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Thursday, Nov. 3, 2005


Pushkin delivers the goods

Special to The Japan Times

It's no secret what the mainstream art public really like -- soft, flowery Impressionism and cute, colorful Post-impressionism, with, possibly, a smattering of Picassos and Matisses thrown in to add grit. Hold a show with this kind of art, and you'll have to hang the paintings high so that people can see them more easily in the crowd.

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Gauguin's "Her Name was Vairaumati" (1892)

Unfortunately such paintings are in demand all over the world, and, since Sept. 11 led to a spike in insurance and shipping costs, really satisfying exhibitions of this ilk have been hard to come by. Even the recent Van Gogh exhibition at the National Museum of Modern Art had to make do with less than 30 oils by the artist.

As project planner Daisuke Kusakari says, "There actually was a break, not only because the cost of insurance was affected, but also storage and carriage charges . . . These kind of exhibitions have carried large financial risk, so we've hesitated to follow them through recently."

Imagine, then, what a shot in the arm "Masterworks of French Impressionism and Modernism from the Pushkin Museum" must be. With 75 works (including about 50 oils) by artists such as Degas, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Sisley, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Rousseau, Bonnard, Signac, Matisse, Derain, Gauguin, Vlaminck, Braque, and Picasso, this is an exhibition that gives the public what they really want.

Not only are all the big names in town, but most are represented by important works, like Renoir's lyrical "In the Garden" (1876), Monet's iconic "White Water Lilies" (1899) and Matisse's vibrant "Goldfish" (1912). For those wary of susceptibility to brand names, including with artists, it is heartening to see that the public isn't being fobbed off with a collection of autographed daubs, doodles, or half-finished studies as has happened before at Van Gogh, Picasso and Matisse exhibitions (although there are one or two of these as well).

If Impressionism and early Modernism is the public's drug of choice, clearly there is a new high quality supplier in town, temporarily flooding the market with the goods that will make art lovers' heads spin.

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Vuillard's "Interior" (1904)

Traditionally Japanese museums have relied on a "French connection" or other western European or American sources for this kind of art. But with these supplies now disrupted, Japanese curators and project planners, like Kusakari who worked on this exhibition for the Asahi Shimbun's Cultural Projects Department, have been forced to look further afield, in this case, blazing a trail to Moscow's still relatively neglected Pushkin Museum.

"It's very hard to work over there," Kusakari says of his visits to the Russian capital to arrange loans. "It's not convenient, because, unlike dealing with Western institutions, where there is a common way of doing things, they haven't quite got used to dealing with us yet. Sometimes, even after ordering a painting beforehand, we have to check later to see if it is still available."

No doubt such difficulties are a hangover from the days of Soviet rule, when red tape was as hard to surmount as the Berlin Wall. Indeed, it even seems strange that such a collection as this ever passed through the hands of a Soviet system that claimed to loathe all things bourgeois; these paintings are the perfect expression of the markedly un-Communist tastes of the original collectors, Sergei Shchukin (1854-1936) and Ivan Morozov (1871-1921), two Moscow merchants engaged in the textile industry whose separate private collections were confiscated around 1918 and placed in the Pushkin Museum.

It is difficult to imagine how lush depictions of opulence, like Edouard Vuillard's "Interior" (1904) or the exotic decadence of Paul Gauguin's "Her Name was Vairaumati" (1892), squared with the Spartan drabness and strident propaganda of the new "worker's paradise." Indeed, it's tempting to think that the decision by the revolutionary authorities to retain such outstanding works of bourgeois taste helped to foster the culture of corruption that slowly ate away at the resolve of the USSR and led to its ultimate collapse.

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Renoir's "In the Garden" (1876)

But nowadays these works have the effect of confirming and strengthening the dominant taste for what is, after all, a narrow band of Western art. Due to the problems Japanese museums faced acquiring such art, they had been willing to experiment and present a greater range of Western works to the public. For example, earlier this year, the Yokohama Museum of Art featured "Masterpieces from the Louvre Museum," an exhibition that focused entirely on paintings that pre-dated the Impressionists. Likewise, the National Museum of Western Art cast its spotlight on the under-appreciated 17th century French baroque painter, Georges de La Tour.

It's hard to believe that either museum would have explored these avenues of art if there had been a ready supply of good Monets, Renoirs, and Matisses knocking about.

But doesn't an exhibition like this then serve to limit the Japanese public to art it already adores rather than expose it to something less familiar? While agreeing in part, Kusakari believes that the main priority for Japanese museums is to attract visitors by providing shows they are interested in seeing.

"In my opinion, the Japanese public is not really used to going to museums," he says. "Every museum is suffering from financial cuts, so we have to build up an audience that frequently visits museums. I believe this show will influence people positively, and bring lots of first-time visitors to the museum."

With an exhibition of this quality, this may well be true, but it should be remembered that first impressions count for more and, in this case, could prove habit forming. Giving the public a glut of such delicious art runs the risk of ruining their appetites for anything less accessible and immediately gratifying.

"Masterworks of French Impressionism and Modernism from the Pushkin Museum" is at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, 8-36 Ueno Koen, Taito-ku, in Ueno Park till Dec. 18; open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday; 1,400 yen admission. For more information, call (03) 3823-6921. From Tokyo, the exhibition will move to the National Museum of Art, Osaka, Jan. 11-April 2, 2006.

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