Is Van Gogh the most famous artist in the world? That's what a new exhibit at the Pinacothèque claims. I think this is arguable (not Monet or Picasso?), but the show does make a great case for is how much Van Gogh's art was influenced by Japanese prints.
Apparently Vincent and his brother Theo, an art dealer, would often view these prints at another dealer's shop. Their focus on nature, deep perspective and careful composition, meant to inspire contemplation in the viewer, soon found their way into Van Gogh's work, although the color palette and brushstroke technique remained his own.
Although I've seen a lot of Van Gogh's work, both in France and in Holland, there are some pictures in the exhibit I don't remember having seen before. Next to each work is a reproduction of a Japanese print that may have inspired it, with an explanation of the similarities. While a few of these juxtapositions seem like a stretch, there are many others where the similarities are pretty striking, particularly in Van Gogh's landscapes of the Midi region. In fact, Vincent wrote in a letter to Théo that when painting in the Midi, he imagined that he was actually in Japan.
The exhibit is twinned with "Hiroshige, the art of travel", a show of prints by the Japanese "Master of Edo" Hiroshige, whom Van Gogh greatly admired. I admit I always think I'm going to love Japanese prints more than I actually do. There are some I find really beautiful, but when I look at a lot of them at once, they tend to run together for me. This exhibit is fairly extensive and is composed mainly of Hiroshige's travel series, depicting stops on the routes from Edo to Kyoto. Unfortunately, after an hour of squinting in the dim light (kept low, I imagine, to protect the art), I felt more headache-y than transported.
Hiroshige was a specialist in the ukiyo-e style, which translates as "images of the floating world" (which will be the name of my book of poems if I ever write one). Apparently this means the prints are highly colored and focused on things like the four seasons, the passage of time and the contrast between city and country life. The ones that struck me the most were the scenes in the snow, rain or fog. You really can see the mastery of Hiroshige's technique and the way it can invoke wistfulness or melancholy.
The exhibits can be viewed separately or together, and I highly recommend seeing them both (just bring eye drops). While it's true I respond more to Van Gogh's paintings, which I find more personal and emotional, maybe it's just because my western eye is more trained to appreciate his style. Whatever the case, I'm glad I got the chance to see Hiroshige's work, which is rarely displayed in France, and which influenced so many impressionists and post-impressionists, including the most famous in the world.