Marc Restellini, founder and director of the Pinacotheque de Paris, is notorious for his unorthodox views and controversial shows.
In past exhibitions, he associated Jackson Pollock with shamanism and mixed sculptures by Alberto Giacometti with Etruscan art.
“Van Gogh, Dreaming of Japan,” his latest sleight of hand, confronts the Dutch painter’s landscapes with color prints by Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858), the last master of the ukiyo-e (pictures of “the floating world” in a literal translation, meaning images that capture transience or impermanence.)
Japanese prints became popular throughout Europe after the 1867 World Exhibition in Paris where the Japanese government presented more than 10,000 art objects. Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas and other artists started collecting the prints and used them in their own work.
Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta “The Mikado” and Giacomo Puccini’s opera “Madama Butterfly” are proof that the Japan craze wasn’t limited to France.
Vincent van Gogh, too, was fascinated by the prints and, with the help of his brother Theo, an art dealer, eventually amassed hundreds of them. A few he copied, including two by Hiroshige.
In other works, the Japanese model shines through more indirectly: “The Langlois Bridge” and “The Dance Hall” are obviously influenced by the simplified, decorative ukiyo-e style. In his portrait of Pere Tanguy, another art dealer, Van Gogh used the prints that were sold at Tanguy’s shop as backdrop.
None of these canvases is on view at the Pinacotheque. Instead we’re told: “The majority of Van Gogh’s landscapes from 1887 onwards were constructed around a referential system in the center of which is found Hiroshige’s oeuvre.”
It’s true that Vincent, in a letter to Theo, wrote: “All my work is based to some extent on Japanese art.” In another letter, however, he talks about the “French Japanese, the Impressionists” and makes it clear that they, not the real Japanese, are “the essence and the main thing.”
No wonder the 31 landscapes, all on loan from the Kroller-Muller Museum in Otterlo, Holland, fail to support the outlandish thesis. Van Gogh’s nervous, deeply emotional paintings and Hiroshige’s poetic fairytale images are worlds apart.
So forget about the show’s pretension and enjoy its two parts as separate events.
Not every work is top-drawer Van Gogh, yet there is enough to admire. A few are masterpieces: “The Sower” or “Road with Cypress and Star.”
For the Parisians, the show, misguided as it is, offers a rare opportunity to make amends for old sins: Although Van Gogh spent his most productive years in France, you find only a few of his canvases in French museums.
Still, the second part of the exhibition, the one devoted to Hiroshige, is the more original. The 200 images of his travels through an imaginary, poetic Japan, all on loan from the Museum Volkenkunde in Leiden, Holland, are a treasure trove from an enchanted, lost universe.
“Van Gogh: Reves de Japon” and “Hiroshige: L’Art du Voyage” are on view through March 17.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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