Van Gogh, Collector of "Japan"

Article excerpt

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) was one of the many European and American artists working in the context of Japonisme--the movement that, beginning in the early 1870s and running its course by around 1900, encouraged the appreciation and systematic study of Japanese art. These artists were influenced, some of them profoundly, by Japanese subject matter as well as by Japanese aesthetics. (1) Van Gogh was one of the most avid lovers and students of Japanese woodblock prints (ukiyo-e, or pictures of the floating world), as well as of Japanese albums created for export. His appropriation of techniques and images from Japanese art in the process of his evolution of an aesthetics has been well studied and evaluated. (2) My goal in this exploration is, therefore, not to revisit the question of the influence of Japanese prints on the Dutch artist but, rather, to examine van Gogh's imaginative relationship to Japan. I will explore that relationship through the artist--both as a student who was objectively interested in Japanese aesthetics and Japanese culture, and as a person and artist who, like his contemporaries, constellated his projections and longings around Japan, a then little-known country and culture, to create a dreamed Japan, a japon reve, to use Brigitte Koyama-Richard's suggestive term.

I will consider van Gogh in the framework of two cultural practices: collecting and painting. Van Gogh, as a collector of Japanese prints, engaged in nineteenthcentury practices of material collecting in the context of imperialism; through his material collecting, and along with other Europeans of his time, he also collected, in a metaphorical manner, images of the exotic--in van Gogh's case, images of what I shall call "Japan" to emphasize the imaginative and idealizing nature of the artist's construction of Japan. From the mid-1880s onward van Gogh formulated an image of Japan, and an image of an ideal self in relation to Japan, that were based on his collecting of Japanese prints and influenced by his reading of magazine articles on Japan and novels that constructed idealized images of Japan as a primitive land whose people, and artists, still lived close to nature. Second, as a painter in Arles in the spring of 1888, the artist constructed an image of "Japan" as nature through a collection of paintings of flowering trees. In that series of paintings he expressed his idea of "Japan" through a natural image that he had come to value as a specifically Japanese image from perusing Japanese woodblock and album prints in his and his brother Theo's collection. I view the image of the flowering tree as the site of the coming together of the artist's practices of collecting Japanese prints and images of "Japan" and of painting with the goal of collecting "Japan" and expressing "Japan" as a personal symbol under the aegis of Symbolism.


Van Gogh practiced what one might call metaphorical collecting. He carried out his collecting in ways that were "at once psychological and social" (Elsner and Cardinal 5), (3) expressing personal and professional ideals and desires that were grounded in a specific time and place. Van Gogh became a systematic collector of Japanese woodblock prints in the mid-1880s in Paris. His position as both a citizen of one imperialist nation, The Netherlands, and a resident of another, France, allowed him to become acquainted with, appreciate, and appropriate the non-Western world--whether in the form of material objects, images, or aesthetic productions. By the time van Gogh and his brother Theo (Theodorus, 1857-1891) began their systematic collecting of Japanese prints, the earlier European curiosity about exotic objects of every kind and quality from the non-Western world had developed into a keen interest in non-Western, and specifically in Japanese art. A large number of Japanese woodblock prints had been brought to Europe from 1854 onward. …