Van Gogh’s long-distance love affair

by Matthew Larking

Contributing Writer

“Van Gogh & Japan” concerns a love affair of creative misperceptions between temporally and geographically distant admirers. Van Gogh (1853-1890) never went to Japan, though he idealized it briefly as a utopia in which artists worked communally in converse with nature.

Attempting to establish what became a short-lived artists’ collective in Arles from early 1888, Van Gogh described a town surrounded by fields of spring flowers as a “Japanese dream.” He wrote to his sister that he no longer needed Japanese paintings: “Here in Arles, I am in Japan.” This fanciful outlook transposed a cheerier disposition upon what were famously troubled times for the artist.

The exhibition’s focus is the bric-a-brac of Van Gogh’s Japan fetishism from around 1886-1890. These include Japan references culled from his letters; Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints; illustrations he copied, such as the cover of the May 1886 Paris Illustre Le Japon; and Japanese imagery adapted to oil paintings, like the gaudy and incongruous collage of “Courtesan (after Eisen)” (1887). Further mention must be made of the ukiyo-e exhibition Van Gogh arranged in a favored cafe in 1887, and the inspiration he received from Pierre Loti’s novel, “Madame Chrysanthemum,” in 1888.

The wider context for Van Gogh’s stylistic development after he arrived in Paris in 1886, and then later in Arles from 1888, however, included the influence of the Barbizon school and religious paintings, along with other European painters whose work he made numerous copies of. Bright and flat colors, thick brush strokes, heavy contours and heightened attention to nature were all either elements inherent in earlier European painting styles, or were the already assimilated aspects of Japonism found in previous decades of French impressionism.

Regardless, Japan reciprocated the Dutch painter’s yearnings with imaginative excesses of other kinds. Van Gogh was popularized in Japan two decades after his death through devotees such as novelist Saneatsu Mushanokoji, expressionist painters Yori Saito and Ryusei Kishida, and literati of the Shirakaba-ha (White Birch Society).

Early 20th-century writings sometimes envisaged Van Gogh as an untrammeled recluse in the manner of the centuries-old Eastern scholar-painter ideal. With Van Gogh having painted himself as a Japanese monk (“Bonze”) in 1888, his legendary ear-slicing incident alludes to the biographic instance of the similarly self-mutilating Buddhist priest, Myoe (1173-1232). In a sense, Van Gogh became a kind of surrogate Japanese operating within French modernism.

In the 1920s and ’30s, Japanese artists and enthusiasts made pilgrimages to Auvers- sur-Oise, a suburb of Paris, where a number of works were maintained by the son of Paul-Ferdinand Gachet, the doctor who oversaw Van Gogh’s final months. The display of visitors’ books at the exhibition reveal more than 240 Japanese names. Also on show is Kanji Maeta’s 1923 painting of the gravestones of Van Gogh and his brother Theo.

Contemporary homage by Yasumasa Morimura rounds out the exhibition. In 1888, Van Gogh painted his bedroom, flattening the perspective and omitting shadows to a style suggestive of a Japanese print. A life-size stage-set model of that room was created by Morimura in 2016 as the backdrop for a flattering photographic “self-portrait” of himself in the guise of Van Gogh.

“Van Gogh & Japan” at The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, runs until March 4; ¥1,500. For more information, visit www.momak.go.jp.