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Friday, April 16, 2010

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Old yet new: The Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum, which opened last week in Marunouchi, is housed in a faithful recreation of a 1894 building that was designed by British architect Josiah Conder. Its inaugural exhibition, "Manet et le Paris moderne" (below), runs till July 25. EDAN CORKILL PHOTOS

Building a new history in Tokyo

Staff writer

The first thing that occurs to you as you survey the dark wooden floorboards, high skirting boards, deep-colored walls, fireplaces and — until July 25 — the selection of Eduoard Manet paintings at the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum in Marunouchi, Tokyo, is that on entering this grand redbrick building you must have been transported, somehow, to Europe.

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The experience seems utterly foreign, utterly 19th century and — considering you're actually in the middle of Tokyo's central business district and the year is 2010 — utterly surreal.

And yet, Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum is not to be confused with those comically kitsch examples of cultural transplantation for which Japan is famous — facilities such as Nagasaki's Dutch-themed amusement park, Huis Ten Bosch, for example.

Far from it; the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum might be new, but it is also genuinely old — 116 years old, in fact. In a district that has seen several waves of redevelopment over the last century, that makes it one of the only buildings with any claim to historical significance (another is Tokyo Station, which is currently undergoing renovations).

The story of how the "new" Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum came to open its doors on April 6, 2010, is so odd that it needs to be spelled out plainly. In 1890, British architect Josiah Conder, who had been invited to Japan by the Meiji Government to instruct on Western building techniques in 1877, was commissioned by the Mitsubishi conglomerate to create the first office building in what they had decided would become the nation's first modern business district.

The Mitsubishi Ichigokan (Mitsubishi No. 1 Building) opened in 1894 and stayed open until 1968. During that time a wave of similar redbrick buildings came and then vanished, most in the early 1960s, as they became aged and outdated.

Ichigokan was demolished by Mitsubishi Estate (the successor of the conglomerate's real-estate arm) in 1968 — despite calls by the Architectural Institute of Japan for it to be preserved.

The life-stories of most buildings end with their demolition. Not so for the Ichigokan. Come 2004 and Mitsubishi Estate announced that it would reconstruct the building, adding, in their annual report of 2005, that "we aim to restore the site to its original splendor . . . in light of its historical significance as the wellspring for Marunouchi over the past century."

Mitsubishi Estate won't disclose how much it cost them to faithfully recreate an 1894 structure in 2010. (They do say they gathered 100 bricklayers from around the country to lay the building's 2.3 million China-sourced bricks and that they "base-isolated" the entire structure at its foundations to make it earthquake resistant.) That considered, it seems safe to characterize their decision as a significantly costly but unambiguous rebuke of the way of thinking that dominated Japan during the period of the so-called economic miracle — namely that economic development trumped everything else, including history and culture.

Nowadays, of course, history and culture are all the rage — or at least they were in the early '00s, when Mitsubishi Estate made the decisions to reconstruct the building and then turn it into a museum.

"These efforts will lead to the creation of new attractions based on the area's history, arts and other cultural assets," says the company's 2007 Annual Report. "Leveraging each of these attractions, (the Mitsubishi Estate Group's) goal is to create a richer and more fulfilling city life."

No explanation is given as to why an art museum was chosen (as opposed to, say, a concert hall), although it is interesting to note that at the very time Mitsubishi Estate was making these decisions, two of its chief rivals, Mori Building and Mitsui Fudosan, incorporated art museums within major redevelopment projects in central Tokyo (the Mori Art Museum within Roppongi Hills and the Suntory Museum of Art within Tokyo Midtown).

It is hard to escape the conclusion that in the small window of economic prosperity that opened between the stagnation of the 1990s and the economic crash of 2008, Japanese developers arrived at — and acted on — the belief that culture, and in particular art, was an essential ingredient to large-scale, multipurpose property developments.

Once it was decided that the new building would become a museum, the details likely fell into place. Ichigokan is devoted to art from the 19th century, a decision the validity of which becomes clear the moment you walk inside.

Although the building has the generously high ceilings (more than 3 meters) that characterized the architecture of Conder and his contemporaries, its galleries are small in comparison with the giant white cubes that are these days preferred to accommodate contemporary art's unwieldy installations and video projections.

But the smaller scale paintings and ornate frames of the 19th century are a delightful fit for the cozy Ichigokan interiors. The museum has a collection of posters and lithographs by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, which was once owned by the artist's dealer, Maurice Joyant, and was purchased recently by Mitsubishi Estate.

In the future, the Toulouse-Lautrec works will be featured in one of the three to four temporary shows planned to be held annually. Until July 25 this year, all of the museum's 800 sq. meters of gallery space is given over to an Eduoard Manet exhibition curated with the cooperation of the Musee d'Orsay in Paris.

T he Ichigokan's inaugural exhibition, "Manet et le Paris moderne" is impressive and clever — even if any claims it might have had to comprehensiveness are undermined by the absence of the artist's two most famous paintings, both from 1863: "The Luncheon on the Grass," which depicts two clothed men picnicking with a naked woman, and "Olympia," showing a coquettish nude.

Exhibition curator Akiya Takahashi (who is also the museum's first director) starts by showing documents and drawings that place Manet, who was born in 1832, within the context of civic planner Georges-Eugene Haussmann's famed mid-19th century revitalization of Paris. The obvious intention is to draw parallels between Paris' government-led urban transformation and Mitsubishi Estate's largely private attempt at changing Marunouchi. (The Ichigokan project is just a fraction of a larger, decades-long attempt at urban improvement.)

Given the difference in scale and vision, it's a slightly disingenuous attempt, but it does help place Manet's work in perspective. After all, it was within this era of French "big government" that the state-sanctioned Salon exhibitions to which the painter aspired reached the peak of their influence.

Famously, however, the sexual innuendo of Manet's works (nudes were only permissible if they were made historically remote) and also his deliberately coarse brushwork (shadows were often reduced to splotches of black) made them unpalatable to the French establishment. Having been excluded from several shows, Manet soon became a champion of a slightly younger group of rebellious artists, who later became known as the Impressionists.

The Ichigokan exhibition includes dozens of large paintings by Manet, the majority from the late 1860s-1870s when he was applying his casual brushwork to depicting scenes from the everyday lives of Parisians in cafes, cars, restaurants, beaches and parks. In comparison with the labored realism that was common in the day, his ability to convey depths of emotion in subjects' facial expressions, while at the same time making his own presence felt in the form of thick brushmarks, was revolutionary, and it continues to impress today. (Judging from the current vogue for soft-focus figurative painting, it is clear that his work continues to influence painters these days, too.)

Manet died in 1883, aged 51. Of course, he would have been unaware at his death that 6 years earlier the young architect Conder had been invited to Japan. And, likewise, he wouldn't have known that a decade later that same architect would create a building that, in its second life, over a century later, would form the perfect venue for an exhibition of his paintings.

"Manet et le Paris moderne" at Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum runs till July 25; admission ¥1,500; open 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Wed. Thu. and Fri., till 6 p.m Tue., Sat., and Sun. For more information, visit mimt.jp

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