Japanese art and Van Gogh: Japonisme, ukiyo-e and world religions
Lee Jay Walker
Modern Tokyo Times
Art like religion is based on fusions because once the original art work or religion leaves the place it was born then new identities emerge. Also, prior to the fusion which takes place then images, ideas, borrowed thinking, and so forth, will emerge and a new philosophy or art form will borrow from the past. Therefore, artists like Van Gogh, Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin, and many more, who were influenced by Japonisme (Japonism), also fused their artwork based on realities that belonged to their world.
Mecca and the religion of Islam was born on Arab Paganism because Mecca was a holy place which existed well before the religion espoused by Mohammed. Not only this, but walking around a black stone many times clearly highlights animism and the same applies to many other areas. Judaism likewise borrowed from the Pagan world where Jews struggled to survive in a harsh and brutal world where war was all too common.
Similarly, the new Christian faith soon spread therefore Pagan Europe and Africa would leave a deep impact once the religion left the Middle East. New centers of Christianity in Armenia, Ethiopia, Egypt, Georgia, Syria, and other parts of the world, had rich traditions and just like Judaism and Islam the older Pagan world would influence many festivals and so forth.
The same applies to the deep-rooted Paganism of Tibetan Buddhism which often appears un-Buddhist because of the superstitious nature of many traditions. Indeed, the Buddha himself who never believed in a deity would probably be confused by the ritualism of Tibetan Buddhism. This isn’t unique to Tibetan Buddhism because all over the world you will have strong cultural traits which have left traces of past cultures and religions. Indeed, in Japan it is common for many individuals to have been blessed by the Shinto faith when very young, then get married under Christian traditions, and finally to die Buddhist.
Art and religion are two powerful areas whereby the old world survives or both can clash and compete. After all, a member of the Van Gogh bloodline was murdered in 2004 in Holland by an Islamist because of making a film about Islam. Therefore, clashes of culture, religion, political ideas, and art, remain to be potent themes in many nations and Theo Van Gogh was murdered because of extremism in a democratic nation.
Also, when political or religious movements try to crush past culture and ideas then collective madness often takes place whereby freedom is crushed and the old world is destroyed. This notably applies to the Taliban world view and Pol Pot in the past in Cambodia because “year zero” and “year Mohammed” led to the crushing of all different thought patterns.
Therefore, Japonisme was based on the eye and not the concept or rich traditions which had evolved in Japan. Jules Claretie and Philippe Burty used the word Japonisme (Japonism) in the 1870s and the word applies to the influence of Japanese art and culture in this period of history on Western art.
On the Website of Artelino (www.artelino.com) it is stated that “The term Japonisme came up in France in the seventies of the 19th century to describe the craze for Japanese culture and art. Van Gogh like so many other Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists was one of the admirers of Japanese art. The Japanese influence is obvious in his art work.”
In the 1860s ukiyo-e became very popular in the art world and Post-Impressionists and Impressionist artists marveled at the many aspects of this art form. Also, the abundance of ukiyo-e and the variety of artists who produced this art form meant that western artists were rightly influenced. This applies to the richness of ukiyo-e and the variety of subject areas which opened-up a new art world in Europe and North America.
On the Van Gogh Gallery (www.vangoghgallery.com) it is commented that “Japanese art, especially Japanese woodcuts, became a great influence on Van Gogh. When Van Gogh moved to Paris in 1886 he was introduced to impressionism and also explored Japonism. Van Gogh admired the bold designs, intense colors, and flat areas of pure color and he also appreciated the elegant and simple lines.”
“In 1887, Van Gogh made copies of two designs of Hiroshige, a Japanese landscape printmaker. One print was The Bridge in the Rain. Van Gogh copied the scene from a woodcut by Hiroshige. He filled the borders with calligraphic figures that he borrowed from other Japanese prints. Flowering Plum Tree is the other print by Hiroshige which Van Gogh copied. Another print that Van Gogh created in the same fashion is The Courtesan based on a piece by Japanese artist, Kesai Eisen. Van Gogh also gave this piece a frame with motifs from other Japanese prints. The difference between the originals and Van Gogh’s copies can be seen in the use of color. Van Gogh used brighter colors with more enhanced contrasts.”
The fact that Van Gogh based the above three art works on Hiroshige and Eisen may indicate that the more experimental and mysterious ukiyo-e world was not fully known to Van Gogh? This is speculation because it could well be that Van Gogh preferred more conventional ukiyo-e. Therefore, like mentioned about the fusions of religion earlier it could well be that western artists were focused on limited aspects of ukiyo-e and this applies to areas which were transferable.
Van Gogh stated that “I envy the Japanese artists for the incredible neat clarity which all their works have. It is never boring and you never get the impression that they work in a hurry. It is as simple as breathing; they draw a figure with a couple of strokes with such an unfailing easiness as if it were as easy as buttoning one’s waist-coat.”
Dieter Wanczura comments that “All things Japanese were suddenly stylish and fashionable. Shops selling Japanese woodblock prints, kimonos, fans and antiquities popped up in Paris like mushrooms. The Impressionist painters and Post-Impressionists like Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec or Paul Gauguin were attracted and impressed by Japanese woodblock prints. In 1875 Claude Monet created his famous painting La Japonaise, showing his wife dressed in a Kimono and holding a Japanese fan.”
Ukiyo-e and western art went in both directions but the initial contact period will have been based on a mirror which can’t fully show the complexion of the individual because of all the steam. Irrespective of this, it is clear that both traditions led to new creativity and for artists like Van Gogh the art form of ukiyo-e was very important in the later part of his life.