THE recent purchase of one of Vincent van Gogh's sunflower paintings for some $40 million startled the customarily unflappable art world as well as the general public. When it was announced that the purchaser was a Japanese insurance company, many wondered: Why would the Japanese want a Van Gogh? Yet this acquisition is the fulfillment of a century-long quest in Japan to acquire significant Western artworks. In fact, around 1921 a group of Tokyo painters struggled, unsuccessfully, to raise money to purchase works by Van Gogh, Paul C'ezanne, and Auguste Rodin, which they had hoped to study and exhibit to the many Japanese hungry to experience paintings and sculptures by the heroes of the Western art world. The story of these early 20th-century Japanese artists, the Western-style oil painters of Japan, is told in an exhibition currently on display (through Nov. 22) at the Washington University Gallery of Art in St. Louis. Titled ``Paris in Japan: The Japanese Encounter with European Painting,'' the show chronicles 26 Japanese artists who set out, from about 1890 to 1930, to create for Japan a modern, cosmopolitan art. Presenting 77 works drawn exclusively from Japan, the exhibition establishes a context for appreciating the longstanding Japanese love of Western, especially French, art.
By the turn of the century, Japanese painters were setting their sights on Paris, the mecca of the art world. These cultural astronauts arrived expecting to find the established academic traditions of the 'Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the French exemplar upon which their training in Japan was based. Instead, they found a French avant-garde - epitomized by Picasso and Matisse - that was discarding Western traditions. Yet the Japanese painters had already abandoned many of their cultural traditions to embrace Western art - for them all of Western art was the avant-garde, and Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht D"urer exerted an attraction equal to that of contemporary French art.
The personal histories of the two dozen artists presented in ``Paris in Japan'' vary tremendously. By some standards, Tsuguji Fujita was one of the most successful. He became so thoroughly assimilated into the Paris art world that he eventually became a French citizen, and his work is comparatively well known in Europe and America.
Others, like Yuzo Saeki - seen in Japan as a romantic hero comparable to Van Gogh - struggled to create an authentic response to the conjunction of Eastern and Western cultures. Exhorted by Maurice de Vlaminck to paint from his heart, not from academic rules, Saeki drifted between two cultures, a man without an artistic home, and ended a suicide.
Ryuzaburo Umehara's love of Renoir led him to travel to the south of France in 1909 to meet the Impressionist. Charmed by the talented youth, the French master accepted him as a student and lifelong friend. Umehara's self-portrait (1911) shows the influence of El Greco, whose work he studied in Toledo during a trip taken upon the advice of Picasso.
``The Black Fan,'' by Takeji Fujishima, is one of three works in this exhibition designated an ``important cultural property'' by the Japanese government. In Europe for five years (1905-10), Fujishima studied in Rome with the Frenchman Charles 'Emile Auguste Carolus-Duran. Carolus-Duran's admiration of Spanish painting is reflected in the bold brushwork and juxtapositions of dark and light tones in Fujishima's oil.
Shintaro Yamashita's ``Offering,'' 1915, gratifies Westerners with its likeness to Renoir. After showing works in the conservative Paris Salon exhibitions around 1908, Yamashita modified his academic style for the freer color and more informal brushwork of the Impressionists seen in ``Offering.''
Tetsugoro Yorozu never visited France. He learned about Van Gogh, C'ezanne, and the German Expressionists from magazines and verbal accounts passed between artists. In his ``Rural Landscape,'' circa 1912, the visceral presence of paint is comparable to Van Gogh's. The flames of cinnabar flashing in the trees, the thick confectionery pinks of the sky, and choppy brushstrokes defining the wind-swept field reveal an artist who transcended imitation to articulate a personal vision.
In the work of these artists, presented in ``Paris in Japan,'' one sees the aspirations of a society in rapid transition, the passion with which the Japanese sought inspiration from the West, and the powerful influences of Western civilization on Japan.
The show can be seen at the Japan Society Gallery in New York City from Dec. 11, 1987, to Feb. 7, 1988, and at UCLA's Wight Art Gallery in Los Angeles from Feb. 21 to April 3, 1988.
Gerald D. Bolas is the director of the Washington University Gallery of Art in St. Louis.
A painting reproduced on the upper right-hand corner of the Oct. 5 Home Forum page (``Why the Japanese love Van Gogh'') was incorrectly identified; the title of it is ``The Black Fan'' (1908-09), and it was painted by Takeji Fujishima.