"For my part I don't need Japanese pictures here, for I am always telling myself that here I am in Japan"
January 17, 2005 1:49 PM   Subscribe

I envy the Japanese for the enormous clarity that pervades their work. It is never dull and never seems to have been made in haste. Their work is as simple as breathing and they draw a figure with a few well chosen lines with the same ease, as effortless as buttoning up one's waistcoat.....
--Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, 24 September, 1888
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 (and collectors) of Japanese art. He defined himself as “a simple worshipper of the eternal Buddha”, and the most peculiar among his many self-portraits is "Self-Portrait as Buddhist Monk" (see a comparison here and here), painted in 1888 and dedicated to Paul Gauguin. More inside.
posted by matteo (10 comments total)
Come now, isn’t it almost a true religion which these simple Japanese teach us, who live in nature as though they themselves were flowers. And you cannot study Japanese art, it seems to me, without becoming much gayer and happier, and we must return to nature in spite of our education and our work in a world of convention.

-- from the same 1888 letter quoted above.

Van Gogh's fascination with Japan is clear is his letters (excellent site linked two years ago in this marvelous thread).

about his self-portrait as Buddhist monk: it is part of the Fogg collection in Cambridge, Mass. The actual background is much more lime-green than it appears on the computer screen. It was considered "degenerate art" by the Nazis and sold in a controversial auction in Switzerland, on June 30, 1939
posted by matteo at 1:58 PM on January 17, 2005

Good links. Thanks
posted by Outlawyr at 2:49 PM on January 17, 2005

You make me have to read and click lots.

But it is a good thing.
posted by TwelveTwo at 3:33 PM on January 17, 2005

As matteo noted, we have that self-portrait here at Harvard. It's kind of weird to be able to go see it on a lunch break. However, I understand that Harvard has a pretty generous policy towards the public...as in, I believe Saturday is get-in-free day at Harvard museums. And I've heard that anyone can go into the Fogg Museum and ask to see stuff from the archives -- for example, I keep meaning to ask for their three boxes of William Blake watercolors and sketches. I feel like a fool for not having done so yet.
posted by uosuaq at 4:01 PM on January 17, 2005

great post, matteo!

one of my fave quotes of all time is one of vvg´s letters to theo, talking of japanese art. pity i cannot google it easily on a crappy guatemalan connection. see if you can find the lines after "In the end we shall have had enough of cynicism and skepticism and humbug and we shall all want to live more musically" for some wonderful thoughts from vincent on this topic.
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:49 PM on January 17, 2005

nice post - thanks!
posted by bashos_frog at 5:52 PM on January 17, 2005

modern art worships neurological disorders. it was unchartered territory, after japan.

ooh, but me likes to visits the both of, so happy, so good to add them to the brain.
posted by gorgor_balabala at 7:50 PM on January 17, 2005

Here's the letter you want, UbuRoivas. The section that follows your quote:
How will this come about, and what will we discover? It would be nice to be able to prophesy, but it is even better to be forewarned, instead of seeing absolutely nothing in the future other than the disasters that are bound to strike the modern world and civilization like so many thunderbolts, through revolution, or war, or the bankruptcy of worm-eaten states.

If we study Japanese art, we discover a man who is undeniably wise, philosophical and intelligent, who spends his time - doing what? Studying the distance from the earth and the moon? No! Studying the politics of Bismarck? No! He studies … a single blade of grass. But this blade of grass leads him to draw all the plants - then the seasons, the grand spectacle of landscapes, finally animals, then the human figure. That is how he spends his life, and life is too short to do everything.

So come, isn't what we are taught by these simple Japanese, who live in nature as if they themselves were flowers, almost a true religion?
And it continues on... including the quote matteo used as the opening line for the post. Nice.
posted by taz at 11:08 PM on January 17, 2005

thanks for the post! i took a class on van gogh a few years ago and we discussed the influence of japanese prints on his work very briefly. it's nice to go back and add a little more depth to the subject!
posted by grapefruitmoon at 8:40 AM on January 18, 2005

taz: thanks, mate! ahhhh....

interesting to have read that vincent´s only exposure to japanese art was apparently from woodcuts on paper that was used as packing material for japanese imports.

also, somewhat amusing to hear the rather naive (if i may say so) line of "almost a true religion", considering how much of the japanese aesthetic was probably influenced by zen buddhism...
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:46 PM on January 20, 2005

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