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Wednesday, May 8, 2002

The intoxication of Maurice Utrillo

Painting as therapy produced a master of the Parisian cityscape

Special to The Japan Times

Paris is a city of the mind. In addition to its reputation for intellectualism, it is one of the few cities of which almost everyone has some mental picture. And even though these images sometimes prove to be romanticized, Paris is nevertheless indisputably picturesque.

News photo
"Rue Saint-Rustique" (1921)
News photo
"Maison de Jeanne d'Arc à Dorémy" (1934) by Maurice Utrillo

Perhaps no painter better captured both the reality and romance of Paris than Maurice Utrillo (1883-1955), whose beautiful and unassuming works, now on display at the Yasuda Kasai Museum in Shinjuku, belie the tempestuous story of his life.

Widely regarded as the premier urban landscape artist of the 20th century, one of Utrillo's strengths was his "unintellectual" approach to art. His contemporaries wrestled with new "-isms" -- Fauvism, Cubism and Expressionism -- and subscribed to the intellectualized concepts of the School of Paris, a wide-ranging cosmopolitan movement that dominated the French art scene in the early 20th century. Yet Utrillo was happy to paint prosaic but beautiful scenes, such as "L'Eglise de Saint-Medard a Paris" (1906), that reveal an unpretentious mastery of color and a reassuring solidity of composition.

The painting's sobriety -- its only "-ism" a hint of Impressionism -- perhaps suggests that its creator possessed a conservative and reserved personality. Nothing could be further from the truth. Utrillo was a mentally unstable alcoholic prone to outbursts of intense rage. "His life was like a novel or a drama," explains Shoko Kobayashi, the show's curator. In fact, Utrillo had first turned to painting as occupational therapy, on the advice of a doctor. He kept going when he realized that he had a talent that could pay for his next drink.

Such unorthodox motivation ensured a refreshing absence of critical self-consciousness in Utrillo's work -- he was even happy to use postcards as the source of some of his paintings, especially those depicting non-Parisian scenes.

Of illegitimate birth and neglected in his upbringing, Utrillo's career as a painter seems a clear case of nature's triumph over nurture. His mother, Suzanne Valadon, was an artists' model who had herself become an accomplished painter. Clearly he had inherited strong artistic and individualist instincts that helped him to produce impressive paintings that owed little to to either his mother's style or the favored movements of the day.

Just as he ignored the leading lights of the art capital, Utrillo also ignored its great architectural monuments. The only one we see at this exhibition is the gleaming white, elongated dome of the Church of the Sacred Heart in Montmartre where Utrillo lived. In "Rue Saint-Rustique" (1921), it rises above the rooftops, its distant bulk balancing the diminishing perspective of the narrow lane.

One senses that Utrillo preference was for the back streets of Paris, with their winding lanes, little squares and lop-sided buildings. Works like "Rue" (1912-14), a winding lane near one of his drinking haunts, done in rough textures and earthy brown, and "Maison de Jeanne d'Arc a Domremy" (1934), a sketchy but charming gouache, reveal a painter determined to eschew artistic fireworks.

This is not to say his paintings lack effects. Viewed collectively, as at this exhibition, they slowly exert an uncanny magic. This is connected to one of the most interesting yet overlooked aspects of his art, his treatment of the human figure.

Although Utrillo painted city scenes, there is a marked absence of people in his works. Those cursory figures he does include are usually female and moving away in the distance. Kobayashi admits that loneliness was an important factor in Utrillo's psychological make up: "It's sometimes said that the figure of the retreating woman represents his mother. When he was growing up, he was very lonely because his mother was socially popular and neglected him."

Looking at these retreating figures in picture after picture creates a palpable sense of human absence. The viewer is forced to compensate by unwittingly anthropomorphizing the buildings: the Sacred Heart seems to peep at us over rooftops. In "Chartreuse de Neuville sous Montreuil" (1923), a homely church seems to look at us with an almost human face, through branches still glistening with autumn colors. This unearthly effect, rather than his lifetime of drunkenness, is the true intoxication of Utrillo.

"Exposition Maurice Utrillo" runs till June 9 at the Seiji Togo Memorial Yasuda Kasai Museum of Art, 42F Yasuda Kasai Building, near the West Exit of Shinjuku Station; (03) 3349-3081. Open 9:30 a.m. - 5 p.m (Friday until 7 p.m.), closed Monday. Admission: adults 1,000 yen, students 600 yen; children admitted free.

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