February 1888, ill, tired and weary, with hopes of founding an utopian art colony where artists would paint side by side, in harmony and serenity.

Warm melodies of the south have lured artists from the North for a long time, ever since Albrecht Dürer traveled to Italy in Renaissance. It wasn’t just the architecture, or the art of Quattrocento; monuments of old glory which longed to be discovered. It was something higher, something more powerful; warm sun of the south that spoke to the soul, not the mind. Artists were attracted by the sublime sense of entering the historic land, fascinated with Mediterranean landscape and its warm climate, created for idle time and pleasure. Effects of this ‘art tourism’ were especially evident on the colour palette which became lighter, more vivid, and more passionate, enriched by golden rays of the sun and rich fragrances of the South. For Vincent van Gogh, Arles brought explosion of colours; mauve, ultramarine and yellow, and, in addition, he found the landscape enchanting and inspirational.

In Arles, Van Gogh was able to live out his visions of Japan by simply gazing at the sunbathed meadows and delicate trees in bloom, while in Paris he needed to get absorbed in Hiroshige’s wood-cuts in order to feel that way. His paintings of Flowering Orchards painted in spring of 1888, symbolise this optimism, sudden outburst of joy, a sense of all the wishes becoming true. It was enough for him to open his eyes and feel alive, caressed by the soft southern breeze, kissed by the rain drops, and mesmerized by the beautiful landscapes, interesting people of Arles; beauty of life opening right in front of his eyes. These months were rather happy for Van Gogh, which is not something that can easily be said, as sorrows in his life followed one another.

1888. Vincent van Gogh - Peach Tree in Blossom, Arles, April-May1888. Vincent van Gogh – Peach Tree in Blossom, Arles, April-May

Paul Gauguin arrived in Arles on 23 October 1888, and the two very different painters painted together during November. Van Gogh’s utopian dream of an art colony seemed to be realized, at least for a month. However, the differences between these two painters were insurmountable. Van Gogh was, in comparison with Gauguin, a tactic rationalist, too impulsive, too intrusive, and he indulged himself in wistfulness of his imagination a tad too much. Van Gogh was a romantic, and Gauguin was prone to primitivism, Van Gogh loved thick layers of colour, and Gauguin hated disorder. For some time the two got along, but their relationship was beginning to deteriorate as early as in December 1888. In addition to Gauguin’s arrogance and domineering behavior, Vincent van Gogh, who longed to be treated as Gauguin’s equal, had an enormous fear of being deserted, doomed to solitude and sadness again. Their quarrels ended in that infamous ear incident which happened in December 1888, after which Gauguin left and never saw Van Gogh again.

Van Gogh was a fragile person, full of love and sympathy for everyone around him, and along with his own fears, destitution and self-criticism, Gauguin’s patronising behavior had certainly not helped matters. I prepared for this post by reading his letters from Arles again, and it is clear to me, now more than ever, how every word he wrote expresses optimism and silent but profound hope, and how all poverty and lack of understanding had not hardened his feelings, and how in deepest sorrow he found beauty everywhere he looked. I feel in love with Van Gogh’s soul after reading his letters. They are more beautiful than any book because they are real.

I already mentioned this, but I’ll mention it again. In an episode of Doctor Who, the Eleventh Doctor traveled to past and met Vincent van Gogh. After spending some time with him, the doctor took him to a present day gallery. After Van Gogh saw his paintings and the popularity of them, tears of joy came down his cheeks. I confess it made me cry from happiness too! Too bad Amy Pond rejected his offer to stay with him; they could have gazed at the sunflowers all day surrounded by their red-haired children.

1888. Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), Gauguin’s Chair1888. Vincent van Gogh – Gauguin’s Chair

As a vision of loneliness, Van Gogh painted his and Gaugin’s chairs in December 1888. Both of them are painted as empty; metaphors for artists that are not there anymore, but once shared their thoughts and feelings; friends have vanished but the chairs are here, empty. Van Gogh’s chair is a modest wooden chair with a tobacco pipe which Van Gogh smoked because Dickens had advised it as a cure for melancholy. On the other hand, Gauguin’s chair is lavishing with books and a candle, indicating education and ambition.

Van Gogh painted his own chair in yellow and blue tones, symbolising light and hope. In the painting with Gauguin’s chair he used red-green contrast which, just like in the painting The Night Cafe, gives a sinister feel to the painting, witnessing darkness and lost hopes of their friendship. The message is clear; Gauguin had brought night and darkness into Van Gogh’s idealistic world. These chairs are portraits in alienation in which Van Gogh expressed ‘…not sentimental melancholy, but serious sorrow.

With the help of art, the world that seemed threatening and unfriendly was suppose to become his world too. Van Gogh did not want to repress reality, neither did he want to renounce it; he wanted reality to become understandable and accessible. Was this simple desire too much for the harsh world? With these painting Van Gogh proved the audience that ‘Paintings have a life of their own that derives from the painter’s soul.

‘The only time I feel alive is when I’m painting.’

Van Gogh – Japonaiserie

16 Aug

Lately I’ve been interested in Japanese culture and van Gogh’s paintings inspired by Japanese art instantly came to my mind. Still, the Impressionists were influenced by the Japanese culture even before van Gogh which shows how the Japanese art and culture was thrilling and inspirational for western world, that is, western artists.

1887. The Courtesan (after Eisen) - van Gogh1887. The Courtesan (after Eisen) – Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh’s interest in Japanese art flourished when he came in contact with Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints which previously inspired many Impressionists including Monet, Manet and Degas and some Post-Impressionists as well, such as Gauguin. During the centuries Japan was a secluded country but in 1854. Japan re-opened trade with the west and Japanese arts including fans, porcelains and woodcuts became available to the west market, especially France and the Netherlands. In 1868. Japan ended a long period of isolation and started importing products from the west as well such as photography and printing techniques. It was at that time that other Japanese products were imported as well, and all the sudden, gorgeous textiles, bronzes, cloisonne enamels and other arts came to Europe where they soon became popular. Japanese art proved to be a whole new world for the artists, and as early as the 1860s, painters such as James Tissot and James McNeill Whistler were seen painting ladies dressed in lavishing kimonos in vibrant colours that simply evoke the enchanting eastern spirit.

Van Gogh first became interested in Japanese art in 1885. when he used some ukiyo-e print to decorate the walls of his studio in Antwerp. Particular Japanese prints can be seen in the background of his paintings such as Portrait of Pere Tanguy. In 1886. Vincent arrived in Paris and soon embraced Japonism, which was, at that time, a fashion among artists as the Impressionists were greatly interested in ukiyo-e prints. Although van Gogh was initially influenced by great masters in Netherlands, coming to Paris meant that he’d be exposed to Impressionism, Symbolism, Pointillism and Japanese art as well. His circle of friends in Paris included many other Post-Impressionist artists; Camille Pissaro, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Gauguin, Emile Bernard, Paul Signac and others.

Japanese artists that particularly interested van Gogh were Hiroshige and Hokusai, both for the subject matter and the flat style of colour. He loved the vibrant colours, the distinctive cropping of their composition, bold and assertive outlines, absent or unusual perspective and flat colour application. He wrote in a letter to his brother in 1888. ‘‘About staying in the south, even if it’s more expensive — Look, we love Japanese painting, we’ve experienced its influence — all the Impressionists have that in common — [so why not go to Japan], in other words, to what is the equivalent of Japan, the south? So I believe that the future of the new art still lies in the south after all.” adding ”All my work is based to some extent on Japanese art…” Van Gogh studied Japanese ukiyo-e print in detail, making the copies of two of the Hiroshige prints. He also admired not only the art, but Japanese culture and natural and simple approach to life and things around them. What a beautiful, poetic thing he said “Just think of that; isn’t it almost a new religion that these Japanese teach us, who are so simple and live in nature as if they themselves were flowers?” Adding how studying Japanese art makes him cheerful and happier person “And we wouldn’t be able to study Japanese art, it seems to me, without becoming much happier and more cheerful, and it makes us return to nature, despite our education and our work in a world of convention.”

van gogh1On the left: Plum Park in Kameido (1857) by Hiroshige, On the right Flowering Plum Tree (after Hiroshige) (1887) by van Gogh

van gogh 2

On the left: Sudden Shower over Shin-Ōhashi bridge and Atake (1857) by Hiroshige, On the right: The Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige) (1887) by van Gogh

1875. claude monet- Madame Monet in a Japanese Costume1875. Madame Monet in a Japanese Costume – Claude Monet

1864. James Tissot, La Japonaise au bain1864. James Tissot, La Japonaise au bain

1863. James McNeill Whistler, The Princess from the Land of Porcelain1863. James McNeill Whistler, The Princess from the Land of Porcelain

1894. George Hendrik Breitner - Girl in a White Kimono1894. George Hendrik Breitner – Girl in a White Kimono

1892. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec lithograph poster1892. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec lithograph poster