Documentary, not rated, 85 minutes, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3.5 chiles
In 2015, co-directors David Bickerstaff and Phil Grabsky’s documentary Vincent van Gogh: A New Way of Seeing was a biographical account of the Dutch post-Impressionist painter that served as a primer for those who knew nothing of his life. It covered a lot of ground. Returning to the subject of van Gogh, Bickerstaff’s new film has a narrower focus: the influence that Japanese art and aesthetics had on the artist. The film delves deeply into the artist’s intensive study of Japanese art, taking the viewer far from the south of France — where van Gogh was engaged in one of his most productive periods — to Japan itself, to understand its artistic patrimony firsthand.
It’s well known that European painters of the late 19th century took an interest in Japanese art, particularly in such forms as the ukiyo-e, or “floating world,” which are woodblock prints that flourished in the 18th century. Artists like van Gogh became collectors of such prints, which had impacted the work of Impressionists such as Claude Monet and Edgar Degas. Japanese aesthetics made their way into all manner of fine and decorative arts in Europe. The French even had a term for it: Japonisme. But that influence extended both ways, and Van Gogh & Japan provides some insights into the significance that van Gogh had on artists in Japan in the 20th century, including performance artist Tatsumi Orimoto and calligrapher Tomoko Kawao, who are featured onscreen.
As in the previous documentary, Bickerstaff takes us inside Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, this time to see the works in the 2018 exhibit Van Gogh & Japan and show us just how candidly he was influenced by Japanese woodblock artists, especially by ukiyo-e master Utagawa Hiroshige. Van Gogh made his own versions of Hiroshige’s woodblocks in oil paint. With generous views of van Gogh’s paintings, the filmmakers elucidate how he copied the Japanese prints while remaining true to the barely contained wildness of his own artistic vision.
From his letters to his brother, Theo, we learn that van Gogh, who never visited Japan, held a rather idyllic view of the country and its traditions, and regarded them with a reverence that bordered on awe. There is some discussion in the film of the likelihood that the tranquility and Zen-like quality of Japanese art was a balm to van Gogh’s troubled soul. His work is often judged in light of his increasing alienation and despair, which are believed to have driven him to suicide, and the film follows suit in presenting his work as a mirror.
The only real issue with Van Gogh & Japan is its contention that this Japanese influence is a little-known aspect of his work when, in fact, it’s not. But the film makes clear that it was an obsession. And it was profound.