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Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2001


Visual aromatherapy for tired execs

After visiting the current exhibition of corporate art at Shibuya's Bunkamura, I have arrived at a daring new explanation of Japan's economic downturn. But more on this later.

News photo
"Danseuses, rose et vert" (above), pastel on paper (1894) by Edgar Degas, and "Le Violoniste au mond reverse" (below), oil on canvas (1929) by Marc Chagall, from the collection of the Yoshino Gypsum Co.
News photo

During the bubble years, while Japanese companies were working flat out to take over the world economy, they were also greedily buying up much of the world's best art.

Since 1994, in a brave attempt to ensure that these works are not lost to the public eye, Bunkamura has been gathering the best art from company boardrooms and obscure corporate museums to show in a high-profile collection every few years.

Looking at the works in the current display, however, and comparing them with past exhibitions, it's very much a case of the usual suspects. As with the exhibitions in 1994 and 1997, this one includes Monets, Renoirs, Picassos and Chagalls aplenty.

The main difference is that while previous exhibitions gathered art from many different companies, this year's show is drawn from the collection of a single one, Yoshino Gypsum Co., a plaster-producing consortium based in Yamagata Prefecture.

Among the truly worthwhile pictures saved from relative obscurity by the exhibition are masterpieces like Monet's "Sous-bois dans la fore^t de Saint-Germain" (1882), showing a tunnel through the autumn leaves of a forest. This provided the perfect subject for the delicate, dabbed strokes of the Impressionist master, as did his wispy "Charing Cross Bridge, la Tamise" (1903), a picture that revels in the Impressionistic possibilities provided by a London riverscape with a hint of sunshine breaking through the drab Edwardian smog.

Another stunning work rightly redeemed is Degas' "Danseuses, rose et vert" (1894), the buffed pastel tones of which perfectly capture the unstudied poses of the young dancers caught in the oblique backstage light.

There is also a very impressive collection of 42 Chagall lithographs illustrating the pastoral romance of Daphnis and Chloe, as well as oils such as "Le Violoniste au mond reverse" (1929) that reveal Chagall's seemingly effortless ability to conjure up naive, dreamlike moods.

According to Noriko Takayama, one of the museum curators, the reason this one company managed to build up such an impressive collection was because it avoided the auction-room feeding frenzy of the bubble years, buying most of its works long before it became the norm for Japanese corporations to acquire art.

It is widely held that companies invest in art to shield their profits from taxation, while another motive would doubtless be the status conferred by ownership of great works of art. As for the choice of canvas, that would certainly be influenced -- and in privately owned companies, dictated -- by the tastes and whims of the person signing the checks, the company president.

That said, there does seem to be a certain uniformity to corporate art choices. Not only do many of the same artists crop up again and again, but there is also a common feeling or mood to the artworks.

"The aim of this collection is to cure and heal people," explains Takayama.

Reviewing this exhibition, as well as the catalogs for the previous two, one certainly does feel that corporate art may function as visual aromatherapy, chosen to help people relax. Delicate pictures of women and children, such as Renoir's "L'Enfance" (1891), abound. Alongside them hang soothing images of flowers, bodies of water and rustic vistas. Even the few urban scenes seem oddly idyllic, like Utrillo's picture-postcard renditions of a Paris strangely empty of tourists and pooping dogs.

Despite the fact that many of these artists were in their day considered revolutionary, there is nothing here that would nowadays raise the blood pressure or otherwise disturb or excite a hardworking and stressed-out executive. Everything seems designed to soothe and calm . . . leading one to suspect that the real reason for Japan's economic slowdown was the presence of too much tranquilizing art in the country's boardrooms.

"Corporate Art" runs till Dec. 24 at Bunkamura Museum of Art, Shibuya, Tokyo. Tel. (03) 3477-9252. Open 10 a.m.-7 p.m. (until 9 p.m. Fri. and Sat.) Admission: adults 1200 yen, university and high school students 800 yen, children 500 yen.

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