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Artist's love of Japan art cited

AMSTERDAM -- In the soft, clear light of Provence, France, Vincent van Gogh saw the crisp skies of Japanese woodcut prints. The almond blossoms, gnarled trees and irises that dotted the French landscape reminded him of nature scenes painted in Kyoto. In the locals at Arles cafes, he saw resonances with the geishas and Kabuki actors of a country he had never visited.

"My dear brother, you know, I feel I'm in Japan," van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo, on March 16, 1888, not long after he had settled in Arles.

By June he was urging Theo and other impressionist artists in Paris to join him. "After some time your vision changes, you see with a more Japanese eye, you feel color differently," he wrote.

For at least a year, van Gogh lived in Provence in a kind of Japanese dream; an imaginative projection of an idealized vision of Japan onto the French landscape, said Nienke Bakker, curator of paintings for the Van Gogh Museum. The painter had been bitten by the bug of Japonisme, a mania for Japanese aesthetics that swept Europe in the 19th century, and which also influenced Claude Monet, Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas.

The Van Gogh Museum, in collaboration with three Japanese museums, has mounted the most comprehensive exhibition so far to explore that inspiration, "Van Gogh & Japan," which runs through June 24. It tracks van Gogh's early fascination with imported Japanese Ukiyo-e prints -- colorful woodblock prints on handmade paper that were popular in Europe in the late 19th century. It also shows how van Gogh integrated elements of Japanese art into his own style.

Van Gogh encountered Japanese prints in 1885 while working in Antwerp, Belgium, whose docks he described as teeming with Japanese wares.

When van Gogh moved to Arles a year later, he was fully in the thrall of Japan. On the train from Paris, he repeatedly checked out the window, he wrote to his friend Paul Gauguin, "to see 'if it was like Japan yet'! Childish, isn't it?'"

"The first year in Arles, everything is Japan," said Nienke Bakker, curator of paintings for the Van Gogh Museum. "Later, after his breakdown, that changes, and he still refers to it but it's less important. It has become integrated into his style, but it's no longer his artistic model."

The impact was more subtle. He sometimes divided the canvas using diagonal lines, rather than using horizontal perspective planes, as was the norm in Western painting. And he would streak his paintings with diagonal rain, as he had seen in Japanese prints.

Japanese curator Tsukasa Kodera, who worked on the exhibition, has studied van Gogh's interest in his country for more than 30 years, and spent the past six researching the final phase of van Gogh's life.

"He was interested in our culture, and that says something to Japanese people," Kodera said. Even though van Gogh's art was not widely reproduced in Japan until decades later, he added: "They had also van Gogh visions, van Gogh dreams. Just as van Gogh imagined Japan as a country, they imagined him. It was a kind of two-way imaginary vision."

Info: "Van Gogh & Japan," through June 24, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam; vangoghmuseum.nl.

Travel on 04/15/2018

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