Van Gogh’s bridge to Japan

Why are bridges so fascinating?

Bridges hold a special place in every culture. They are a means to cross  from one place to another; over a hazard, a dangerous river or chasm. So bridges are both a connection and a marker for a division. When you step off the land onto a bridge you are in a space between where you have been and where you are going. Metaphorically, bridges can cross the gulf between cultures and across history.

Many cities have iconic bridges: Venice has the Bridge of Sighs, London has Tower Bridge, San Francisco has the Golden Gate, Sydney has the Harbour Bridge and Paris has Pont Neuf.

Van Gogh’s Pont Langlois

Vincent van Gogh went to Arles in search of Japan – according to David Dale, author of A traveller’s alphabet of essential places.
In reality, he was looking for the light and colours that he saw in Japanese prints, and he found them in Arles. This post is about how we bridged the distance between France and Japan through Van Gogh’s paintings.

Van Gogh's Pont de Langlois [wikipedia - Kröller Müller]

Van Gogh’s Pont de Langlois [wikipedia – Kröller Müller]

Vincent van Gogh did several versions of the Pont Langlois bridge at Arles in southern France. The original bridge traversed the Arles-to-Bouc canal. It was a simple but functional drawbridge enabling canal boats to pass underneath when raised. A series of these bridges were built along the canal in the first half of the 19th century. The one nearest Arles was called Pont de Réginel but was more popularly known for its keeper, Monsieur Langlois – hence it was known as Langlois’ bridge.

Finding the Langlois Bridge

I had heard that the bridge was still around and could be seen today. Actually, that’s not quite true, as we found. The original bridge became structurally unsound and was replaced in the 1930s by a concrete bridge. That, in turn, was destroyed by retreating Germans in 1944. They destroyed all but one of the bridges along the canal, leaving only the one at Fos sur Mer. This was one of the original bridges on the canal and was the same design as the one Van Gogh painted in 1888. In 1959 the Fos bridge was dismantled with a view to relocating it at the site of the Langlois bridge, but the canal had since been widened and it was decided to move it to its current location near the Montcalde Lock. It is not easy to find. You can find it here [Google maps link].

pont de Van Gogh, Arles France. [photo Jerry Everard]

Pont Van Gogh, Arles France. [photo Jerry Everard]

It took a few goes and finally, we turned down a little side street on the outskirts of the town and there was Pont Van-Gogh – its new name – restored to working order. Some might consider it a reproduction or a fake. But since it is from the original series and contemporary with the Langlois bridge, I think it is close enough. I was struck by how accurately Van Gogh represented the structure. You can see how he faithfully reproduced the chains, support beams and pulleys for raising the bridge.

He painted four oil paintings and one watercolour of the bridge and completed a number of drawings.

This version is in the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam.

Langlois Bridge

Langlois Bridge [source: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam]

The link with Tokyo

Little did I realise that this bridge was a key to his link with Japan. In the late nineteenth century, Europe was Japan crazy. High quality lacquer furniture, boxes, ceramics and pottery were being exported to Europe by the shipload. As it turns out, many of these were wrapped in fine paper prints, some by famous Japanese artists. Others, like the prints of Japanese women were adverts for Geishas or high class escorts. Around 1857, Hiroshige – a Japanese artist of the Edo period – published a book in Japan called One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. This was soon after the great 1855 earthquake that had destroyed many key buildings in what is today called Tokyo. It was a record of the rebuilding, and of the surviving structures. At the time, it was the largest such collection. 

Hiroshige's Sudden Shower over Shin-Ōhashi bridge and Atake

Hiroshige’s Sudden Shower over Shin-Ōhashi bridge and Atake [photo – Jerry Everard]

The post-impressionists were inspired to look differently at the world through the different perspective and flat use of colour in these images. Van Gogh amassed a large collection of Japanese woodblock prints. One such print was of the Edo period bridge that led into the Emperor’s palace in the centre of what we now call Tokyo. Hiroshige’s depiction of the bridge in a sudden storm, with its elegant lines and unusual foreshortening, inspired Van Gogh to paint a copy.

 And this is Van Gogh’s version:

Van Gogh copy in oil of Hiroshige's Sudden Shower over Shin-Ōhashi bridge and Atake. [photo-Jerry Everard]

Van Gogh copy in oil of Hiroshige’s Sudden Shower over Shin-Ōhashi bridge and Atake. [photo-Jerry Everard]

Edo Bridge

We found this connection in Tokyo, at the Edo-Tokyo Museum – which has a full-size replica of the Edo bridge. It is extraordinary and surprising how connections turn up in the places you least expect. Here is my photo of the replica bridge in Tokyo:

Replica Edo-Tokyo bridge at the Edo-Tokyo museum, Tokyo. [photo - Jerry Everard]

Replica Edo-Tokyo bridge at the Edo-Tokyo museum, Tokyo. [photo – Jerry Everard]

From a painting in the Musee d’Orsay, to a bridge in the South of France where Van Gogh sought to connect with his vision of Japan seen through a print of a bridge, we found an extraordinary connection with a reproduction bridge in a museum in Tokyo. This is what makes travel so worthwhile!

What connections have you made across the world in unexpected places? Let us know in the comments below…

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Five reasons to record your travels

Have you ever returned from a trip only to find that after a few days it all seems like a dream? My first trip overseas was like that – I was mainly relying on my memory and just a few notes, primarily to record my costs. With that and a few hurried snapshots, it was hard to recapture the feelings I had towards these experiences.

Contrast that with my recent long trip to Europe in which I kept a journal – not just the factual stuff, but what it felt like to sit in a Greek amphitheatre, and how the food tasted at the night cafe painted by Vincent Van Gogh, the smells of lavender and freshly baked baguette on the air, and the sound recording I made of the railway announcements in France – I can still hear the musical opening chimes in my head as I write this. What is different? I have learned over the past few years to really observe the place I was in. Which brings me to the first reason:

Night Cafe - painted by Vincent Van Gogh

Night Cafe – painted by Vincent Van Gogh

1. To observe and therefore really see – with all your senses

There is a lot to take in when you arrive at a new place – your senses are assaulted by strange signs, the smell of food and traffic, the sounds of an unfamiliar language or accent, the feel of cobblestones under your feet – so much to take in!

Where to start? For me I take out the camera. Nothing has taught me to look better than using a camera. It doesn’t have to be anything special – but the act of framing a shot forces you to really look at something. It might be the Eiffel Tower – but equally it could be the sewer cover in the road. As soon as you are framing a subject in the viewfinder the key thing is that at that moment you are taking time to look.

I make a point of taking time out in coffee shops on the street and try to imagine myself as a local, watching the harried tourists trying to see everything and seeing nothing. And I take out a notebook and just try to capture what I’m feeling, or how the coffee tastes – noting what feels different, as well as what seems to be universal. Already, within hours I’m starting to see how the culture around me operates.

2. To make sense of the experience
It is important, no matter how short the trip, to take time out and savour the moment. You don’t have to be a philosopher, but why travel if not to make sense of who you are and where you fit, and where your cultural ancesters came from. By making a record of your trip you are taking time out for reflection, and to process the experience. If you leave it until you get home, you will have lost ninety percent of how it felt to be a stranger. Just as we all take ‘selfies’ – take time to write yourself into the experience – and live your own history.

Wine and food

Where are my glasses?

3. To keep you focused

This is related, but it is also about reminding yourself of the fact that you have achieved something that day – you saw that museum, you met that interesting person. I would like to stress that it is not a box-ticking exercise – been there, done that, bought the postcard. But rather it is about remembering why you are there – in THAT place. What did you plan to see or do? Have you done that? Have you recorded that event in some way – a photo, a sketch, a note, a sound-bite?

4. To have an archive for future reference/reflection

The learning doesn’t have to end when you return home – take time to reflect. Watch the video footage, process those photos, re-read your thoughts and re-live the experience. This will reinforce the reality of the trip and will trigger a new assessment of your sense of place in the world. Now you arrive home – what strikes you as different? You have seen how others live – does anything seem strange about your own city? That is called growth – you have added to your history and your sense of self – far more than a quick tweet or facebook post.

5. to inspire the next

Once you have travelled, if you have really taken in the experience, use your record to inspire your next trip. You survived the strangeness, you survived the loss of your bag, and you survived the strange food – and somehow you even managed to communicate and navigate in a strange language. Where are you going next? Are there places you visited that you now wish to return to to get a deeper, richer taste? Use your record to inspire you to take on your next adventure!

Hotel de Ville, Paris

Hotel de Ville, Paris

I’ll get into the specifics of how I capture it in a future post 🙂 In the meantime – let me know in the comments below, how you record your trips!