How Van Gogh’s love affair with Japan changed art history

CNN  — 

Vincent van Gogh is often called the most beloved artist of all time, his work influencing authors, filmmakers, designers and countless other artists who succeeded him. Now, a major exhibition is exploring the Japanese art and ideas that inspired the master himself.

On view at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, “Van Gogh And Japan” examines the connection that the painter felt to Japan and its printmaking. Although he only discovered the art form in the latter years of his short life, it profoundly shaped his art – and led to many of his greatest masterpieces.

The exhibition features 60 paintings and drawings by the Dutch artist alongside 50 Japanese prints from the era, including several from Van Gogh’s own extensive private collection which was largely amassed when he lived in Paris between 1886 and 1888. Together, they offer fascinating insights into Van Gogh’s vision and artistry while allowing visitors a chance to see and better understand the Japanese aesthetics that so excited him.

Van Gogh painted his own version of a Japanese-style print -- complete with snowy mountaintop and brightly-dressed geisha girls -- in the background of his famous "Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear."

Especially remarkable is the inclusion of “Self Portrait With Bandaged Ear” (1889), which, until now, had not left the UK since 1955. In the background of this powerful self-portrait, Van Gogh painted his own version of a Japanese-style print, complete with snowy mountaintop and brightly-dressed geisha girls – elements adapted from artworks in his collection. Their appearance in a self-portrait suggests the extent to which he viewed Japanese art as part of his very identity.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, Van Gogh’s “Portrait of Pere Tinguy” (1887) incorporates a riotous, colorful array of Japanese motifs. A copy of his painting “The Courtesan (after Eisen)” can also be seen in the portrait’s background, offering a re-interpretation of a geisha girl print that the painter frequently returned to in his work.

According to the exhibition’s co-curator Nienke Bakker, Van Gogh’s love for Japanese art ran deep.

“He admired Japanese artists for the way they lived in harmony with nature and the complete focus on their work,” she explained in an interview at the Van Gogh Museum. “He wanted to live like that.”

Growing influence

Japonica was already in vogue when Van Gogh, then 32, arrived in Paris. Lanterns, screens and lacquerware were especially popular among the city’s designers. Artists, too, had discovered the Japanese aesthetic: Monet, Degas and others were collecting Japanese prints and incorporating so called “Japonisme” into their work.

"Fuji Seen from the Katakura Tea Plantation in the Suruga Province" (1831-1835) by Katsushika Hokusai, an artist who greatly inspired Van Gogh's art.

By this stage, Van Gogh was already aware of the Japanese aesthetic. He had purchased his first woodblock prints in 1885 while living in Antwerp, describing them in a letter to his brother Theo as “very diverting.” He began pinning the prints to the wall of his atelier, seeking inspiration and trying to apprehend their mysterious allure.

In Paris, he seems to have unraveled their secrets. While amassing a collection of about 600 Japanese prints – some for his own pleasure, others that he hoped to sell for extra income – he began painting his own versions of these images, as if trying to enter into their aesthetic spirit.

Practically copying the woodblocks at first, he eventually began adapting and incorporating their style into his own, integrating the flat surfaces, bright color, strong lines and subject matter: snowy landscapes, irises and cherry blossoms.

According to a letter Van Gogh wrote to his brother, he reshaped his eyes in this 1888 self-portrait to give himself the appearance of a Japanese monk.

“The composition is very important,” explained Bakker. “By studying these prints he gets new ideas about how to look at reality, how to frame a landscape or use strong diagonals.”

Van Gogh even began even thinking of himself as a Japanese artist, Bakker claimed. Indeed, in one 1888 self-portrait he reshaped his eyes in order to give himself the appearance of a Japanese monk, according to his letters.

Other conventions of Japanese art also began appearing in the Dutchman’s paintings, such as strong outlines, the absence of shadows, the use of non-aerial perspective and the unexpected close cropping of images.

Colorful and ‘joyous’

But the decorative quality and bright colors of Japanese prints seem to have impressed and influenced Van Gogh the most – even more so than the work of his neo-Impressionist contemporaries.

“The Japanese prints really showed him a new way,” said Bakker. “He believed that art should be colorful, should be joyous.

"La Crau with Peach Trees in Blossom" (1889) features motifs commonly found in Japanese art at the time, such as snow-capped mountains.

“(This is) the most colorful exhibition on Van Gogh we’ve done so far, because it’s all about how he worked with color, and how the prints pushed him to do daring things. So it’s a very colorful, very powerful, very happy exhibition.”

After all, it was Van Gogh himself who wrote in one of his many letters to his brother that “we wouldn’t be able to study Japanese art… without becoming much happier and more cheerful.”

Bakker seems to agree. “I think the exhibition does that, too,” she said. “And I think it will, as well, for the people who come to see it.”

Van Gogh & Japan” is on at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam until June 24.