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AMSTERDAM — Originality in art is a slippery criterion. Imitation seems antithetical to it. Yet art never exists outside its context of conventions, traditions, and antecedents. Imitation lurks even in “original” work.
The inevitability of artistic imitation provides a premise for the blockbuster exhibition Inspiration from Japan, which wraps up its three month-long run this weekend here at the Van Gogh Museum. Presenting 60 paintings and drawings by Vincent van Gogh along with more than two dozen relevant works of mid-19th century Japanese art, the exhibition’s argument is that, through willful imitation of Japanese art, the once uncertain van Gogh became the van Gogh we know, a figure who might be the world’s most famous painter.
The influence of van Gogh on the 20th century has become so ingrained that it almost seems to have been predestined by his biography. Yet, as attested to by The Letters of Vincent van Gogh (Penguin Classics 1997), and in the recently republished A Memoir of Vincent van Gogh (J. Paul Getty Museum, 2018) by the artist’s sister-in-law, Jo van Gogh-Bonger, the self-taught, anti-careerist van Gogh had no inkling he would become what he has.
Inspiration from Japan maps out how his study of the compositional methods and innovative devices in 19th century Japanese art altered his strategies for drawing and painting. And, as the exhibition implies, his absorption of Japanese art and culture was not limited to technical concerns.
In the exhibition’s understated subplot, the visitor gleans how van Gogh viewed Japan less as a real country than as an ideal for fashioning a new self-image, through which he transmuted nearly every place, object, or person that he rendered during the eventful final years he spent wandering the French countryside. Having never visited Japan, he had, at best, a superficial knowledge of its culture and its people. This ignorance freed him to imagine Japan as a utopian space where religious feeling, immersion in the natural world, and the making of art formed a single, interdependent state of being. If there is a surprise ending to this story, it is how unmaintainable that vision of creative life turned out to be.
Like any successful exhibition about a figure as familiar as van Gogh, Inspiration from Japan must tacitly debunk the clichés and stereotypes that surround the artist’s biography. In particular van Gogh’s life has fed a narrative about art as a self-destructive undertaking, exemplified by his famous self-mutilation and subsequent suicide. Taken together, this emphasis has concretized a popular 20th century image of the artist as a misunderstood, highly strung, wretched misfit. This unfortunate fiction has a lethal effect on the power and relevance of art; its sinister implication is that the making of art is inherently pathological. Once that equation is accepted as conventional wisdom, a shallow mercantile culture allows itself to pay little more than lip service to art as forms of investigation, inquiry, and knowledge.
Despite its occasional flaws, Inspiration from Japan demonstrates how van Gogh’s varied work mostly defies the long-standing banalities that have cropped up around his image as reiterated by some biographies and sentimental biopics. Vocation, a calling, is the subject here, alongside hard work and trial-and-error. Though religious feeling and thought were central to his temperament, the exhibition shows how his pilgrimage was level-headed and exacting.
This conforms to the autobiographical record. In copious letters to his peers and his to his brother Theo, van Gogh is consistently judicious, practical and logical, even when dealing with thorny family crises or with his later mental breakdowns. Like his thinking, and, later, his art, van Gogh’s biography was neither straightforward nor romantically facile.
Born in Zundert in The Netherlands in 1853, he was the eldest son of a censorious reverend in the Dutch Reformed Church. To appease his parents, in his early 20s, he took a gig with the international art dealer Goupil & Cie. Goupil posted him first in The Hague, then in London, and, briefly, in Paris. Through that job he was exposed to a range of European art from various epochs, and, judging from his early letters, he seemed receptive to them all. After being laid off by Goupil in 1876, he drifted from job to job before studying theology and signing on to become an evangelical preacher, working among Belgian miners and, later, in working-class enclaves in Amsterdam and London.
A churchgoer in England around October of 1876 would have been privy to a rare Sunday sermon by van Gogh, a long speech which he transcribed in a letter to Theo. In it he evocatively frames human beings as “pilgrims in the earth and strangers.” This formulation, echoed in differing words throughout his letters, reflects a kind of enlightened nihilism that may have been his north star. On the one hand, the phrase enshrines a sort of tranquil alienation as being endemic to the natural world and to humanity. But in its positive implications, about which he ruminates throughout his letters, van Gogh indicates that this estrangement can be the starting point for an egalitarian fellowship between humanity and the living world. As it turned out, it was also what fueled his turn to making art.
Perhaps seeking to turn a half-formed philosophy into action, he gives up proselytizing. In its place, he situates daily observation as his final ethical-aesthetic calling. In 1882, having decided on being a painter, he writes to Theo constantly, documenting his days spent watching the world unfold in front of him. Many times, of course, he is asking for money for art supplies and he is genuinely grateful when he gets it. But he is not passive or delusional, and Theo knows it.
Van Gogh writes about perception as an interpersonal labor connected to drawing. “Picture me sitting at my attic window as early as 4 o’clock in the morning,” he writes, “studying the meadows & the carpenter’s yard with my perspective frame.”
That early period art, in the form of drawings he enclosed in letters to Theo, culminated in what was probably his first fully realized painting “The Potato Eaters,” (1883). This artistic activity was supplemented by reading gritty realists like Charles Dickens and Émile Zola and studying the art of his favorite painter, Jean-Francois Millet. Though he was convinced that observation and realism were all he needed and that its disciplines would yield art worthy of that asceticism, he still bristled at one mentor’s criticism of “The Potato Eaters,” indicating he might have been unsure about whether that work validated his new commitment to painting.
As Inspiration from Japan puts it, the reassuring breakthrough he needed came during the winter of 1886-1887 when he resided with Theo in Paris. Sharing a home with his brother, who oversaw a thriving art gallery and who knew many cutting-edge artists, van Gogh no longer needed to write the revelatory letters disclosing his evolution. But exactly what happened to his art during that Paris period has remained a source of debate, a breach convincingly filled in by this exhibition.
Within the exhibition’s sometimes uncertain historical terminology, the word “Japan” refers not to the country as such but to the European fervor for Japanese art and culture as it gripped England and France in the late 19th century. Parisian culture was deluged in japonisme. This mania swept up van Gogh, too, just as it did a new generation of his artist-friends who were remaking realism, from Edgar Degas and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec to Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro. The influential art collector and writer Edmond de Goncourt published the Japanese-inflected popular novel Cherie; Pierre Loti wrote Madame Chrysanthemum; Louis Gonse, editor-in-chief of Gazette des Beaux-Arts published a special issue on Japanese art that had a seismic effect on the avant-garde. Van Gogh collected Japanese prints, many of which were available in Paris, even to artists of limited means. By early 1887, his collection was said to be so massive that he hoped to monetize it by selling off many prints in the café run by his lover of the time, the Italian-born Agostina Segatori.
Like almost all of his commercial pursuits, that print sale fizzled. But it hardly mattered. Inspired by peers who were just as enthusiastic about using Japanese art to expand their palettes, he incorporated Japanese techniques and themes into his art.
Each of these innovations gets individualized focus in the exhibition. Their explanations are augmented by a leisurely paced audio guide and interspersed with installation videos which decode the compositional methods he derived from Japanese masterworks. These techniques are then contextualized and exemplified in specially annotated wall labels that accompany his paintings. And the exhibition bolsters its theses about Japan by pairing his output to particular Japanese works, with their own explanatory labels, hung on facing walls just opposite the van Goghs. Chief among these are lithographic prints from woodblock paintings by Utagawa Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai. Studying any given van Gogh, the visitor is invited to do an about-face and discover its purported Japanese antecedent.
Perhaps the most surprising canvases in the entire exhibition are two extraordinarily vibrant, gaudy, and brazen copies of Japanese artworks, “Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige)” (1887) and “Courtesan (after [Keisai] Eisen)” (1887). In each of these paintings, he extends the original’s florid colors, stylized poses, and sinuous costumes to the images and colors he added to the paintings’ actual frames. There is a clear artist’s statement being made; in studying Japanese prints, van Gogh, like his peers in Paris, decided that art need not be contained within a given canvas. In graphic terms that promised a less hierarchical approach to choosing and handling subject matter, painters like van Gogh realized from Japanese art that a picture’s content could be unpredictably cropped, that a painting could zoom in and zoom out on its details, and that the subject matter itself could be dramatically pitched to show it existing beyond the frame.
This dynamism in perspective and boundary-breaking is, at its core, the “inspiration” purported by the exhibition’s title. As French neoclassicism and academicism ran out of gas, Japanese art gave young painters a new license to experiment. Van Gogh in particular seized on the idea, inferred from Japanese woodblocks, that art could exceed its representational functions even as it attended rigorously to the given objects of its attentions. Art for its own sake, or an audacious formalism, could be realized even while adhering to the traditional genres of portraiture, landscape, and still life.
These Japan-inspired elaborations invested into his repertoire form the organizational design of the exhibition. The first major, and longest-lasting development is the adoption of tighter brushstrokes that, at least initially, imitate the threaded texture in Japanese crepe prints. This elaborate hatching lends rich layering and sculptural clarity to otherwise unassuming still-lifes like “Quinces, Lemons, Pears & Grapes” and “Red Cabbages & Onions,” and to the fantastical portrait “Père Tanguy” (all 1887), exhibited here in its lithographic iteration. The bearded Tanguy wears a green and yellow straw cap that suggests pastureland or sunflower fields; his blue coat is colored like a midday sky; his thick, golden white hands are clasped, completing a pensive pose; all around him float van Gogh’s renditions of the various Japanese prints and artworks that Tanguy had collected and hung in his atelier.
Other variations also seem drawn from Japanese models. He began incorporating intrusive diagonals and forging higher, wider and skewed horizons. These translate into a bracing simultaneity between near and distant objects, as in “La Crau with Peach Trees in Blossom” (1889), in which the viewer seems to be suspended over the landscape, as if parachuting slowly downward into it.
Driven by Hokusai’s series Thirty-Six Views of Mt Fuji (1830-1832), he experiments with parallel and incongruent diagonals in “Seascape near Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer” (1888), in which the horizon buckles as if bending under the weight of the serene, subtly gradated color fields across the expansive sky. Meanwhile in the waning daylight, the cresting and breaking sea waves stir up correspondingly unpredictable colors — greens, blues, whites — creating a kind of soothing restlessness between and among their crosswise motions.
Increasingly, in innumerable landscapes created at a furious clip in the south of France, van Gogh’s picture planes imitate the flat, mannered elegance of certain Japanese paintings. He dispenses with depth perspective to equate people or manmade objects with the landscape, a unifying vision he had only hinted at in the early drawings and sketches. Again Japanese masterpieces seem the guideposts. In “The Seven-Ri Ferry at Atsuta, Miya” (1855), Hiroshige harmonizes human figures on the seashore with the unassuming randomness of docked and unmoored boats under a sky dominated by atmospheric bands of crystalline color. This tableau is crosscut by reddish wooden pilings whose outsized dimensions fix them firmly in the foreground.
In parallel fashion, van Gogh, working in sparsely populated regions of southern France, reconstitutes the French countryside into distinct, de-centered fields of color within which traces of human life are seamlessly integrated, so that even simple objects seem totems of art. For instance, in “Fishing Boats on the Beach at Les Saintes” (1888) pale green bands are intertwined within the blues and whites of the sky, which set into relief the boats’ varied colored masts as they levitate near an uneven waterline. The colors of the boats and sky recur in varied configurations in the turbulent sea and smooth sand. Meanwhile the boundary between sea and sand juts out and suddenly recedes, not quite bisecting the picture plane but still denying a stable or “correct” perspective for the viewer. Like a Japanese painter, he yields a controlled perspective to the all-encompassing randomness of nature.
These developments culled from Japanese landscapes also inform “Entrance to a Quarry” (1888) and “The Ravine” (1888). In both, flattened perspectives describe overlapping rock formations. These forms generate competing focal points, while the varied grays, blues, and greens soften the overall composition to delineate stones, hills, and hollows collapsing inward and erupting outward in near perfect balance. Realism surrenders to nature’s graceful volatility. And mobility is restored to the simple act of looking.
Throughout the work in Arles, he makes good on this visionary belief in art-as-nature and nature-as-art. In painting after painting these propositions become indisputable facts. In “Garden with Butterflies” (1890), a steeply pitched close-up of green undergrowth scissors and sways with brushstrokes mimicking the rugged surfaces of spindly plants and long grass while the pistoled flowers on the right echo the leaf-like butterfly wings on the left, which, in turn, imitate squibs of paint.
An homage to Utagawa Kunisada’s “A Crab in the Seashore” (1820) yields the still-life “A Crab on Its Back” (1888), a raw tour-de-force. The crustacean’s upturned body, portioned into endless browns and reds, seems consumed and buoyed by the field of greens around it. Given how alive and helplessly engrossed van Gogh seems to have been during his sojourn in Arles, “Crab on Its Back,” might best be read as a veiled self-portrait.
In light of this range of subjects and the unfettered pace of his output, it feels as if something beyond style alone is fueling the artist in these final two years of his life. Writing from Arles, he assures his brother Theo, “I’m in Japan here.” Despite that declarative tone, he is well aware of the metaphorical function of the word “Japan.” His Arles, like Japanese art, represents a zone where art and nature finally merge; he once wrote a letter envisioning the Japanese “living in nature like flowers,” an ideal in which he also implicates himself. Increasingly, his fluid paintings emulate the growth spurts of plants, the slashing and slicing effects of rain and wind, the swelling and swaying of the sea, and the uneven geological convolutions of the earth itself.
Despite this remarkable fluency in painting, within the social sphere, van Gogh struggled. For one, many locals in Arles were unnerved by the unpredictable presence of an unmarried and nomadic Dutch painter living in their midst. Some notified the authorities. And, more jarringly, his plan to create an artists’ colony with his friends Paul Gauguin and Émile Bernard, a community modeled on the monk-like image he had about Japanese artists, collapsed.
Van Gogh’s increasing isolation and mental illness become more apparent but do not dominate the exhibition’s latter half, at least not in the imagery on the canvases or in the masterful drawings. Checking himself into mental hospitals now and then in order to recover enough equilibrium to paint again, he was sustained, even in those pain-filled days, by the merging of nature and art through the imagined archetype of the Japanese artist. In “Self Portrait as a Bonze” (1888), a painting he gifted to Gauguin, van Gogh alters his physiognomy to correspond to what he thought the face of a Japanese monk ought to resemble. He depicts himself standing upright with his hair shorn, his angular face drawn and gaunt, concentrated and poised, his domed head haloed in luminescent greens. The reciprocal self-portraits sent to him by Gauguin and Bernard, which also cross-reference Japanese art, attest to their shared motivations, making their later breaks with their longtime friend a disconcerting note in the exhibition’s biographical narrative.
If by 1889, as seems to be the case, the anguish of an incurable mental illness had brought him to the brink of suicide, it does not manifest itself explicitly in the paintings. Even in the harrowing “Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear” (1889), the redemptive, color-rich background, featuring a Japanese lithograph, materializes alongside the wound. Art, embodied by that print, is not salvation or cure; it is the artist’s ecosystem.
Ultimately, however, the Japan-as-inspiration-narrative collapses under the weight of van Gogh’s staggering range. While many of the portraits from this period incorporate the cropped perspectives and jagged linearity in Japanese woodcuts of aristocrats and courtesans, they just as often borrow heavily from the hyper-individualized, introspective examples of the Dutch Golden Age portraiture of Rembrandt and Vermeer, painters van Gogh had long admired.
But inspirational sources take a backseat to the paintings of his closing year. Though the exhibition’s third floor shoehorns its title After the [Japanese] Dream on to these final paintings, they seem like beginnings, not endings, and certainly not, as has been often been argued, coded suicide notes.
“Almond Blossom,” (1890), said to have been completed in response to the birth of Theo’s son, named after his uncle Vincent, shows how far van Gogh had exceeded, in a mere matter of months, the innovative stylizations he had culled from Japanese art.
In “Almond Blossom,” unevenly shaped, flourishing green branches intertwine and crisscross, growing up, outward and around, seemingly extending from outside the frame, invading the picture from all sides. The branches and blossoms tilt, turn and interlace against a lapis-lazuli sky so well-defined that the visitor might imagine reaching through the airy gaps between stalks and blooms. The picture was painted just a few weeks before van Gogh died from a self-imposed gunshot wound to his chest in Auvers, France.
The “inspiration” for that irreparable act, let alone the work he produced just before it, will continue to provide for breathless speculation and scholarly copy. Hopefully it can also provide well-thought-out themes for future well intentioned, rare exhibitions like Inspiration from Japan.
But in total, van Gogh’s originality succeeds because it finds through imitation the final threads needed to weave an enduring uniqueness that we might as well keep on calling genius, just so long as we register it as shrewd judgment and tireless labor as well.
Inspiration from Japan continues at the Van Gogh Museum (Museumplein 6, Amsterdam) through tomorrow.