Van Gogh and Japanese Art

Vincent van Gogh: Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear, Easel and Japanese Print
Vincent van Gogh: Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear, Easel and Japanese Print

Last year, I was able to visit the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and revel in the paintings of Vincent that I had seen only in books, online or as prints.

One section of the museum that fascinated me was devoted to the influence of Japanese art on Vincent’s paintings.

In the self-portrait at the top of this post, you see Vincent with his easel and a Japanese print on his wall.

cherry blossoms
Japanese painting of a cherry tree branch
almond branches blue
One of Vincent’s almond branch paintings

You can see the influence of Japanese art in places like his group of paintings of spring tree branches, such as the paintings of almond branches and blossoms he painted around 1890. This was when he was in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France.

He also reproduced Japanese artwork that he saw in books and as prints, such as Bridge in the Rain. a version of a famous painting by Hiroshige.

Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige) by Vincent, 1887

“All my work is based to some extent on Japanese art”
―Vincent van Gogh
, letter to his brother Theo, July 15, 1888

I bought a book at the museum, Japanese Prints: The Collection of Vincent van Gogh, and learned that Vincent first encountered Japanese printmaking while working in Paris and he and his brother Theo bought more than 600 Japanese prints which they lived together there. Vincent often displayed these prints in his studio as inspiration.

What he found appealing were the strong colors and use of everyday subjects. Japanese artwork used unusual spatial effects which you can see in some of his paintings that have odd angles. The details taken from nature were very delicate. This was at a time when he was just beginning to develop his own style as a painter.

The winter of 1887-88 was holding on into early spring when Vincent arrived in Arles in Provence and he painted budding almond branches that he had brought inside and put in a glass to force blooms.  He loved painting the twisted trees and branches and also used the orchards outside of town as subjects.

Blossoming Almond Branch in a Glass with Book Arles March 5 1888
Blossoming Almond Branch in a Glass with Book Arles March 5 1888

He painted the almond tree branches in bright daylight, at night and with backgrounds of bright pinks and reds.

almond blossoms night
Almond Blossoms, Night

Vincent is often looking up at the branches into the sunlight or moonlight. Up close, I could see in a painting done as a gift for his nephew (at bottom) that the branches are blue-striped with shades of green, complimenting the reds of the blossoms. Some of the petals are bare canvas, some shades of whites and grays with center pistils of yellow.

almond red
Branch of Almond Tree in Blossom Red Vincent Van Gogh
Branches of an Almond Tree in Blossom (pink)
Branches of an Almond Tree in Blossom (pink)

Besides books about Vincent’s love of Japanese art, the museum also had books that I have found in libraries since I returned. One rarer book that I haven’t found shows the influence Japanese art had on other painters of that time and after including Monet. Van Gogh. and Klimt.In February 1890 in St. Remy, Vincent painted an almond tree in blossom against a blue sky background for his newborn nephew, who Theo and his wife named Vincent. He brings the painting to Paris for them and they hang it in their living room. When Vincent leaves Paris for Auvers, he will have only six months to live and so that painting becomes very special to the family.

Perhaps symbolic of this new life, Vincent painted the branches of an almond tree. It is a variety that blossoms as early as February in the south of France and is one of those signs of spring we look for in nature. It is one of more obviously Japanese -influenced paintings there.

At the museum, I was told that the white blossoms were originally more pink than white but have faded on exposure to light. Still, it is a beautiful example of his late work.

A painting for his nephew, Vincent

Spring Weather Report

robin

The robins are back in Paradelle. Cardinals, bluejays and chickadees are very active at the feeders. Spring is here in astronomical terms and nature signs.  the temperatures are still cool most days and nights still deep into the mid/high 30s – but no frost. Not that we can’t have a late frost or even snow in April, but it feels like spring.

The only un-spring-like thing is that the coronavirus pandemic has changed our habits, holidays and outlook. I’m glad I can still work in my garden and tend my vegetable seedlings and get some sunshine when it’s available.

Back in October, we were supposed to look for signals of the winter ahead. I like to do a review for my Paradelle neighborhood, and that’s really all you can do because weather is local.

Here are some autumn 2019 signs I observed and their results.

“Much rain in October, means much wind in December.” That one held true.

“Thunder in the fall is supposed to foretell a cold winter ahead.”  No thunder here in the fall and no cold winter.

“A warm October means a cold February.” A warm October but not a particularly cold February. Very gray, cloudy month though.

“A Full Moon in October without any frost means a warmer month ahead.” No frost on that Full Moon night and November was, if not warm, mild.

Very few blooms in my garden late up until the Winter Solstice, which should have been a sure sign of a rough winter – but it wasn’t rough.

acorns
The remnants on my lawn of a bumper crop of acorns eaten by the squirrels.

The squirrels were very active in the fall – and very active during the mild winter and still this first full spring month. Acorns and squirrels have long been part of weather lore. A bumper crop of acorns and squirrels that are more active than usual is supposed to mean a severe winter.  We had both here in Paradelle but the winter was mild and almost snowless – much to the dismay of my neighbor whose landscaping company does snow removal in winter.  The weather lore rhyme “Squirrels gathering nuts in a flurry, will cause snow to gather in a hurry” was definitely not true here.

A Super Equinox Full MoonWorm

The March Full Moon is often called the Worm Moon due to the early spring appearance of worms reappearing and the robins and other birds that enjoy them.

In 2019, it occurs on March 20 for those of us in the United States, but in any location it will be less noticed for worms and more noticed for two other aspects.

It will reach fullness just ahead of the vernal/spring equinox, which is a nice coincidence. This full moon will also be the third and last last “super moon” of the year.

The rising full moon will look slightly bigger and brighter because it is near its closest approach to Earth in its monthly orbit.

Perhaps you are someone who believes there are no coincidences, and so this triple crossing of celestial events will have greater meaning.

To astronomers, it is just another full moon, though I did read that the full moon on equinox day will allow for some interesting calculations. This is something that occurs every 19 years.

If you measure the shadow cast by a perfectly vertical stick when the Sun us at its highest point (zenith) on equinox day, the angle will be your latitude.

Or you can just look up and wonder at the big, beautiful Moon of ours.

 

Spring Will Come

There is snow on the ground in Paradelle and the Polar Vortex visited us this past week. The ground is rock-hard. Nothing is budding. But I saw my first robin today.

robin

There are a lot of things that are supposed to indicate that the spring season is near. That silly groundhog in Pennsylvania who was pulled out of his home, saw no shadow (Duh, it was cloudy) and so it is supposed to be an early spring. NOAA says Phil the Groundhog has a 40% accuracy rate over 133 years – about as good as a coin toss.

It is a sure sign of spring when I once again watch the film Groundhog Day, and whatever the weather might be, I get into the Zen of that film.

Animals pay no attention to calendars, but those that hibernate or spend more time  inside than outside (like most of us) during winter do sense a warming climate. There are also internal clocks that will signal that it is time for them to emerge.

It made a kind of sense to people at one time that if they observed an animal (bears in France, badgers in Germany, groundhogs in America) emerging but then heading back inside, it must “know” something about the weather ahead.

You can also be a sky watcher like the ancients, who paid more careful attention to things up there. The movements of the Sun and Moon were very important and today is a “cross-quarter” day in the solar calendar. Today falls exactly between a solstice and an equinox.

Though it might not feel like it, consider that winter is halfway over and spring is on the celestial horizon – whether it looks and feels like it outside. I have definitely noticed that there was a longer day(light) the past week.

Many nature and garden folks look to the plants in their neighborhood for signs of spring. But I can’t say that I have found them to be much more accurate than groundhogs. I saw some bulbs poking above ground back in December, but they stopped their progress. I have a patch of crocuses that get full sun all day in front of my home that always bloom a week or more before the others.


Take the snowdrops I have outside. When they bloom, it might be snowy and they add some white (and green) to the landscape. But Galanthus nivalis will bloom when they are ready no matter what the weather happens to be. They are early bloomers.  Mine are not poking out, but we have a warming week ahead, so they might break through.

Cultures and religions all have some type of seasonal celebrations. The Celtic holiday of Imbolc is an ancient one that honored Brigid (or Brigit), goddess of fire, poetry, healing, and childbirth. February first is Saint Brigid’s feast day.

The ancient Imbolc (from the Old Irish imbolg, meaning “in the belly”) is thought to have come from his time being when ewes became pregnant. Those would be the spring lambs. As February started, Saint Brigid was thought to bring the healing power of the sun back to the world.

Christians took the pagan holiday and repurposed February 2 as Candlemas Day (Candelora in Italy).  Though it is to mark the presentation of Jesus at the temple 40 days after her birth, the ceremony is to bring candles (and Brigid’s crosses) to church to be blessed.  So it offers the elements of fire and a birth.

 

May Brigid bless the house wherein you dwell
Bless every fireside every wall and door
Bless every heart that beats beneath its roof
Bless every hand that toils to bring it joy
Bless every foot that walks its portals through
May Brigid bless the house that shelters you.

 

What made that robin return to this cold northern place now? Birds that nest in the Northern Hemisphere tend to migrate northward in the spring to take advantage of emerging insect populations, budding plants and an abundance of nesting locations.

Though the vast majority of robins do move south in the winter, some remain and move around in northern locations. Robins migrate more in response to food than to temperature and fruit is the robin’s winter food source. I haven’t seen any robins in my area since autumn, so I assume they went south.

American Robins eat large numbers of both invertebrates and fruit. In spring and summer, they prefer earthworms, insects and some snails. they also eat a wide variety of fruits, including chokecherries, hawthorn, dogwood, sumac fruits and juniper berries. One study suggested that robins may try to round out their diet by selectively eating fruits that have bugs in them.

The April Sprouting Grass Full Moon

The April Full Moon this month comes late in the month, as do all the remaining Full Moons for 2018.  The April full moon is typically known as the Sprouting Grass Moon, Egg Moon, Fish Moon, Pink MoonPlanting by the Full Egg MoonNight of the Planter’s MoonSeed MoonBlood Moon (which only occurs for some Full Moons and is not really an April event), Mini Moon When Ducks Return and the Growing Moon. It is obvious that this is a time when our focus is on the true flowering and growing of spring.

Had the Full Moon arrived early in April this year, I could have written about snow and winter hanging on, but by this time in the month spring has finally taken hold and there have been a few days that already felt like summer.

My seeds have all started inside and are waiting for that last frost, which in Paradelle can still occur in May.

I’m not a believer in lunar cycle gardening which is an old mythological approach to gardening. The “science” of it is not very strong, but you can use the lunar cycles as a way to plan your gardening. But there are some scientific studies that suggest the changing gravity pull of the lunar cycle affects the water level in soils and even seed and plant cells.You can go look into that theory a bit here.

I plant based on my own calendars kept over many years of when things have sprouted, bloomed and yielded a harvest.

The ducks and geese never leave here for winter and they are grabbing the sprouting grass at the parks, golf courses, and around the ponds.  If you haven’t gotten the mower out yet and see some dandelions popping up and blooming, you might consider leaving them be for a while. They are one of the early flowers for the bees to feed on.

In the Neo-Pagan tradition, this is called the Awakening Moon.

Don’t forget that for anyone in the Southern Hemisphere this could be called the Harvest Moon or Hunter’s Moon.

All Kinds of Spring Breaks

green blue

Schools, both K12 and colleges, have been on spring breaks the past few weeks and maybe some are yet to break. It only took two true spring days in Paradelle for me to feel the sap rising in myself. I went outside and cleaned up around some flowerbeds. I started some flats of seeds. I got the garden hose out of the basement and turned on the water to outside.

The season will slap me with cold nights and frost and maybe even snow again, but it has all been put in motion and there is no turning back.

Spring cleaning is usually more associated with cleaning a house, but we clean out in other places and in other ways too.  Spring cleaning might be more of a ritual in cold winter climes, but it occurs in some way in every culture.

We use the term metaphorically for other kinds of cleaning or organizing activities. I read suggestions to do some tech spring cleaning.

There has been a lot of talk about Facebook, social media and privacy this past month.  One writer was suggesting that we may have too many online friends. He suggested some cleaning and pruning of “friends” that aren’t friends on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and elsewhere.

I see the point, but I won’t be doing that. For example, I have a lot of “poetry friends” in these networks. Some are people I know who are real life friends, but more of them are people I have met at a reading or workshop or only know as a name online will likely never meet in person. I see no reason to separate from them.

I have been editing Poets Online since 1998 and have had thousands of poems mailed to me as submissions. I know almost all of these poets only virtually, but some have been sending poems for 20 years. I know them by their poetry and I do feel connected to them.

This is also the season of the spring break. Usually that involves a beach, alcohol and general debauchery, though I also know of students who go on charitable missions, build homes for the poor and do personal pilgrimages.

What are we all taking a break from? The everyday. The madness. Our own overcrowded, overly materialistic days and life. Winter. School. Home. A path we see ourselves on that looks far too certain.

Like that technology spring cleaning, some suggest we take a tech break. Put away the computer, the phone and disconnect. It sounds like it might be renewing. It sounds like it might be painful.

The origin of spring cleaning is not certain. One possibility is the Persian New Year, Nowruz,  which falls on the first day of spring. Iranians have a practice of khooneh tekouni which has an interesting literal translation of “shaking the house.” It is a thorough cleaning done just before the new year, but I like the idea of shaking things up.

That cleaning makes me think of the ancient Jewish practice of thoroughly cleansing the home in anticipation of the springtime festival of Passover. This week-long observance is more than just cleaning the house and involves strict prohibitions in eating or drinking.

The Catholic church thoroughly cleans the church altar and everything associated with it on Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday, as part of another springtime observance. This religious cleansing is still observed in Greece and other Orthodox nations.

It has been nice the past few days to finally open the windows and “air out” the house.

Stravinsky’s ballet score “Le Sacre du Printemps” is a landmark in music. Its French and Russian (Vesna svyashchennaya) titles translate literally as The Coronation Of Spring, but its English title, “The Rite Of Spring,” is a bit stranger. This translation references a pagan ritual in which a sacrificial virgin dances herself to death. Please, none of you should get that seriously involved in celebrating spring.