Christo­pher Benfey

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Van Gogh and Ja­pan by Louis van Til­borgh, Nienke Bakker, Cor­nelia Hom­burg,

Tsukasa Kōdera, and Chris Uh­len­beck, with a con­tri­bu­tion by Claire Guit­ton

Ja­pan’s Love for Im­pres­sion­ism: From Monet to Renoir edited by the Art and Ex­hi­bi­tion Hall of the Fed­eral Repub­lic of Ger­many

Van Gogh and Ja­pan by Louis van Til­borgh, Nienke Bakker,

Cor­nelia Hom­burg, Tsukasa Kōdera, and Chris Uh­len­beck, with a con­tri­bu­tion by Claire Guit­ton. Am­s­ter­dam:

Van Gogh Mu­seum/ Sap­poro: Hokkaidō Shim­bun Press/Brus­sels: Mer­ca­tor­fonds,

200 pp., $45.00 (dis­trib­uted by

Yale Univer­sity Press)

Ja­pan’s Love for Im­pres­sion­ism: From Monet to Renoir edited by the Art and Ex­hi­bi­tion Hall of the Fed­eral Repub­lic of Ger­many.

Pres­tel, 255 pp., $60.00

When Vin­cent van Gogh made his mo­men­tous de­ci­sion to leave Paris be­hind and move to Ar­les in Fe­bru­ary 1888, he was de­ter­mined, at age thirty-four, to re­make his art, his per­sonal re­la­tion­ships, and him­self, body and soul. Cen­tral to this midlife dream of self-trans­for­ma­tion was the artist’s sur­pris­ing con­vic­tion that Provence was just like—or as he ex­pressed it, was “the equiv­a­lent of”—Ja­pan. As he neared his des­ti­na­tion, he peered ea­gerly out of the train win­dow to as­cer­tain “if it was like Ja­pan yet.” Snow cov­ered the fields when he ar­rived, not quite what he ex­pected in the sunny South, and yet, as he told his younger brother Theo, an art dealer who was bankrolling the trip along with ev­ery­thing else in Vin­cent’s feck­less life, “the white peaks against a sky as bright as the snow” re­sem­bled, in his wish­ful view, “the win­ter land­scapes the Ja­panese did.” He rented shabby rooms in what he grandly called the Yel­low House and painted the shady denizens of the night café nearby. Ev­ery de­tail of his new life con­firmed his con­vic­tion: “I’m al­ways say­ing to my­self that I’m in Ja­pan here.” Of course, Ar­les was nowhere near Ja­pan, a coun­try that Van Gogh never vis­ited. Nor, for that mat­ter, did any of the other ad­vanced painters of his time who were en­thralled with Ja­panese art—De­gas, Monet, Pis­sarro, and Cassatt, among oth­ers. For these artists, Ja­pan meant pri­mar­ily the world de­picted in Ja­panese wood­block prints: the ukiyo-e or “float­ing world” im­ages of the pleasure dis­tricts of great cities, or the col­or­ful se­ries, by Hoku­sai and Hiroshige, of fa­mous sights along well-trav­eled routes, with Mount Fuji or a styl­ized wa­ter­fall in the dis­tance. Van Gogh had first bought such prints in An­twerp, and aug­mented his col­lec­tion dur­ing his frus­trat­ing years in Paris, when he failed to get a foothold in the bur­geon­ing art scene there, ei­ther as a painter or as a some­time mer­chant of the Ja­panese prints he had ac­cu­mu­lated.

Be­fore his de­par­ture for Ar­les, as though revving him­self up for his Ja­panese dream, Van Gogh had painted three ar­rest­ing im­i­ta­tions of such prints: a lovely re­work­ing of Hiroshige’s pop­u­lar im­age of peas­ants caught in a sud­den shower on a bridge; an­other of blos­som­ing plum trees, also af­ter Hiroshige, in close-up; and most strik­ing of all, an in­tense rein­ven­tion of a float­ing world cour­te­san by Eisen. The muted col­ors of Eisen’s orig­i­nal— quiet greens and mauve ex­em­pli­fy­ing the dis­creet chic known in Ja­pan as shibui—un­dergo a hot­house trans­for­ma­tion into Van Gogh’s fever­ish gold and red. So roughly is the paint ap­plied that the can­vas looks more carved than the orig­i­nal wood­cut. Van Gogh sur­rounds the luridly dressed cour­te­san with a trop­i­cal bor­der of wa­ter lilies and cranes (or grues—French slang for pros­ti­tutes). A fat frog at the bot­tom looks like a lusty cus­tomer wait­ing to be turned, for a price, into a prince. In his Ja­pan-in­spired por­trait of the dealer Père Tanguy, painted around the same time, Van Gogh filled the back­ground with Ja­panese prints. Tanguy’s hat morphs into the cone of Mount Fuji while his el­bow abuts Van Gogh’s cour­te­san. Flat­tened by ver­ti­cal brush­strokes and with a yel­low-tinged face, the Bud­dha-like Tanguy is meant to look Ja­panese.

Van Gogh planned to sur­round him­self in Ar­les with a broth­er­hood of like-minded artists. Hav­ing heard that Ja­panese artists, as a sign of friend­ship, ex­changed art­works with one an­other, he ded­i­cated a self-por­trait to Paul Gau­guin, the stock­bro­ker turned vagabond who he hoped would join him in Ar­les. Van Gogh painted him­self as a Ja­panese monk, “a simple wor­ship­per of the eter­nal Bud­dha,” with shaved head and an aqua­ma­rine back­ground. “The head is mod­eled in light-col­ored thick im­pasto against a light-col­ored back­ground with al­most no shad­ows,” he ex­plained. “But I’ve slightly slanted the eyes in the Ja­panese man­ner.” Van Gogh had read Pierre Loti’s Madame Chrysan­thème, an ex­otic ro­mance about a naval of­fi­cer and a geisha in Na­gasaki, which partly in­spired Madama But­ter­fly. Loti’s monks, Van Gogh was re­lieved to find, were not above a lit­tle par­ty­ing on the side. He and Gau­guin would be “free to go to the brothel,” he as­sured Theo, “or to the wine shop if our heart tells us to.”

We all know how this Ja­panese dream of Van Gogh’s turned out. Gau­guin, who sent a self-por­trait of him­self as a pi­rat­i­cal-look­ing Jean Val­jean, ac­cepted the in­vi­ta­tion. Paint­ing, booz­ing, and whor­ing as Van Gogh had hoped, the two head­strong artists quar­reled in­ces­santly. Af­ter two months of in­tense spar­ring, Van Gogh had a psy­chotic break­down— the first of sev­eral manic at­tacks—cut off a por­tion of his ear (or per­haps, as has been sug­gested, lost it to Gau­guin’s rapier), and hand-de­liv­ered the bloody mess, wrapped up like a pre­cious gift, to his fa­vorite pros­ti­tute, who promptly fainted. Van Gogh was ad­mit­ted to the hos­pi­tal in Ar­les while Gau­guin fled to the South Seas.

And yet part of Van Gogh’s Ja­pan dream did come true. As the con­trib­u­tors to Van Gogh and Ja­pan (pub­lished to ac­com­pany an ex­hi­bi­tion in Tokyo, Ky­oto, Sap­poro, and Am­s­ter­dam) make quite clear, Van Gogh suc­ceeded in trans­form­ing his art. Like its ti­tle, Van Gogh and Ja­pan is pri­mar­ily struc­tured around strik­ing jux­ta­po­si­tions. A self-por­trait of Van Gogh and his ban­daged ear, with a Ja­panese print in the back­ground, is jux­ta­posed with the print it­self, Geishas in a Land­scape: three young women ca­vort­ing with fans be­side two cranes, with the ubiq­ui­tous Fuji in the dis­tance. The cranes, we re­al­ize, are the same ones from Van Gogh’s ear­lier re­work­ing of Eisen. An­other jux­ta­po­si­tion aligns his close-up of a crab on its back with a kin­dred crab of Ku­nisada’s. Still an­other links the painted frame of one of his knock­out im­ages of sun­flow­ers— fa­vorites of Gau­guin—with the sim­i­larly dec­o­rated bor­ders of his Ja­panese prints. One can see in such im­ages how the sus­tained pres­sure of Ja­panese art con­tin­ued to ex­ert an influence on both Van Gogh’s sub­ject mat­ter and his work­ing meth­ods. “All my work is based to some ex­tent on Ja­panese art,” he claimed. The gor­geous paint­ing of a seated girl in striped top and polka-dot­ted skirt, one of the trea­sures of the Na­tional Gallery in Wash­ing­ton, was in­spired by his no­tion of “dol­l­like” Ja­panese girls. Van Gogh ti­tled the paint­ing La Mousmé, ex­plain­ing rather con­fus­edly to Theo, “A mousmé is a Ja­panese girl—Provençal in this case.” As he learned to look at the world “with a more Ja­panese eye,” Van Gogh came to be­lieve, ex­pan­sively, that “Ja­panese art is some­thing like the

prim­i­tives, like the Greeks, like our old Dutch­men, Rem­brandt, Pot­ter, Hals, Ver­meer, Os­tade, Ruis­dael. It doesn’t end.”

What made such artis­tic ex­changes be­tween Europe and Ja­pan pos­si­ble, in Van Gogh’s work and in that of his con­tem­po­raries, was a net­work of so­phis­ti­cated cul­tural in­ter­me­di­aries: deal­ers, col­lec­tors, schol­ars, crit­ics, artists. Re­cent re­search, which in­forms the ar­ti­cles by var­i­ous hands in Ja­pan’s Love for Im­pres­sion­ism, has brought us a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of who such me­di­a­tors were and what may have mo­ti­vated them. The most sig­nif­i­cant was the re­mark­able Tadamasa Hayashi. A dealer, scholar, and col­lec­tor, Hayashi had stud­ied French at Tokyo Im­pe­rial Univer­sity and first vis­ited Paris as an in­ter­preter at the World’s Fair of 1878. Such fairs proved an ef­fec­tive venue for Ja­pan, a poor agri­cul­tural coun­try strug­gling to in­dus­tri­al­ize it­self, to present a pub­lic face of aes­thetic so­phis­ti­ca­tion through its art and hand­i­crafts. Af­ter the fair, Hayashi re­mained in Paris as a dealer spe­cial­iz­ing in Ja­panese prints and porce­lain.

“The most well-known Ja­panese per­son in Paris,” ac­cord­ing to for­mer Met cu­ra­tor Colta Ives, Hayashi had a shrewd sense of his clients’ pro­cliv­i­ties.1 To De­gas he sold risqué manga by Moronobu, along with a daz­zling print of geishas bathing in the nude by Kiy­on­aga, which De­gas hung over his bed, in kinky con­junc­tion with a nude draw­ing by In­gres. Vis­it­ing the more re­spectable Monet at Giverny in 1894, Hayashi, Marianne Mathieu notes, du­ti­fully praised the Rouen Cathe­dral se­ries—“Your cathe­drals, which seem to rise ma­jes­ti­cally up into the sky, left a deep im­pres­sion on me”—while pro­vid­ing de­mur Ja­panese prints that Monet used to dec­o­rate his dis­creetly painted walls. Hayashi col­lab­o­rated with Ed­mond de Gon­court on his books about Hoku­sai and Uta­maro and posed for a por­trait, in the form of a Noh mask in bronze, by the sculp­tor Al­bert Bartholomé, a friend of De­gas, who re­tained the plas­ter cast. Hayashi fur­nished the text for the May 1886 issue of Paris il­lus­tré, ded­i­cated to “Le Japon”; on the cover was the Eisen print of the cour­te­san that Van Gogh trans­formed.

What made Hayashi so ef­fec­tive as a cul­tural go-be­tween was that he was ev­ery bit as in­ter­ested in French art as he was in Ja­panese prints. Through a de­lib­er­ate pol­icy of ex­change—of the kind Van Gogh had imag­ined for his artis­tic broth­er­hood—Hayashi amassed a stun­ning col­lec­tion of paint­ings by Monet, Morisot, De­gas, and other artists he ad­mired, which he en­vi­sioned hous­ing in a mu­seum of West­ern art in Tokyo. The year af­ter his re­turn to Ja­pan in 1905, how­ever, Hayashi died, and his col­lec­tion was dis­persed, partly in Ja­pan and then, in a sale in 1913, in New York. Henry Have­meyer, a su­gar mag­nate who had pre­vi­ously pur­chased Ja­panese tea boxes from Hayashi, and his wife, Loui­sine, a pas­sion­ate ad­mirer of Im­pres­sion­ist art, pounced on some of the high­lights, which were later do­nated to the Met.

Among the works from the Have­meyer hoard that made their way to the Met is De­gas’s The Col­lec­tor of Prints. The paint­ing, which the Have­mey­ers pur­chased di­rectly from the artist, may be seen as some­thing of an al­le­gory of the cul­tural work that men like Hayashi ac­com­plished, along with later col­lec­tors like the Yale-ed­u­cated ship­ping ty­coon Kōjirō Mat­sukata, who vis­ited Monet sev­eral times at his Ja­pane­ses­tyle gar­den at Giverny. He was re­warded for his vis­its with one of the huge wa­ter-lily paint­ings—hung (up­side down) in a char­ity ex­hi­bi­tion for vic­tims of the Great Kantō Earth­quake of 1923. Sur­rounded by the cu­rios of his trade, De­gas’s seated col­lec­tor peers up at us as he fin­gers a fo­lio of prints; be­hind him is a framed ar­ray of swatches of Ja­panese tex­tiles, of the kind used to adorn note­books. The paint­ing it­self is struc­tured like a Ja­panese print, with the var­i­ous fram­ing de­vices form­ing an in­tri­cate, ab­stract ar­ray ra­di­at­ing out from the wily col­lec­tor.

De­gas’s paint­ing is a re­minder that Ja­pan first en­tered French art through sub­ject mat­ter, and only later be­gan to influence artis­tic tech­nique. For La Japon­aise, Monet dressed his young wife, Camille, in a blond wig and a red, ki­mono-like dress­ing gown. Printed on the fab­ric was a samu­rai bran­dish­ing his phal­lic sword just below her waist. Ja­panese fans adorn the back­ground while she her­self co­quet­tishly flut­ters a Euro­pean fan. A sexy ex­oti­cism per­vades the com­po­si­tion, fus­ing vague fan­tasies of geisha and samu­rai with the lore, cour­tesy of Balzac and Zola, of Parisian cour­te­sans.

De­gas and Manet snob­bishly es­chewed such japoner­ies, draw­ing on Ja­panese art not for trendy sub­ject mat­ter but for the very struc­ture of their paint­ings. Colta Ives dis­cerns ukiyo-e tech­niques in De­gas’s Por­traits in an Of­fice (New Or­leans). Noth­ing in the sub­ject of the paint­ing, which de­picts cot­ton deal­ers in­spect­ing cot­ton or read­ing the news­pa­per, evokes Ja­pan, but the com­plex in­ter­nal fram­ing de­vices of win­dows and ta­bles, or­ga­niz­ing the iso­lated fig­ures, sug­gest the in­spi­ra­tion of Ja­panese prints. French artists looked to Ja­panese art for new, un­ortho­dox tech­niques: the jagged crop­ping of mo­tifs, odd an­gles of per­spec­tive, flat ex­panses of color, jar­ring color con­trasts, high hori­zon lines, and the like. Such ex­per­i­ments were re­in­forced by other de­vel­op­ments, such as pho­tog­ra­phy—De­gas was a pas­sion­ate prac­ti­tioner—or the vogue for pop­u­lar im­agery drawn from ad­ver­tis­ing posters. The trun­cated bow in Monet’s On the Boat would seem to owe as much to pho­tog­ra­phy, con­cedes Beate Mark­sHanssen, who cu­rated the 2015–2016 ex­hibit that this book ac­com­pa­nies, as to the Uta­maro print jux­ta­posed with it in Ja­pan’s Love for Im­pres­sion­ism.

As his re­mark­able let­ters make clear, Van Gogh wanted some­thing more from Ja­pan and Ja­panese art than tech­ni­cal in­no­va­tion. He thought he dis­cerned an en­tire way of life—more pas­sion­ate, more de­voted to na­ture, more in line with his own no­tion of the con­sol­ing pur­pose of art in a world of suf­fer­ing—in the prints he sub­jected to such in­tense scru­tiny. As he con­fided to Theo:

If we study Ja­panese art, then we see a man, un­doubt­edly wise and a philoso­pher and in­tel­li­gent, who spends his time—on what?— study­ing the dis­tance from the earth to the moon?—no; study­ing Bis­marck’s pol­i­tics?—no, he stud­ies a sin­gle blade of grass. But this blade of grass leads him to draw all the parts—then the sea­sons, the broad fea­tures of land­scapes, fi­nally an­i­mals, and then the hu­man fig­ure. He spends his life like that, and life is too short to do ev­ery­thing. Just think of that; 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?

So so­phis­ti­cated and wide-rang­ing was Van Gogh’s read­ing, ex­tend­ing from Amer­i­can clas­sics like Un­cle Tom’s Cabin to Dick­ens and his beloved Zola, that we can’t be en­tirely con­fi­dent that he was only think­ing of Ja­panese artists when he zoomed in on that sin­gle blade of grass. Was he per­haps chan­nel­ing the open­ing lines of Whit­man’s Leaves of Grass? “I loafe and in­vite my soul,/I lean and loafe at my ease ob­serv­ing a spear of summer grass.” To the ques­tion, “What is the grass?” Whit­man an­swered, in a way that must have ap­pealed to Van Gogh, “And now it seems to me the beau­ti­ful un­cut hair of graves.”

Dur­ing his fi­nal months, when Van Gogh, to be closer to Theo, had moved to a guest­house in Au­vers-sur-Oise out­side Paris, he had the op­por­tu­nity to learn about Ja­pan from two artists who had ac­tu­ally been there. The Aus­tralian-born painter Ed­mund Walpole Brooke had lived as a child in Yokohama be­fore study­ing art in Paris, and the French aca­demic painter LouisJules Du­moulin trav­eled to Ja­pan the same month Van Gogh went to Ar­les. As the scholar Tsukasa Kōdera notes in a fas­ci­nat­ing es­say in Van Gogh and Ja­pan, Van Gogh was unim­pressed with Brooke’s paint­ings. Even though “he was brought up in Ja­pan,” he wrote Theo, “you would never think so from his paint­ing.” Du­moulin’s ex­otic scenes were also ap­par­ently a dis­ap­point­ment. For Van Gogh, Ja­pan re­mained an ide­al­ized world, not to be cor­rected by the per­haps ba­nal re­al­ity. Af­ter Van Gogh’s sui­cide in July 1890, Brooke’s busi­ness card was found in his sketch­book.

It is of­ten said that Van Gogh only sold one paint­ing—or pos­si­bly two— dur­ing his life. By the 1920s, how­ever, Au­vers had be­come a pil­grim­age site for Ja­panese vis­i­tors, who knew of him pri­mar­ily from his let­ters (first pub­lished in Ja­pan in book form in 1915), the le­gend of his life, and re­pro­duc­tions of Ja­pan-in­spired works like his por­trait of Père Tanguy. “Just as Van Gogh ide­al­ized Ja­pan with only lim­ited in­for­ma­tion about the coun­try,” Kodera notes, “so most Ja­panese people adored Van Gogh even with­out see­ing his orig­i­nal works.”

Among the Im­pres­sion­ists, the Ja­panese have a spe­cial love for Monet, the name of a chain of hair sa­lons and the sub­ject of wildly pop­u­lar ex­hi­bi­tions, as Det­mar Westhoff notes in Ja­pan’s Love for Im­pres­sion­ism. He sug­gests, among other fac­tors, the eco­nomic pres­tige ac­corded by col­lect­ing Im­pres­sion­ist paint­ings and the long­ing of Ja­pan’s ur­ban dwellers for na­ture. Monet’s wa­ter lilies are given a no­tably hushed and rev­er­en­tial set­ting in the ar­chi­tect Tadao Ando’s island mu­seum, the Chichu Art Mu­seum, in Naoshima. And yet Van Gogh would seem to have an al­most equally pas­sion­ate fol­low­ing in Ja­pan.

In his es­say on the Ar­mory Show of 1913 and the in­tro­duc­tion of mod­ern art to Amer­ica, Meyer Schapiro dis­tin­guished two op­pos­ing poles of in­ten­sity in mod­ern art. One is the pos­i­tive in­ten­sity ini­ti­ated by Van Gogh: the puls­ing, go-for-broke col­ors and ar­rest­ing shapes jan­gling against each other, as in his sun­flow­ers, his riffs on Ja­panese prints, or his as­ton­ish­ing Starry Night. The other is a neg­a­tive in­ten­sity, “a search for faint nu­ances, for an ultimate in del­i­cacy and bare­ness,” that Schapiro as­so­ciates with Monet and Whistler. The Ja­panese love of Van Gogh seems of a dif­fer­ent, more per­sonal order than the Monet vogue in Ja­pan, just as Van Gogh would have pre­ferred.

“He was highly ap­pre­ci­ated at first by small groups of artists, such as Shi­rak­aba (White Birch), and in­tel­lec­tu­als,” ac­cord­ing to Kodera, “but grad­u­ally came to be ide­al­ized and wor­shipped more widely.” Vis­its to his grave in Au­vers by Ja­panese pil­grims were in­ter­rupted by World War II, af­ter which the in­ten­sity of re­gard and fascination re­sumed. In 1987, al­most ex­actly one hun­dred years af­ter Van Gogh painted it in Ar­les, the Ya­suda In­sur­ance Com­pany bought at auc­tion his Sun­flow­ers, a Ja­pan-in­spired paint­ing re­turned to the Land of the Ris­ing Sun.2 The pur­chase price was an as­ton­ish­ing $40 mil­lion, the high­est price ever paid for a work of art at auc­tion at that time. But as Van Gogh ob­served af­ter Gau­guin’s de­par­ture from Ar­les, “Money is one kind of coin and paint­ing an­other.”

1 See Colta Ives, “De­gas, Ja­panese Prints, and Japon­isme,” in Ann Du­mas, Colta Ives, Su­san Alyson Stein, and Gary Tin­terow, The Pri­vate Col­lec­tion of Edgar De­gas (Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art, 1997).

2 On the irony of such trans­ac­tions, see Don­ald Richie in The In­land Sea (1971; Stone Bridge, 2015), p. 61. “Ja­pan’s love for Monet is ex­treme,” he notes, but the Ja­panese “do not re­al­ize that it was, in part, through Ja­panese art that the im­pres­sion­ist school be­came what it was.” Of Van Gogh’s ren­di­tion of a Hiroshige im­age, he re­ports, “Re­cently I saw a Ja­panese paint­ing that was a copy of the Van Gogh copy of the Hiroshige print.”

Vin­cent van Gogh: Flow­er­ing Plum Or­chard (Af­ter Hiroshige), 1887

Vin­cent van Gogh:Cour­te­san (Af­ter Eisen), 1887

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