Of all the characters ascribed to Vincent Van Gogh, an underused archetype is that of a failed utopian. Yet at several crucial junctures in the tempestuous painter’s life, Van Gogh concocted ambitious schemes that ended in disaster. He became a missionary, preaching to the miners of the Belgian Borinage, but was removed by his church when he adopted the lifestyle of an austere saint, giving away his possessions, dressing in rags, and living in a derelict shack (his efforts were heartfelt but the locals viewed him as mentally ill). His attempts to create an artistic commune in Arles with Paul Gauguin, ‘a shelter and a refuge’ for fellow artists, ended in violence and confusion: one night Gauguin fled and a disturbed Van Gogh sliced off his own ear. However, there was one utopia that never quite collapsed in the artist’s mind; Van Gogh’s semi-imaginary conception of Japan.
In the mid-1800s, the US Naval Commodore Matthew Perry led a naval expedition to Japan, resulting in the Japanese authorities opening the formerly isolationist nation to international trade. A flood of goods followed and, with it, waves of influence, in what came to be known in the West as Japonism. A central figure in this process was the art dealer Siegfried Bing, who worked between France and Japan, and published the influential Artistic Japan magazine. In 1886, Van Gogh visited Bing’s attic, sifting through his collection of Japanese woodblock prints. The artist purchased 660 of them, which the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam have recently digitized.
Van Gogh’s intention was to sell them on but, even after displaying them at the Café du Tambourin (where he would paint in exchange for food), he was unsuccessful. Instead, the artist pinned them to his walls and found that, gradually, they seeped into his mind and his work. By the time he’d abandoned Paris for Arles, he was calling Japan a ‘painters’ paradise’ and using it as a model for his future artistic dreams.
These ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world) had two central influences on Van Gogh. Firstly, they altered the way the painter saw the world. In a letter to his brother Theo from Arles in September 1888, Van Gogh speaks in tones of philosophical or spiritual revelation, ‘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 plants – then the seasons, the broad features of landscapes, finally animals, and then the human figure.’ He concludes that the study of Japanese art would lead to ‘becoming much happier and more cheerful, and it makes us return to nature, despite our education and our work in a world of convention.’
This imagined Japan also influenced how Van Gogh represented the world through his art. A year after buying the prints, he began to directly copy works including Hiroshige’s Plum Park at Kameido (1857) and Sudden Shower over Shin-Ōhashi bridge and Atake (1857), and Keisai Eisen’s Courtesan print from the 1830s. The prints also began to appear in the background of Van Gogh’s portraits, including one of the art supplier Père Tanguy in the autumn of 1887. Van Gogh celebrated the likes of Hokusai and ranked his works alongside Delacroix, Géricault and Veronese in greatness. But he saw in these Japanese prints something much more important than grandeur: there was a nobility in people simply going about their business. These everyday settings were spaces of intense interest, if looked at in the right way, and so too were his everyday settings from Van Gogh’s austere bedroom to the feverish night café. He was captivated not by pristine courtly and mythological woodblock prints but rather by the messy depictions of actual life in Japan. ‘For myself, I don’t need Japanese prints here,’ he wrote to his sister Wilhelmina ‘because I’m always saying to myself that I’m in Japan here. That as a result I only have to open my eyes and paint right in front of me what makes an impression on me.’
The influence of the woodblock prints is immediately evident in the techniques adopted in Van Gogh’s works. The diagonals and dynamism of ukiyo-e can be seen in The Sower (1888), while the startling Almond Blossom (1890) chimes with cropped Japanese artistic perspective. Thematically, too, there is a renewed awareness of the unfolding of time, the changing of seasons, plants bursting into bloom, figures scurrying beneath showers, distant motifs like the sun and the moon holding the swirling rhythms of paintings together. Van Gogh edges towards a radical reconfiguration of space by borrowing flattened perspective and planes of colour and pattern from Japanese artists in works such as La Berceuse: Madame Roulin Rocking the Cradle (1889) and Portrait of Doctor Félix Rey (1889), crucial influences on Matisse and the Fauvists.
Van Gogh still thought he had much to learn, much like the aged Hokusai who believed he’d only reach his peak at the age of 110. Writing to Theo, Van Gogh said: ‘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.’
Even after his mental breakdown and self-mutilation, Van Gogh remained fixated with Japan; vivid woodblock prints form the backdrop of his painting Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889). Yet his utopian dreams would remain as elusive as lasting peace of mind or commercial success. The problem was Japan was not only a distant country Van Gogh would never reach but the Japan he’d dreamt of didn’t really exist. It was a fictionalised simulacrum of real places. For all his genuine heartfelt admiration, Van Gogh’s perspective was full of wishful projection, sweeping assumptions and inhuman elevations that tilt precariously towards racism, ‘The Japanese draws quickly, very quickly, like a flash of lightning, because his nerves are finer, his feeling simpler.’
Claims of cultural appropriation in the age of Japonism have substance. The country, after all, was prised open by the gunboat diplomacy of Western capitalists. Its customs and traditions were often robbed of meaning and context and reduced to decorative pastiche. Yet the fact that Japan was not a colony meant there was more chance of genuine cultural exchange. The orientalist gaze certainly existed but, in this case, the gaze was returned; evident, for example, in the Occidentalist woodblock prints of Hiroshige II’s A Picture of Prosperity: America (1861). There was a certain dialectic of influence and inspiration at work that benefited not just Western artists like Mary Cassatt, James McNeill Whistler and Van Gogh but also many Japanese artists. The woodblock printmaker Shikō Munakata, for example, became an artist after seeing a Van Gogh still-life and modelled himself on the Dutch artist, while Okuyama Gihachirō adapted Van Gogh’s work back into Japanese art in a series of 23 woodblock prints. In Paris’s Musée Guimet, there are signatures in guestbooks from the house of Paul Gachet jr., the son of Van Gogh’s doctor, which show the site as a place of pilgrimage for Japanese artists. Van Gogh’s paintings, the only place where his fleeting glimpses of utopia ever existed, made it to Japan where, spanning continents and centuries, they set other artists to dreaming, just as Hokusai and Hiroshige had for him.