Thursday, September 18, 2014

Hokusai and the French Impressionists

18 September 2014

We decided to be really brave today and headed to Ueno Park, far and away from Shinagawa, and on a totally different train line than we've been travelling on for the past few days.  It turned out to be very adventurous, since we had to take a different train line than we thought we were taking.  And, just to confuse things more, it turns out that the train line we've been taking, the Tokaido line, exists in reality but is nowhere on any of the maps.  So we have no idea what the route is, or how we've managed to go anywhere.  Rather funny, but it just adds to our general confusion.

Anyway, Ueno Park (pronounced oo-WEH-no) is where the zoo is located, as well as several of the major art museums in Tokyo.  We did a bit of research and settled on one museum, though there was a second museum I wanted to visit for a special show.  So I started in the Ueno Royal Museum (and I would add their link, but it's all in Japanese) for a special exhibit of art by Katsushika Hokusai, one of the best known Japanese artists.

Hokusai (1760 - 1849) is most famous for his wood-block prints, though he started with pen and ink brush painting or watercolor painting, and moved to wood blocks later on his career.  His "Views of Mount Fuji" is probably his best known series, especially "The Great Wave."  This particular exhibit featured his artwork housed at the Boston Museum of Fine Art, so these pieces are rarely seen in Japan, at least in person.  (I know, paintings aren't usually referred to as being seen in person.  But for artists, each painting is alive and like an individual person - so yes, when I see an original painting, I feel I am seeing it in person.)

Of course, these were all paintings or original prints on paper, which is rather fragile.  So photos aren't allowed.  (Plus there are the usual ownership issues which impact what is allowed to be photographed.)  The photos of Hokusai's works are all lifted from the internet, so you can see some of his art.  

It was interesting to see the development of his artwork; his early works were more traditional, showing one or two figures with a hint of background, and maybe a few colors.  As he became more proficient, Hokusai added more and more fine detail, until his artwork became known for showing the lives of everyday Japanese people going about their daily activities, but focusing on the beauty of the landscape surrounding those human activities.  So a view of Mt. Fuji might include peasants harvesting rice, or building a house, or walking across a bridge in the rain, with Fuji a small blip on the horizon.  

I couldn't read the information or signs (mostly in Japanese) so instead of walking around in an orderly fashion like the multitude of Japanese visitors, I wandered around and looked at the art over the heads of the crowds.  I'm not tall, but I'm taller than the average Japanese person, so I could easily see everything and not wait for the people in front to shuffle onward to the next picture.

There also were example wood blocks to demonstrate the process of making a print.  Most printing is done where the ink goes into the cut in part (referred to as intaglio printing from the Italian intagliare, to engrave).  So you scratch or engrave the picture, like drawing with a stylus.  But in wood block printing, the raised part is inked, so what you cut away is what you don't want to print - basically, cutting away what will stay blank on the paper.  Also, each color to be printed needs a separate block.  And they all need to line up for the picture to work.

You can imagine how much work is involved in each picture, and how difficult it is to get everything to come out the way you want it to.  Not an easy art form at all.  Plus everything Hokusai did was done by hand, no machines or electricity involved which makes modern art-making so much easier.

It was a privilege to see this artwork in the country in which it was created.

I took a little break to walk around Ueno Park before heading to the next museum, just to get some fresh air and clear my head.  Ueno is a lovely park, with shrines and sculptures and flowers.  Plus their own decorative manhole cover.  And a woman walking around in a kimono, looking like she stepped out of a Hokusai painting.

After a short walk through the park, I headed over to the National Museum of Western Art to meet Richard.  I know, it sounds odd, doesn't it?  Most national museums feature art of that nation.  I wondered how this museum came to exist and house major works of western art, especially some of the French Impressionists.  And I found this information at the front: 

"The National Museum of Western Art was established in 1969 with the aim of housing and displaying the Matsukata Collection, was returned to Japan by the French government.

"The founder of the Matsukata Collection, Kojiro Matsukata (1865-1950), was the son of a politician of the Meiji period.  Kojiro Matsukata went to America for further studies, obtaining a JD in law from Yale University.  He traveled through Europe enroute to Japan...... and began to collect artworks in London in the middle of WWI; he had made a fortune in his shipbuilding business during the war, which allowed him to build a vast collection of artworks.....  His entire collection is purported to have reached 10,000 works.  His passionate collecting was not meant for his personal pleasure; rather, it came from an unselfish desire to build an art museum on his own and to put authentic European artworks on view for the benefit of young Japanese artists. 

"Matsukata carried part of his collection back to Japan and was planning to build a museum to house his collection.....  However, this dream did not come true, his plans were disrupted by the economic crisis of 1927, in which Kawasaki Dockyard’s major bank collapsed.  Matsukata resigned as president and was forced to dispose of his own property to sustain his company in crisis; the artworks he had brought to Japan were sold in a series of auctions during the following years and were thus dispersed.

"Although Matsukata had left a large number of artworks in Europe, those stored in a London warehouse were destroyed in a fire in 1939, and the details of that loss cannot be confirmed.  Meanwhile, some 400 artworks had been left in Paris ......  Those artworks were seized by the French government toward the end of World War II as enemy property, and they came into possession of the French nation in 1951 as part of the San Franciso Peace Treaty agreements.  However, the French government decided to give back the majority of those artworks to the Japanese government as a sign of the renewed friendship between the two countries.  The artworks, designated as the Matsukata Collection, were returned to Japan in 1959, which led to the opening of the National Museum of Western Art."

What an amazing and sad story!  Amazing that this man had the vision as well as the wealth to amass this collection of art!  So sad that so much of it was lost, both through auctioning the artwork to save the company, and then lost to the world in the fire in London!  And even sadder that Matsukata didn't live to see his dream come to fruition!

It was a wonderful collection, with paintings ranging from Renaissance tempera or oil panels (Tiziano!!  Cranach!!  Rubens!!), through to modern painters such as Picasso and Miro.  Plus a collection of Rodins.  AND this museum allows visitors to photograph art from its permanent collection, as long as you don't use flash photography, and don't use the pictures for anything commercial.  How nice is that?  They let you keep photos for your own memories and enjoyment!  Share the art!

But my favorites are always the French Impressionists.  There were several, such as the women in the boat, by Monet - he painted several versions of this, and each one is a little different - a different view, different time of day or time of year, so that each painting is unique on its own but also part of a collection of Monets.  Or the Monet "Yellow Irises" - I've never seen this before, but it was just lovely, and showed van Gogh's influence on Monet.  Or maybe Monet's influence on van Gogh.  Beautiful wild flowers in a sea of green leaves, tousled by the spring breezes and looking just a little crazed, the way van Gogh paintings tend to, and not so much Monet.

And of course a Monet "Water Lilies."  What can I say - from a distance the colors merge and you could swear this was a pond of dappled light and shadow, with water lilies floating on the surface and you can feel the moisture in the breeze.  Close up, the scumbling and fading color looks like a bunch of scribbles, but with a purpose.  The lily pads and flowers lose shape and meaning and become jumbles of color, almost chaotic.  And then you squint and the shapes rearrange themselves back into water lilies and leaves floating on a cool pool of turquoise blue water with lavender blue shadows.

And, like the entire collection, it was both amazing and sad to see this piece, this whole exhibit of art.  Amazing because these are artworks created by famous artists, rarely seen by the western world, rarely seen in books of art.  Amazing, because I had a chance today to see these paintings, to spend ten minutes just gazing at this "Water Lilies."  Sad, because I most likely will never see this painting again.  Yes, there are other "Water Lilies."  And yes, I will see some of them again, because they are more accessible.  But each one is unique.  And this particular painting will probably be out of my view again, for the rest of my life.  It was just sad to say goodbye to it.

I cheered myself up with a latte from the park coffee shop.  Which comes with a panda face.  This is the park with the zoo, after all.  And you can't be sad too long drinking a latte with a cocoa stencilled panda face on it, right?

Our plans for tomorrow mean we may be out late, so don't look for another blog until maybe the weekend.  Hate to disappoint you, but we need to try some of the famous Tokyo nightlife.  Even if only to see the Ginza at night.

Update 19 September 2014:  There's a great article in today's "The Japan News," the English language paper here:

If you want more information, or someone else's opinion of the show, here's a link for the exhibit when it was shown in Kobe:

And another article with a detailed description of the history of Hokusai's works:


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