Modernity is characterized by a linear concept of time, with the past cast in the role of an ever-diminishing point on the horizon behind us. One of the charms of the exhibition “Hubert Robert: The Gardens of Time” at the National Museum of Western Art is that it challenges this notion, and suggests that the past may exist as an eternal reality constantly able to interact and influence the present and the future
It could be said that Robert (1733-1808) is one of the chief artistic casualties of modernity’s fast-forward surge. The 18th-century French painter was widely known in his day, but is now largely forgotten, existing only as an artistic footnote.
The reason for this is that his art, which features romantic depictions of Roman ruins, often in idealized rustic settings, is basically backward-looking. But while “backward-looking” may sound negative to modern ears, most great artists have looked to the past for strength and inspiration — from the Renaissance painters to the Pre-Raphaelites and beyond.
Like the artists of the Renaissance, Robert’s art was firmly focused on the Classical world. In 1754, he moved to Rome to study, and was deeply influenced by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, an Italian artist known for his stunningly detailed prints of Roman ruins. Robert himself fell completely under the spell of these magical ruins, traveling widely in Italy, sketchbook in hand, jotting down scenes in chalk, rather like a modern tourist might take pictures with a digital camera.
The exhibition includes many of these sketches, which often show odd angles or bits of broken wall with no obvious aesthetic merit. It is almost as if the artist was filled with an archaeological need to preserve every relic of the past. Some of the more attractive of these sketches were then worked up into full oil paintings.
The interest in the Classical period during the 18th century was partly driven by the excavation of the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, which had been buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD, but the Classical world also struck a chord with a European civilization that had moved away from its medieval Christian past. In England, at the same time Josiah Wedgwood was creating his classically influenced ceramics; while in America the Neo-classical edifice of the White House was soon to be built.
The exhibition tries hard to connect Robert with the earlier idyllic classicism of the 17th-century French painter, Claude Lorrain, with several of Lorrain’s prints and an oil painting. However, although both artists gave their work an elegiac quality, Lorrain used ruins mainly as a subtle accent, while for Robert they are clearly the main attraction.
Many of the elements revived and rediscovered by Neo-classicism fed directly into the Enlightenment, and from there into the French Revolution, which, in a couple of decades, saw the rise of a Republic and then an Empire in what seemed liked a telescoped version of Roman history.
On one level this was the power of the past at work. Robert’s artwork may seem to offer static glimpses of a dead past, but the past redicovered can be a powerful thing.
“Hubert Robert: The Gardens of Time” at the National Museum of Western Art runs till May 20; open 9:30 a.m.-8 p.m. ¥1,000. Closed Mon. www.nmwa.go.jp/en/index.html.