Written by: Ariadne Marek
In the late 19th century, ukyio-e, commonly known as Japanese woodblock art, became increasingly popular among western artists. Established in the late 17th century in Edo, present day Tokyo, ukyio-e was known for its black and white peaceful landscapes and depictions of traditional social life in Japan. After being exhibited at the World Exposition in Paris during the late 1860’s, its influence began to set on impressionists around Europe.
These Japanese woodblocks became greatly influential on the famous post-impressionist painter, Vincent Van Gogh. After the Dutch artist moved to Paris, he began to explore Japonism, admiring the intense colours and bold, elegant designs. Regularly visiting Antwerp in Belgium, Van Gogh became a keen collector of ukiyo-e, writing in his letters to his brother, Theo, that he owned hundreds of prints.
Influences from Japan can even be noticed in one of Van Gogh's most notable paintings ‘Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear’ (1889), where the artist included his favourite Japanese print illustrating three geishas on a landscape on the wall behind his head. The deep red colours of the horizon and geishas attire boldly contrasts against the neutral colours of the artist and his surroundings making our attention fall from the artists face to the painting on his wall. Van Gogh had just returned home from the hospital after cutting off his own ear, and the melancholic features of the artist in the self-portrait clearly show his struggle with mental health and his position as an artist within his own emotional state. However, by including the Japanese art work behind himself, Van Gogh visually depicts his love and passion for the field, as well as highlighting the influence Japan had on his work.
We can also notice the influences of ukyio-e on the works on Van Gogh is the renowned ‘the Great Wave off Kanagawa’ (1829-1833) by the well-known Japanese Edo period painter Katsushika Hokusai on Vincent’s ‘Starry Night’ (1889). Van Gogh although never owning a physical print of the piece, was starstruck by the intricate and mesmerising painting, again writing to Theo that the “Waves are claws, the boat is caught in them, you can feel it”. In ‘Starry Night’ the artist depicts the landscape of Provence from the window of his asylum room, we notice the night sky curls, especially in the centre of the painting, like crashing waves much like the Great Waves painted by Hokusai. The oil on canvas in impasto comes out at the viewer, almost engulfing us within the sky. The hills and buildings in the right also start to blend into delicate waves as the artist uses short brush strokes with touches of yellow amongst the blues and green to create a glazed, layered illusion.
As well as his adoration of Japanese woodcuts, Van Gogh took strong influences in the works of his friend Émile Bernard. Bernard himself was strongly influenced by Japanese woodblock art, and was known to experiment with loud and expressive colours and black line work. In his Landscape, Saint-Briac, Bernard cuts off the horizon, outlines the landscape in deep black lines and uses short impasto brush strokes on the grass and stream for emphasis. There is not much depth in Bernard’s work, the scene is relatively flat and the impasto technique used does not add any dimension but rather a dark contrast to the pinks and greens which dominate the landscape.
Japanese art was high in popularity within European artists in the 19th century and It is not difficult to spot even the smallest influences in the works of Vincent Van Gogh. In his most popular works, Van Gogh uses techniques of bold colours, striking depth and contrasting tones to capture the viewers eyes. Before his death, the artist was said to have owned 660 Japanese woodblock prints which shaped the paintings we admire to this day.