The Philadelphia Museum of Art is opening Van Gogh Up Close (February 1 – May 6, 2012), a selection of over 40 Vincent Van Gogh masterpeices on loan from around the world. This exhibition centers on Van Gogh’s tumultous years (1886-1890) of experimental work just before he took his own life in the summer of 1890. These years of his life were full of still life and landscape paintings which play with proximity and cropping.
Van Gogh’s revolutionary work from this period is often said to have altered the course of modern painting. The exhibition is the first of its kind to explore the reasons and means by which this impassioned artist made such unusual changes to his painting style in the final years of his life (source). His fixiation on nature undoubtedly led to admiration of the Japanese wood-block prints that were popular around Paris at that time.
What is Japonism?
Japonism was the influence of Japanese art on Western art. It began in 1854 when Japan reopened its borders for international trade after 200 years of isolationism. As Western art pieces were imported to Japan and rose in popularity, the exports of ukiyo-e (wood-block prints), ceramics, textiles, bronzes and other arts slowly began to flood Europe and America (as did Japanese fans, kimono, etc.). The Paris Exposition Universelle in 1867 had a Japanese stand displaying Japanese art objects to the amazed public (source).
During the 1860s ukiyo-e, became very popular and were a source of inspiration to many impressionist and post impressionist artists in the West including Monet, Degas, Gauguin and Van Gogh (source). Translated to “Art of the Floating World”, ukiyo-e engendered a sense of nature and entertainment including themes of landscapes, history, theatre and even the debauchery of the Japanese pleasure quarters. Interestingly, ukiyo-e fell so far out of fashion in Japan that the mass-produced prints, now practically worthless, were used as packing material for exports (source).
Highly influenced by the natural, yet flattened Japanese style, Van Gogh began collecting ukiyo-e. A few of the prints he collected will be on display at the Up Close exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Concerning the Japanese style, Van Gogh said,
“I envy the Japanese artists for the incredible neat clarity which all their works have. It is never boring and you never get the impression that they work in a hurry. It is as simple as breathing; they draw a figure with a couple of strokes with such an unfailing easiness as if it were as easy as buttoning one’s waist-coat” (source).
Van Gogh also embraced the ideas of Japanese artists who worked in close communion with nature studying “the smallest blade of grass” to better comprehend nature as a whole (source).
Van Gogh appropriated the Japanese style in many of his works that will appear at the Van Gogh Up Close exhibit including Almond Tree in Blossom (1890), The Courtesan (1887, pictured above) as well as many of landscapes and gardens he painted from an asylum in Saint-Remy, France.
Tickets for Van Gogh Up Close are $25 for adults, $23 for seniors, $20 for students, youth (ages 13-18), and $12 for children (ages 5 to 12).
For more information visit www.philamuseum.org.