Van Gogh & Japan (2019) ***

May 26th, 2019
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir: David Bickerstaff | Doc, 90′

Van Gogh was one of the most influential and prolific artists of the 19th Century so it seems reasonable that another biopic should be dedicated to him, this time looking at his influence in Japan.

David Bickerstaff once again directs with a similar format to Van Gogh, A New Way of Seeing using the artist’s personal letters from close friends and his brother Theo to reveal Van Gogh’s deep connection to Japanese visual culture, and its importance in understanding his most iconic works. 

Although the Dutch artist never infact visited to Japan, his work had a profound impact on his contemporaries there including calligrapher Tomoko Kawao and performance artist Tatsumi Orimoto, and film provides a modern perspective on the rich, symbiotic relationship between Van Gogh and Japan.

Dramas such as At Eternity’s Gate and Loving Vincent have helped to flesh out what the Dutch artist was like as a man. Van Gogh & Japan shows how the European avant-garde went hand in hand with Japan art in the 19th century, and how artists such as Hokusai, Utagawa Kinuyoshi and Hiroshige captured the imagination of those painters who laid the foundations of modernism in Europe, on the other side of the world: Manet’s American friend Whistler was influenced by Japanese artwork in his painting Nocture: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge.

Bickerstaff films in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam where there is perhaps the most direct example of how Van Gogh was influenced by Hiroshige’s prints, The Residence with Plum Trees at Kameido, 1857; and he went on to paint his own version in 1887, Flowering Plum Orchard (after Hiroshige).


As the Edo period came to an end in 1860s and Japan opened up to the West, Paris became awash with all things Japanese in the form of decorative objects and colourful woodcut prints called ‘ukiyo-e’. This was known as ‘Japonisme’. And whilst Van Gogh was not tempted to visit, he became fascinated with elements of Japanese visual culture and studied Japanese works carefully, learning from their compositional fluidity of line. He also acquired a large quantity of Japanese prints which he tried to sell without success, although they did provide a great source of inspiration. Van Gogh always brought his own unique style to his paintings even when directly copying and duplicating the imagery of the Japanese originals. There’s a full-bloodied richness, a vibrancy that is often oppressive, violent even.
In 1888, Paris became too much for Vincent and he left for the South of France, in the pursuit of new subject matter and a healthier life. In Provence, he discovered a beautiful landscape, powerful light and exotic people which spoke to his idealised vision of Japan – his Japanese dream. The productive yet fraught years that followed produced some of the most unique works in Van Gogh’s oeuvre such as ​The Sunflowers​ and his series of iconic portraits.

Other later self-portraits further underline his own unsettled state of mind. Infact, the exhibition only goes to accentuate Van Gogh’s own alienation. The Buddhist calm is in contrast to his own desperation as he flails around unreconciled with his own life. He clearly sought emotional refuge in this Zen influence.

One of the final paintings, Rain at Auvers (from the Museum of Wales), completed just before he killed himself in 1890, is the saddest comparison between East and West, and was possibly inspired by Hiroshige’s Night Rain at Karasaki. But it feels more like an interpretation of Munch’s The Scream in its depiction of the dark desperation of man who has finally lost his way.

Although these influences fascinated him for a while, his own style was always prominent in his work, the sheer force of his personality producing a passion not only in his bold strokes but also in his striking colour palette with marks that made his work significant and highly personal. They vibrate with allure and transmit the strength of his charisma, whilst the Japanese works often feel tepid in comparison. Van Gogh pours his heart and soul into his work. And that is why it resonates with his admirers. MT

Van Gogh & JAPAN 

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