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Wednesday, June 27, 2001

Unleashing the power of color

Vibrations of light from the beginning of the 20th century

The keynote of the ongoing exhibition at the Yasuda Kasai Museum in Shinjuku is the brilliance and vividness of color.

"Lady in a Yellow Straw Hat" by Alexel von Jawlensky (1910), oil on cardboard

Featuring painters associated with Fauvism and German Expressionism, the show includes 87 works of astounding color from the extensive collection built up by Werner Merzbacher, a wealthy Zurich-based fur merchant and financier.

In view of the fact that both Merzbacher's parents died in a Nazi concentration camp, the importance of color as a symbol of life cannot be overstated. Steven Spielberg, when he came to shoot "Schindler's List," felt that color was an inappropriate medium for the Holocaust, and so filmed the movie in black and white. Seen in this light, Merzbacher's obsession with intensely colored pictures suddenly makes enormous sense.

But regardless of the collector's possible motives, color is also a profound force that has often been neglected by artists, who have traditionally viewed it as an auxiliary element of their work. This idea began to change with the Impressionists.

Technological advances in chemistry in the late 19th century meant that the painter's palette was immeasurably enriched. Among the new colors available were mauves, violets, bright greens, oranges and intense yellows. Intent on optical verisimilitude, Impressionists like Monet and Sisley endeavored to capture the vibrations of light by applying these brilliant, new colors unmixed onto the canvas in tiny dots and strokes that energized the surface of their works.

"Jeanne Hebuterne Sitting" by Amedeo Modigliani (1918), oil on canvas

Sisley's "Willows on the Banks of the Orvanne" (1883) and van Gogh's "Garden with Weeping Willow" reveal this technique and show the trend toward bolder strokes of unmixed color that was to result in the startling works of the Fauvists.

Inspired by van Gogh and led by the young Henri Matisse, the Fauvists believed in color as an emotional force rather than a descriptive tool. Andre Derain's "Boats in the Port of Collioure" (1905), painted at a small Mediterranean port in the very year that Fauvism broke upon the art world, uses bold strokes of unmixed color to create light rather than merely imitating it, while retaining a sense of the picturesque location.

Maurice de Vlaminck's "Potato Pickers" (1905-07), shows an even bolder use of unmixed colors, with rigid heavy strokes that suggest that this new direction had already been exhausted. Accordingly, Emile-Orthon Friesz's "The Beak of the Eagle, La Ciotat" (1906-07) went in the opposite direction, blending and softening the rich colors to transform a scene from the French countryside into a beautiful, tropical dreamscape.

Around the same time, a group of expressionist artists in Germany, inspired by Munch as well as van Gogh, founded Die Brucke (The Bridge). Although this group shared the vibrant colors and emotionally distorted forms of their French counterparts, they were distinguished by their sense of angst over modern society. This led to confused and garish works that often disturb the viewer, such as Erich Heckel's "Red Roofs" (1909) where the blood red of the roof tiles is allowed to flood the heavens.

Perhaps the most accomplished painter associated with German Expressionism was the Russian, Wassili Kandinsky, who did his best work in Germany. Despite their garish and vibrant colors, works like "Murnau -- Kohlgruberstrasse" (1908) and "Autumn Landscape with Boats" (1908) show an almost musical sense of harmony.

Kandinsky was himself an accomplished musician who believed that color and music were essentially linked. He associated tone with timbre (the character of a sound), hue with pitch, and saturation with the volume of sound. He also claimed that when he saw color he heard music.

After creating these masterpieces, however, his theories increasingly got the better of him and he lost himself in abstractions like the baffling "Angel of the Last Judgement" (1911), a picture where color overwhelms the form.

The reverse side of the liberation of color was the dissolution of form. Those pictures that work best at this exhibition are those that manage to liberate color without allowing it to become a tyrant.

"The Merzbacher Collection -- the Joy of Color" runs until Jul. 22 at the Seiji Togo Memorial Yasuda Kasai Museum of Art (03) 3349-3081 in Nishi Shinjuku. Open 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Mon. Admission is 1,000 yen for adults, 600 yen for students, free for children.

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