"I envy the Japanese” Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo. In the exhibition on which this film is based – VAN GOGH & JAPAN at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam – one can see why. This film reveals the career-defining impact Japan had on Van Gogh, despite never travelling there himself. As well as investigating the expression of Van Gogh’s ‘japonisme’, the film explores how Japanese society have developed an affinity to Van Gogh’s work as a result of his engagement with their culture.
As the Edo period came to an end in 1868 and Japan opened up to the West, Paris became awash with all things Japanese in the form of decorative objects and colourful woodcut prints called ‘ukiyo-e’. Whilst Van Gogh had no desire to visit Japan, he became fascinated with elements of their visual culture and how they could be adapted in his own pursuit of a new way of seeing. He read descriptions of Japan and studied Japanese works carefully, learning from their bold and contrasting use of colour, their compositional fluidity of line and their unusual croppings of natural forms. He also acquired a large quantity of Japanese prints which he tried to sell without success but they ended up being a great source of inspiration.
In 1888, Paris became too much for Vincent and he left for the south of France, in the pursuit of new subject matter and a healthier life. In Provence, he discovers a beautiful landscape, powerful light and exotic people which spoke to his idealised vision of Japan – his Japanese dream. The productive yet troubled years that followed produced some of the most unique and iconic works in Van Gogh’s oeuvre. He worked intensely in his ‘Studio of the South’, sharing his passion with his fellow artist Paul Gauguin, which eventually lead to Van Gogh’s breakdown and the famous ear cutting incident.
Van Gogh & Japan journeys from the critically acclaimed exhibition of the same name at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, to Van Gogh’s yellow house in Arles, to Japan itself, exploring the remarkable heritage that inspired Van Gogh and and the country’s ongoing dialogue with one of Europe’s greatest artists.
Music by Asa Bennett
Written by David Bickerstaff and Phil Grabsky
Voice of Van Gogh - Jochum ten Haaf
Narrator - Jaye Griffiths