From time to time, art history needs to adjust institutional knowledge to new research. An example of this is the way an artist died. In 2011 Van Gogh biographers Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith contended in their 950-page book that he didn’t take his own life, that a teen, known for taunting him, shot him, and that Van Gogh didn’t accuse the boy to keep him safe from prosecution. The biographers’ evidence included the boy’s deathbed admission in 1957 that the bullet came from his gun.
But here’s the thing. While new research can give a long-held factoid a twist, it doesn’t usually turn it completely around. In the Van Gogh case, while the biographers’ research suggests that he was murdered, at least they don’t suggest that he’s still alive. Yet a recent assertion from a well-regarded British art critic that Japanese art rather than Africa art fired up modernism is the equivalent of saying that Van Gogh isn’t dead.
“Japan invented modern art,” declared Jonathan Jones last week in The Guardian. He came to that conclusion after seeing a show of Japanese art at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. His proof includes Van Gogh’s love of Japanese woodblock prints that he was known to collect. Yet it’s also well-known that Picasso collected African art. Why does Jones think that the Van Gogh collecting habits outweighs Picasso’s?
Jones thinks that modern art historians overlooked the importance of Japanese art because the west’s bias toward Japan as its enemy in WWII. Such an assertion is easy to dispute. No modern art historian of record would deny Japan’s influence on modern artists. The Metropolitan Museum of Art website clearly acknowledges that Van Gogh collected prints of Japanese woodblocks and that the composition of Manet’s painting “Boating” is “Japanese-inspired.”
But Japan’s influence isn’t the whole story of modern art history. As the Met also points out, European artists collected African sculptures after a ton of it showed up in Europe as a result of colonial conquest. African sculpture, put on public display in museums like the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro in Paris, and others throughout Berlin, Munich, and London, appealed to the young European artist of the time because of Africa’s way of distorting and even abstracting human form – the very badge of early modernism.
Also well documented is how Picasso admitted the pull of the African collection on seeing it at the Trocadéro, saying that it helped him to be free. Certainly the most iconic painting of the early moderns is his “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.” One look and you know without knowing anything else, that the masked faces are emblematic of African masks.
By the way, Jonathan, if you really believe that the west denied Japan’s influence because of its sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, how do you explain all the credit given to Germany for willing Expressionism to 20th century art making?