The fortitude of Prussian character

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

It is becoming increasingly common for Japanese art museums to host exhibitions bearing the names of famous overseas art venues. If the source institution is famous enough, this will give a show of otherwise disparate works of art instant glamour and an identity.

The National Art Center, Tokyo currently has an exhibition of art from St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, while the first exhibition at the recently reopened Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Art flies the flag of the Mauritshuis Royal Picture Gallery in the Netherlands. In a similar vein, Tokyo’s National Museum of Western Art (NMWA) is now holding an exhibition of art on loan from the Berlin National Museums. But rather than one distinct and well-known museum, these are a cluster of institutions in the German capital, something that slightly dilutes the foreign venue brand name effect.

A similar problem exists with the show’s contents. Titled “From Renaissance to Rococo,” it spans several centuries and artistic movements, as well as a variety of media. In addition to paintings there are plenty of sculptures and drawings. In other words, the show seems to be trying to tick rather too many boxes.

The main attraction for many visitors is Johannes Vermeer’s painting, “Young Lady with a Pearl Necklace” (c.1662-1665), which is also the focus for much of the show’s publicity. This is not to be confused with “Girl with a Pearl Earring” (1665), another Vermeer on display just across Ueno Park at the Mauritshuis exhibition.

Of the two, the Metropolitan’s Vermeer is more famous. It served as the inspiration for the novel of the same name, later made into a film starring Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson. However the NMWA’s Vermeer is more typical of the artist’s subject matter, focusing as it does on an interior scene with light gently filtered through windows.

In “Young Lady with a Pearl Necklace,” Vermeer’s subtle treatment of the light creates an illusion of depth that doesn’t rely on objects arranged in perspective around a vanishing point. In fact, the white wall shuts off any vanishing point. But despite the skill of the artist, this is a rather dull and limited work. Whatever its fame, this small and rather low-key painting is not a suitable focal point for an exhibition as wide-ranging as this.

The exhibition’s real character — and it does have one in spite of the best efforts of the curators to hide it — is an elusive quality that comes from what is essentially the collection’s “Prussian” character.

The various establishments included in the Berlin National Museums have a long history that stretches back to the former Prussian kingdom. Starting from its rise in the 17th century, the Baltic kingdom, which formed the nucleus of German unification in the 19th century, was always a progressive but authoritarian state that punched above its weight in European politics. The German philosopher Georg Hegel saw in its orderly efficiency the fulfillment of history. However, the Spartan ethos the small state needed to compete with its larger rivals was not always a natural match with the glamorous culture of the dominant European powers that it hoped to emulate as a mark of its growing status.

The exhibition includes Sebastiano Ricci’s “Bathsheba” (c. 1725). This is essentially a titillating nude excused by the fact that it includes a biblical reference. This is the kind of picture that one can easily imagine gracing the palaces of Vienna and Paris, but in this exhibition it looks somewhat out of place.

Much more in character is “Portrait of Martin Luther” (c. 1533) by the workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder. The painting is an unadorned, plain view of the father of the Protestant Reformation, evoking the abstemiousness and work ethnic associated with the Protestant religion.

Albrecht Durer’s “Portrait of Jacob Muffel” (1526) also has something of a Prussian atmosphere, although the artist was a Bavarian and a Catholic. The painting unrelentingly focuses on the subject’s physiognomy, with little attempt at embellishment. What emerges is a hard-looking man whom we can easily imagine as a ruthless military officer or fastidious public servant. It is easy to see why this ended up in a Prussian collection. The mood created by these works is echoed by others.

Although Berlin followed the artistic tastes and trends of Europe’s cultural centers, the art in this exhibition suggests that it did so with little extravagance and with a marked preference for works of a more somber, austere and militaristic tone. There is little of the glitz and luxury that you would expect from a contemporaneous collection of Habsburg or French art.

This dour, rather serious note that echoes from the Prussian character is further emphasized by the inclusion of the many drawings and sculptures. The largely monochrome drawings — including some by the Italian Renaissance artist Botticelli — and the rather emaciated-looking limewood sculptures and blackened bronzes serve to “de-color” the exhibition and make it seem all the more Prussian in character.

“From Renaissance to Rococo. Four Centuries of European Drawing, Painting and Sculpture” at The National Museum of Western Art runs till Sept. 17; 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.). ¥1,500. Closed Mon. www.nmwa.go.jp.