FRENCH IMPRESSIONISM

We just can’t get enough

by Victoria James

With Valentine’s Day just past, let’s pay tribute to one of the most enduring love affairs of our time — that between Japan’s gallery-going public and France’s Impressionist artists. It’s the Real Thing.

Why else are there long lines for the Bunkamura’s new exhibition, “Monet and Renoir: Two Great Impressionist Trends”? Why is the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum in Ueno Park hosting a large exhibition focused on Monet? And how is it that the granddaddy of Impressionism, Camille Pissarro, is not only included at the Bunkamura and the Met, but also has a show all to himself at Nihonbashi Mitsukoshi department store gallery? Japan, it seems, just can’t get enough.

How much is not enough? In total, there are 80 works at the Met, 80 at the Bunkamura and 100 at Mitsukoshi. If you like statistics, that includes 31 by Monet, 35 by Renoir, 40 by Berthe Morisot and a whopping 60 by Pissarro. Does Japan really need so much of the Impressionists?

Much to my surprise, the answer is “yes.” These three shows aren’t duplicates — each has something distinct to offer. And though their timing is coincidental, together they give an overview of Impressionism that rivals what’s on offer anywhere in the world, Paris included.

If you’re after an outline of the movement’s development and some glowing highlights, the Bunkamura (till May 9) should be your first stop. For an in-depth look at pioneer Camille Pissarro, and a snapshot of a typical artistic community — that surrounding Pissarro in the Oise Valley — head to Mitsukoshi (till Feb. 22). And for an alternative look at Impressionism, including some disturbing paintings from Monet’s last years and a comprehensive collection of works by the movement’s principal female exponent, Berthe Morisot, head for the Met (till March 28).

Dawn to the East

Japan’s love of Impressionism may draw snickers from art snobs, but as this spread of shows makes clear, there are sound cultural reasons why Impressionist art presses all the right buttons for a Japanese audience.

To be sure, the landscapes and rosy portraits that dominate the Impressionist oeuvre are more accessible to a Japanese audience than, say, the predominantly religious subjects of earlier Western art, or the mythological and classical themes of the Renaissance. They also exemplify qualities traditionally prized in Japan: They have wa (harmony) and are, above all, yasashii (gentle, tender, graceful, delicate).

But what’s less immediately apparent is that Japanese art was one of the wellsprings of inspiration for the nascent Impressionist movement in Europe in the 1860s and ’70s. Monet’s studio at Giverny, where he famously created a Japanese garden complete with a curving ponte japonnaise, contains his collection of more than 200 ukiyo-e woodblock prints. Van Gogh wrote in 1885 that he had “pinned a number of Japanese prints to the wall” of his workshop — such prints were cheap and readily available in Paris at the time. In 1890, Japanese art drew the notice of the establishment, with a major exhibition of prints at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in the French capital.

What did the Impressionists learn from Japanese art? Almost all the technical tricks in their paintbox. They were attracted by and experimented with the flat picture space — the absence of a realistic perspective with an identifiable vanishing point — that is one of the most characteristic aspects of ukiyo-e.

Most significant was the way the Impressionists were drawn to the vivid coloration of Japanese prints. In solving the challenge of creating bright color-tones in their own preferred medium, oil paint (when primary-color pigments are mixed, their brilliance is diluted and the resulting color, though more true-to-life, is also more “muddy”), the Impressionists came up with what was, quite literally, a master stroke. Instead of blending the pigments, the French artists applied unmixed colors to their canvas either in layers or side by side and let the viewer’s eye do the “mixing.”

In time, this approach became an end in itself, with the pointillisme developed by Georges Seurat, Paul Signac and others. The current exhibitions contain wonderful examples of the ways in which less well-known artists employed the technique: Keep an eye out for Henri-Edmond Cross’ “Baigneuses” at the Bunkamura, a bleached scene of bathers on a sunlit seashore that seems to evaporate off the canvas; its polar opposite is “Fe^te foraine la nuit, Pontoise” by Louis Hayet, at Mitsukoshi, a dense mishmash of blue and orange that resolves into a barely discernible scene of a nighttime festival only when viewed from across the gallery.

Welcome to the real world

Like Japanese artists of the Edo Period, the 19th-century French artists stood on the threshold of a world shifting from the changeless cycles of the peasant’s existence to the bustle of urban life.

The Bunkamura has paintings by both Monet and Renoir of the elegant railway bridge at Argenteuil, then newly completed. In the same gallery are Pissarro’s depictions of a paddle steamer puffing out of Le Havre harbor, and a panorama of the Quai Saint-Sever at Rouen, where the dense plumes of smoke from the area’s many factories seem to be a welcome subject for the artist’s brush. The celebratory mood is akin to that of a poem composed by the Emperor Meiji after a visit to newly industrializing Osaka: “Smoke rises, obscuring the sunlight,” he wrote with enthusiasm.

The Mitsukoshi exhibition invites you to take a closer look, too, at the notion that Impressionism blithely celebrates the passing age of pastoralism. Alongside such nostalgia-laden works as Pissarro’s “La gardeuse d’oies,” in which a goose girl watches over her snow-white flock at sunset, are a number of the artist’s monochrome drypoint and aquatint works, all from the collection of the Musee Camille Pissarro in Pontoise.

These dark works seem to capture another side of life in the fields. The trees seem spindly and barren, the twilight more gloomy than gloaming. Some are almost sinister: Remote homesteads glimpsed through trees recall the haunted mansion from “The Others.” In one disturbing work, a peasant woman bends double in a field of cabbages, her face spookily indistinct among the vegetables.

The artists around Pissarro in the Oise Valley took great pains to get close to the lives of those they painted, and a lighter part of the Mitsukoshi exhibition presents the adventures of one Charles-Francois Daubigny, who sailed the canals and rivers of the region in a tiny bateau-atelier (studio-boat) that he would moor whenever he came across a scene sufficiently picturesque. His escapades are recorded in a charming series of eaux-fort engravings that include scenes of the artist at work in his boat — a replica of which is in the gallery — as well as dozing, fishing and boozing on board with friends.

Girls, girls, girls

Among the everyday scenes that inspired both Impressionists and ukiyo-e artists are intimate depictions of the female nude. At first glance, the pale, slender, raven-haired beauties of Japanese art couldn’t be further from the ample creamy curves of Renoir’s nudes — albeit both are frequently shown attempting (and failing) to conceal with a falling garment a small, round breast.

The Japanese influence on the way the West depicted nudity, however, was considerable. The Western nudes of earlier ages had passed as respectable on account of their high-minded mythological, historical or Biblical themes. Venus, Leda, Lucretia and Judith were all acceptable. The girl next door in nothing but her birthday suit most definitely was not.

After the female nudity in Edouard Manet’s “Dejeuner sur l’herbe” and “Olympia” caused outrage in 1863 and 1865, respectively, artists found a model for a more acceptable way of painting the naked female form in the real-life contexts common in ukiyo-e — women bathing, dressing, or simply relaxing in the privacy of their own living quarters. Those who enjoy the lovely examples by Renoir and two atmospheric nudes by Pierre Bonnard at the Bunkamura have Edo Japan’s mature take on morality to thank.

Sisters with brushes

At the Metropolitan, we’re treated to more paintings of women, with two crucial differences: They’re from the brush of a female artist, and the subjects keep their clothes on.

Berthe Morisot was the most prominent female Impressionist, and among the works showing here is a picture of fellow-painter Paule Gobillard, shown seated at an easel. There is also a poised self-portrait of Morisot, brush in hand. It’s a welcome reminder of the participation of women in a movement still known almost exclusively for its male exponents.

Morisot’s pastoral pictures of young women — a shepherdess, cherry pickers — don’t offer insights any more profound than those of her male counterparts. However, some earlier, urban works prove Morisot to have been a skilled portraitist. Particularly striking is a picture of Morisot’s daughter, Julie Manet. (Morisot was married to Eugene Manet, the brother of scandalmonger Edouard.) Julie’s fierce, shadowy stare is instantly identifiable from contemporary photographs also on display.

Losing sight of things

The real scene-stealer at the Met, however — perhaps the highlight of all three shows — is a series of late works by Claude Monet, from the last 10 years of his life. The artist, who died in 1926, was afflicted with cataracts, but kept on painting even as his vision clouded over to the point of blindness.

By 1916, his beloved waterlillies have become mauve swirls on a background of muddy khaki. In 1918, the famous Japanese bridge is two thick green curves against an indistinct backdrop of mustard yellow. By 1920, there’s nothing but a hint of form to a path covered with arched rose trellises. And in 1922, the recognizable world has slipped beyond the artist’s grasp: “The House Viewed from the Rose Garden” is little but patches of virulent, feverish color.

It’s a moving experience, like seeing Muhammad Ali shattered by Parkinson’s: power rendered powerless; a gift given — then reclaimed — by nature. The crowded, noisy Met falls quiet in this room. People look, then walk quickly on.

There and back again

The final irony of Japan’s relationship with Impressionism is that, having provided so many of the seeds of its inspiration, Japan then reimported the resulting art form and labeled it “foreign.” When Meiji Era Japanese artists experimented with Western artistic techniques, it was Impressionism that attracted them most. Tetsugoro Yorozu is a fine example of the Japanese interaction with Impressionism (as well as Expressionism and, later, Cubism) — his oeuvre shows him “trying on” the styles of all its major practitioners, then finally synthesizing them into a look all his own.

The artistic relationship between Japan and France may be one of the earliest examples of the modern trend toward aesthetic globalism. Whether that direction is to be welcomed or not, it is fascinating to see its emergence here on the walls of Tokyo’s galleries.