Japanese art: Yuzo Saeki and “At Eternity’s Gate” by Van Gogh
Lee Jay Walker
Modern Tokyo Times
Shortly before Van Gogh died he painted “At Eternity’s Gate” in 1890 after doing the same image as a lithograph eight years before. The image is extremely powerful and the meaning can be transformed to mean many things. However, the initial impression during the first few moments of seeing this image conjures up thoughts related to despair, alienation, abandonment, and a person who is at the end of their rope.
This reality connects the tragic end of Yuzo Saeki but perhaps without an “Eternity’s Gate?” After all, Yuzo Saeki died in a strange land, isolated, confused, and with his mind wandering from the desire to paint more before “the gates of death” would take him from this world.
Yuzo Saeki, just like Van Gogh during his lifetime, experienced severe mental health problems during his final months on this earth. Therefore, this gifted artist from Japan died at the age of 30 because of multiple factors. This applies to having a nervous breakdown, tuberculosis which was eating away at his health, massive overwork, poverty, alienation from reality, and other factors which took away his life.
In this sense, “At Eternity’s Gate” by Van Gogh connects these two extremely gifted individuals because if you replace the image with a 30 year old man, in a room more sinister and frightening and coughing up blood; then an image into the last moments of Yuzo Saeki can be seen. However, even more disturbing is that Yuzo Saeki died in France where cultural differences in this period were enormous and when institutions were “more dark and foreboding.”
Therefore, Yuzo Saeki gradually slipped away from this world by being isolated, alienated, in destitution, and with little care from others in Paris if he died or lived. At home, he had a family which was deeply concerned but his reality in the last few months must have been like Dante’s hell.
Van Gogh died at the age of 37 in 1890 while Yuzo Saeki was born eight years later in 1898. If “a tortured soul of a genius” could migrate and transcend itself into an equally “troubled soul” in the final year of his life, then it certainly entered Yuzo Saeki. Of course, many individuals reject heaven and hell and the transmigration of the soul. However, the utter despair of Yuzo Saeki during his remaining period on this earth in 1928 does mirror aspects of the painting “At Eternity’s Gate” by Van Gogh. The same also applies to the troubled mind of Van Gogh when “the demons of life” entered his world.
Michael Brenson stated in the New York Times in an article called “When Japan’s Art Opened to Western Winds,” that “When European art began to question its own traditions, however, as it did increasingly during and after World War I, there was a potential for trouble. Artists could find themselves with neither a European tradition to learn from nor a Japanese tradition to hold onto. When Saeki Yuzo, who is perceived in his country as a tragic hero, the Japanese van Gogh, died at the age of 30 in an insane asylum in Paris in 1928 – perhaps a suicide – he had been trying to paint in this void. Saeki continues to be an example to Japanese artists abroad of the difficulties in reconciling East and West.”
Further down in the same article Michael Brenson comments that “His cafe windows and stores are filled with signs, some illegible. In his “Snowy Landscape,” figures are on the verge of illegibility. His signs seem like scars of an internal pressure to resolve a conflict between the independence and picturesque subject matter of Paris and a dependence upon his native calligraphic and woodcut tradition.”
Striking aspects of the comments by Michael Brenson applies to “died at the age of 30 in an insane asylum in Paris – perhaps a suicide,” “his café windows and stores are filled with signs, some illegible” and“His signs seem like scars of an internal pressure.”
Therefore, according to Michael Brenson not even the death of Yuzo Saeki is one hundred per cent known and this applies to what caused his death or if he killed himself. This fact brings back the image of “At Eternity’s Gate” by Van Gogh but with the backdrop being more sinister and perhaps with Yuzo Saeki being shriveled up in the corner of a cold and dark room. After all, it appears that nobody in Paris really cared about how he died in the final moments of his life – and this is indeed sad.
Also, the image of “At Eternity’s Gate” shows an individual in despair and Yuzo Saeki certainly felt the same pains and abandonment. Not only this, were the signs illegible in some of the art work by Yuzo Saeki because he felt alienated, rejected, and because he feared about upsetting local people? Or was it a natural sign that he felt trapped between two worlds, a natural aspect of his art, the fact that he could feel “the gates of death,” or did it signify his growing inward feeling that he didn’t belong?
In an earlier article I wrote about Yuzo Saeki I comment that “…despite all the artistic, political and cultural convulsions which befell Yuzo Saeki, along with suffering from tuberculosis, he still produced some truly amazing art. Therefore, the real tragedy of the life of Yuzo Saeki is that he didn’t have enough time to escape the trappings of two cultures which were pulling away at his artistic soul.”
Van Gogh also had an intense struggle between religion and rejection in several areas of his life which led to emotional instability. Given this, Van Gogh and Yuzo Saeki share internal convulsions because of different factors and both fully understood poverty, feeling of alienation, rejection, and the darkness of asylum institutions.
Therefore, the image of “At Eternity’s Gate” by Van Gogh enables people to enter “a small glimpse” into the world of two extremely talented individuals.