Japonaiserie and Van Gogh: Influence of Japanese art on the painter's style is subject of a new documentary

Comedian Hannah Gadsby’s ground-breaking special Nannette, which aired on Netflix last year, left viewers feeling emotional – devastated even – because of the hard-hitting nature of personal stories she chose to share. One of these centered on taking anti-depressant medication as well as an audience member’s suggestion that she shouldn’t take it, because she “is an artist”.

A student of art history, Gadsby spoke about painter Vincent van Gogh who self-medicated and drank – even nibbled on paint. A medication he took for epilepsy included the foxglove plant as an ingredient, she explained, “…And that derivative of the foxglove plant, if you overdose a bit, you know what happens? You can experience the colour yellow a little too intensely. So perhaps we have the ‘Sunflowersprecisely because van Gogh medicated.”

Apart from this tendency to see yellow more intensely, another aspect that contributed to the making of ‘Sunflowers’ is the inspiration van Gogh took from Japanese art – a lesser-known fact about the artist. The influence of Japanese art on the Dutch post-Impressionist painter’s own work is the subject of Van Gogh and Japan, a documentary by David Bickerstaff, based on an exhibition of the same name at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

 Japonaiserie and Van Gogh: Influence of Japanese art on the painters style is subject of a new documentary

The Courtesan by Vincent van Gogh. Wikimedia Commons

“Although van Gogh never went to Japan, I was keen to make the journey to a land he only imagined, to explore its culture and to ask why the Japanese, in return, had such a fascination with the painter,” he says in an interview to Firstpost.

Knowing how Japanese art came to Europe in the 19th century is essential to understanding this phenomenon. After the Convention of Kanagawa opened up trade between Japan and the West, woodblock prints called ukiyo-e entered the art market and were collected by artists like Monet, Manet and Degas.

Van Gogh began taking an interest in ukiyo-e prints in Antwerp. He and his brother Theo would go on to trade in them and eventually collect hundreds of prints. Japonisme (the study of Japanese art and artistic talent; a term coined by Philippe Burty) became fashionable in Paris and many Impressionists’ works were influenced by it. Van Gogh himself referred to the Impressionists as the “French Japanese” and termed this development in art, ‘Japonaiserie’.

Famously, he recreated three prints: two by master painter Hiroshige, and The Courtesan. Elements of Japanese art seeped into his own work, such as ordinary subjects, perspective that was unusual or wholly absent, use of uniform colour and bold outlines.

Flowering plum tree (after Hiroshige), by van Gogh. Wikimedia Commons

Flowering plum tree (after Hiroshige), by van Gogh. Wikimedia Commons

Through the course of the film, the viewer realises that van Gogh began to see Japonisme in everything. The documentary takes us to South France, where we are shown visuals of lush landscapes comprised of various colours. The painter moved here, more specifically to Arles, when he felt worn out by life in Paris and fell ill.

These portions of the film were shot when the fruit blossoms were out; blossoms are popular motifs in Japanese prints and Van Gogh’s own art from the late 1880s, Bickerstaff explains. “Van Gogh could see the parallels in nature between that found in the South of France and what he had seen in Japanese prints. He called this his Japanese dream which not only extended to images of Japan, but also his perception of how the Japanese lived their lives which he compared to the lives of people living in Arles.”

The documentary also includes excerpts from the artist’s letters to his brother Theo, where he speaks highly of Japanese art. “I envy the Japanese the extreme clarity that everything in their work has. It's never dull, and never appears to be done too hastily. Their work is as simple as breathing, and they do a figure with a few confident strokes with the same ease as if it was as simple as buttoning your waistcoat,” he wrote in 1888. Including narrations of these letters greatly enriches the film and makes his story personal.

“Van Gogh’s letters are some of the most revealing and powerful letters ever written by an artist. They are honest, well-written and full of the complex struggles he endured. His voice is very clear in his expression of ideas and opinions, and he makes lots of references to what he sees,” Bickerstaff says.

But was Japonisme a tool to enhance his work, or a larger philosophy of art and life that he immersed himself in? Bickerstaff says that it gave him a new visual language which influenced the way he looked at the world and how he would like to live his own life. “An almost utopian ideal where people share ideas and embraced beauty. It definitely enhanced his artistic practice. His own art reflected a renewed interest in everyday subjects and showed a new economy of line and colour that can be directly traced to the influence of Japanese art,” the director explains.

Portrait of Pere Tanguy by the Dutch painter. Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Père Tanguy by the Dutch painter. Wikimedia Commons

Van Gogh himself wrote about how Japanese art and ways of living are simpler and in harmony with nature: “…Isn’t it almost a new religion that these Japanese teach us, who are so simple and live in nature as if they themselves were flowers? And we wouldn’t be able to study Japanese art, it seems to me, without becoming much happier and more cheerful, and it makes us return to nature, despite our education and our work in a world of convention.”

The Japanese feel a connection to him too; he is the most popular artist in the country, though his fame is less than it was 50 years ago. “The Japanese really relate to van Gogh’s tragic story and his struggle with life. A partial translation of his letters arrived in Japan before his art did, and of course the letters reveal van Gogh’s infatuation with Japan, which the Japanese responded to,” Bickerstaff says. As for people outside of Japan, based on his interactions with viewers at screenings of the film, the director says many are not fully conscious and aware of the influence Japanese art had on the painter and his most famous works, such as ‘Sunflowers’ and ‘The Bedroom’.

I ask Bickerstaff if he thinks the painter would have felt more at home in Japan. “That is a hard question to answer, but my instinct says that he may not have benefitted as much if he had actually visited Japan. He didn’t need to go (nor could he afford it), because his ‘imaged’ Japan was a much more potent element that offered him a new visual language that could be applied to any subject matter he wanted to portray. If van Gogh had gone to Japan, he may have been tempted to paint in a more Japanese way rather than allow his Japanese dream to inform his unique way of seeing the world.”

The relationship between Van Gogh and Japanese art speaks volumes about how exchanges of ideas in the art world can enrich indigenous forms. Bickerstaff asserts that while the painter did develop a ‘Japanese eye’ which influenced his manner of composing paintings and applying colour, he still painted in his distinctive impasto style. “Sometimes artists are accused of ‘artistic appropriation’ when they engaged with other cultures, but there is a difference between the misrepresentation or the exploitation of art and artists from other cultures and the respectful observation and interpretation of artistic practices or philosophies from other worlds. This is what I think van Gogh did,” he explains.

Van Gogh and Japan was screened at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai, on 9 July

Updated Date: Jul 14, 2019 11:38:13 IST