Vincent Van Gogh loved Japan – and Japan loves Van Gogh. A new book, The Sunflowers are Mine by Martin Bailey, published this week, has some intriguing insights into both sides of the love affair, from Van Gogh’s admiration for Japanese prints to the sad fate of one of his sunflower pictures, bought by a Japanese collector.
When Van Gogh moved to Provence in 1888 he wrote to his brother saying ‘looking at nature under a brighter sky can give us a more Japanese way of feeling and drawing.’ He painted The Bedroom that year in ‘flat, plain tints like Japanese prints’ and the bottom two pictures on the side wall above the bed might well be the Japanese prints given him by his brother Theo that year to augment his growing print collection.
In Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear the Japanese print on the wall is an amalgamation of two prints, Geishas in a Landscape (from which he took the image of two women in front of Mt Fuji) and Scene from a Genji Parody, both of which were donated to the Courtauld Institute, which owns the self portrait, in 1957.
He also used the two cranes in the foreground in Geishas in a Landscape in Japonaiserie: Oiran (in the border on the left).
Sadly, the print was stolen in 1981 and has not been recovered. This is the only picture of it the Courtauld Gallery have – please keep an eye out for it!
It currently hangs in the Sompo Museum of Art in Shinjuku, Tokyo, on the forty-second floor of the Sompo Building. It’s probably worth more than £100 million now.
But the most interesting, and tragic story belongs to the painting Six Sunflowers. It was bought by Koyata Yamamoto, a wealthy cotton trader from Ashiya, near Osaka, in 1920. It was shown in two exhibitions, in 1921 and 1924, but in the second exhibition it fell off the wall and the heavy, ornate frame was damaged. Yamamoto never lent it out again. It hung in his living room, above the sofa, his pride and joy.
When war broke out Yamamoto asked a local bank to store it for safety, but the bank refused because they feared the damp atmosphere of their vaults would damage the painting. Maybe they were right, but their refusal led to an even worse fate. On 6 August 1945, the day the Atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, more than 1,500 conventional bombs fell on Ashiya. Yamamoto’s house was burned to the ground and the heavy frame meant the picture couldn’t be rescued in time. Yamamoto was devastated and never spoke of the picture again. He died in 1963 at the age of seventy-seven.
What makes it worse is that the frame wasn’t necessary; Van Gogh designed his own frame, to make the yellow of the sunflowers burst against the blue background ‘framed with thin lathes painted in orange lead’ like the stained glass windows of a Gothic church. Tragically, it was Yamamoto who added the fatal ornate frame.
You can buy Martin Bailey’s book The Sunflowers are Mine: The Story of Van Gogh’s Masterpiece on Amazon. It’s £25 hardcover with plenty of colour illustrations.