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Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2001


Connoisseur's selection from the vaults

Times have certainly changed. Corporate art acquisition, once fueled by bubble-era prosperity, is now low down the list of boardroom priorities.

"Mother Playing With Child" by Henri-Edmond Cross (1898)
"Bathing Beach, Deauville" by Bernard Buffet (1959)
"Portrait of Dora Maar" by Picasso (1941)
"Marine" by Maurice de Vlaminck (ca. 1952)PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE MATSUOKA MUSEUM

In a happier era, real-estate tycoon Seiji Matsuoka (1894-1989) was the entrepreneur responsible for amassing one of Japan's finest corporate collections. The Matsuoka Museum in Tokyo is most renowned for its oriental treasures, including Chinese jade and ceramics, and Buddhist sculptures from India and Cambodia. But in his long life, Seiji proved that he had a discerning eye for a tasty piece of canvas as well.

He built up a collection, centered on French art, which forms the basis of the present exhibition: "Modern French Paintings From Impressionism to Ecole de Paris."

The loose title is reflected by the lack of any real structure in this exhibition, which instead affords the visitor a pleasurable trawl through treasures from this ever-popular seam of art.

The Ecole de Paris refers to a variety of post-Impressionist movements, embracing trends such as Fauvism, Cubism and Surrealism. Thus Picasso's angular "Portrait of Dora Maar" shares wall space with classic Renoir voluptuousness, exemplified by "The Rhone and the Saone" (1915), an oil painting that personifies the junction of the two watercourses as a marriage between river gods.

"I never feel I have finished a nude," Renoir once said, "until I think I could pinch it." Pinchability may not be a valid category for art criticism, but it is appealingly exemplified here in another of the artist's works, "Portrait of Lucian Daudet" (1879), which shows a toddler whose plump, innocent cheeks just beg to be pinched.

For those who know what they like, there are also several fine Monets, including "Path in Normandy" (1868), showing a beautiful country road captured in the dull, flat light of dusk that is so evocative of moods of pause and mental reflection.

The radical stylistic developments that followed Impressionism mean that even among the mere 40 paintings on display, there are wild fluctuations in style. The early Impressionism of Monet and Renoir gives way to the Pointillism of Henri-Edmond Cross' "Mother Playing With Child" (1898) and the post-Impressionism of Paul Signac's "The Port of St. Tropez" (1923), as well as the naive dreamscapes of Marc Chagall and the powerful expressionism of Maurice de Vlaminck's seascape, "Marine" (ca. 1952).

Added to the intrinsic delights of these paintings is the pleasure of finding them on display at all. When Japanese corporations dominated the auction rooms in the 1970s and '80s, many fine paintings disappeared into the oblivion of boardrooms and bank vaults.

Some, like those displayed here, resurfaced in various small or medium-size company-financed museums like the Matsuoka, which remain little known to the general public.

While it is reassuring that these quality works are accessible to the public, however, one legacy of corporate art collecting remains in the overprotectiveness with which they are treated. Putting paintings in glass display cases more suited to fragile ceramics smacks of an attitude that sees artworks as investments to be sheltered from the public rather than objects of beauty deserving maximum exposure.

The deadening of aesthetic impact that glass has on oil paintings is only emphasized by the few works at the Matsuoka Museum that are exhibited unglazed, such as Jean-Baptiste Guillaumin's "Saint-Julien-des-Chazes" (ca. 1895), which offers the viewer a scene of exquisitely sparkling snow. For the most part, as I attempted to shade out distracting reflections, I found myself standing embarrassingly close to the glass while holding my breath.

The bite of recession, however, is forcing companies to be protective of their assets of all kinds. I had a hard time securing my reviewer's complimentary catalog on leaving -- a close-fisted attitude that contrasts with the open-handed spending that once built up the museum's impressive collection. A final sign of our corporate hard times?

"Modern French Paintings From Impressionism to Ecole de Paris," until Sept. 23 at the Matsuoka Museum of Art, (03) 5449-0251, 5-12-6 Shirokanedai, Minato-ku, a 5-minute walk from Shirokanedai Station on the Nanboku subway line. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Monday. 800 yen, students 500 yen.

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