Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Meiji Art from the Khalili Collection


The artist Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) had a great regard for Japanese prints: ukiyoe colour woodcuts. Indeed, he wrote to his brother, Theo, that looking at them made him feel "much gayer and happier." Van Gogh's early paintings were predominately dark and sombre scenes of peasant life, but when he moved to Paris to live with Theo in 1886, he discovered how much he loved the delightful rich colors of Japanese prints. In his late Paris period Van Gogh admired this graphic art so much that he made three paintings in the style known as japonaiserie, based on prints of Keisai Eisen (1790-1848) and Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) (Figs. 1 and 2). In 1888 he moved to Arles, from where, on 15 July, he wrote to Theo "All my work is based to some extent on Japanese art." Van Gogh's admiration for Japanese art became something of a religion for him. As he saw it, if modern art were to have a future, it must look toward, and indeed, be totally inspired by, the art of Japan. "For my part I don’t need Japanese pictures here, for I am always telling myself that here I am in Japan," he wrote from Arles. He observed everything around him as if it were "through Japanese eyes," and in this way noticed the tiniest details in the natural setting.
While living in Paris, Van Gogh had only collected Japanese graphic works. He admitted to being a collector of a minimal sort, not a large-scale buyer like the De Goncourt brothers. From Arles he wrote to Theo in 1888, saying that he seemed to have missed out on the fact that there 'was something else besides' the "ordinary print." However, this would not seem to be an entirely accurate report; possibly he was less interested in other genres, for he certainly must have seen other types of Japanese art. In the Parisian shops such as Siegfried Bing's where Japanese woodcuts were on sale, so too were oriental ceramics, enamels, metalwork, and lacquer. Japanese decorative art had designs and motifs encapsulating the emotions inspired by nature and the four seasons; themes that had a profound influence on Van Gogh.
While living in Antwerp Van Gogh had decorated his room with Japanese prints. When he came to Paris japonaiserie was all around in books and in magazines, and real works were in the houses of friends and in shops. Transferring such images into paintings gave Van Gogh the chance to study Japanese art and experiment with strong and contrasting colors. Figure 1 was based on a print Sudden shower on the Great Bridge near Atake (Ôhashi no yûdachi) by the celebrated ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858). In it, people walking on a bridge in the rain cross the Sumida river on which, in the distance, a log raft is being poled. Vincent intensified the colors of the original work and added a border with random characters that he copied from prints like Hiroshige’s The Flowering Plum Tree.

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