Before the vividness of France came the simplicity of Holland

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

It must be something of a Faustian bargain buying a Post-Impressionist painting for a record-breaking price. In 1987, Yasuo Goto, president of Yasuda Fire & Marine Insurance Co., bought Van Gogh’s “Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers” (1888) for $39 million. Perhaps due to that daring purchase, his company, now merged in Sompo Japan, has ever since felt a strong obligation to maintain a high profile in the art world.

Visiting the Sompo Japan Museum — located on the 42nd floor of a skyscraper in Nishi-Shinjuku — feels like going back in time to Japan’s famous “Bubble Economy” days of the 1980s. This was a time when Japanese corporations were suffused with limitless ambition, and the idea of buying up some of the world’s best art and creating a famous art museum seemed all too easy.

But a lot has changed since then. It’s clear that Goto’s ambition was never quite realized. The museum, now known as the Sompo Japan Museum of Art, has fallen out of the limelight to a certain extent and has had to eke out a more difficult existence. I even get the impression that if the Sompo didn’t have its famous Van Gogh, it might have decided to throw in the towel long ago, as other corporate museums have done. But it does have it, so the art continues.

The latest exhibition recognizes the central importance of this painting to the museum and builds an exhibition around it. With works mainly sourced from a Dutch museum, the Gemeente Museum, we are given an idea of the early influences behind Van Gogh’s work.

These include Dutch rural scenes and seascapes from the Hague School and works by the French Barbizon painters. The latter especially extolled the virtues of the simple peasant life. A good example is Jean-Francois Millet’s “The Butter Churner” (1870), showing one of his characteristic stout peasant girls, with arms like pistons, churning away.

Van Gogh was at first interested in such proletarian subject matter, as we see in his own attempt at a peasant woman in “Head of a Woman Wearing a White Cap” (1884-5), an extremely murky painting, but he later became more interested in landscapes.

These rather dour works are a far cry from the vivid colors that Van Gogh turned to after moving to Paris in 1886, but, as with “Wood Gatherers in the Snow” (1884), they have a puritan simplicity and sincerity that is nevertheless touching.

The exhibition also includes some fine early works by Piet Mondrian that reveal how he was initially influenced by Van Gogh before becoming a much more a minimalist painter.

“Reflections of Holland: The Hague School and Barbizon” at the Sompo Japan Museum of Art runs till June 29; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m.(Fri. till 8 p.m.). ¥1,000. Closed Mon. www.sompo-japan.co.jp/museum/index.html