Nature that goes beyond its course

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

The easiest way to describe this exhibition is “The meeting of two Mets,” with the Metropolitan Museum of Art Tokyo serving as a venue for 133 works from its much more renowned New York version, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, known simply as “The Met.”

But despite all its fame and grandeur, and the copiousness of a collection that includes more than 2 million works, the New York institution shares the major defect of American culture, namely an all-embracing universalism that works against a unique and easily marketable cultural identity.

Exhibitions drawn from the collections of the Louvre, Prado, or Tretyakov, instantly evoke their countries’ rich cultural histories. This is much less true of the Met, where the global clearly eclipses the national.

In order to give this exhibition a more characteristic and appealing identity, it has therefore been themed around the idea of nature, with the rather unwieldy portmanteau title of “Earth, Sea, and Sky: Nature in Western Art: Masterpieces from The Metropolitan Museum of Art.”

This straggling name suggests two things: 1) that at least two separate committees had to sign off on it, and 2) they wanted a theme that would allow almost anything to be slotted into the exhibition.

The broadness of the theme is stretched even wider by interpreting “nature” in the loosest possible terms. For example, the word apparently includes cityscapes, as we are treated to two rather lovely views of Venice, one by J. M. W. Turner, the other by Canaletto. There is also a close-up of a pelvic bone painted by Georgia O’Keeffe.

By these standards anything with a bit of sky or water in it, or any organic matter at all, can be considered “nature.” This then raises the question of which 1 percent of all paintings are not connected to nature. This may sound like quibbling, but the fact is the show lacks a clear identity and will be liable to fade from visitor’s memories.

The main problem is that there is so much unconnected variety. Most visitors seemed to be reduced to staggering from one uncomprehending encounter to another. As an example of this, opening the catalogue randomly at three different pages produces the following: a silver Art Nouveau punch bowl with anthropomorphic figures of Night and Morning from 1901; a bull’s head ornament from ancient Mesopotamia, and a Dutch landscape, “Grainfields” (1665-70), by Jacob van Ruisdael.

While it seeks to encompass most of human history, the exhibition invariably leaves massive gaps. If the mental gear changes and amplitude of background knowledge required to fully appreciate each consecutive object are taken into account, then diversity is certainly not this exhibition’s strength.

But the curators have not been entirely negligent. One point of mild interest is the echoes of composition and subject matter that exist between various pairs of works. The most obvious is Paul Gauguin’s “Tahitian Women Bathing” (1892) and Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s “Figures on a Beach” (1890), which both feature standing and sitting women in a coastal setting. This similarity throws their stylistic divergence into sharp relief. Renoir’s feathery brush strokes capture the breezy atmosphere of the French beach. This contrasts with Gauguin’s fat blocks of color that serve to focus our attention on the exotic nudity of his figures.

These occasional “visual chimes” however are not enough to bring coherence to the exhibition. To counter the note of bewildering randomness that prevails, the visitors are forced to thread together their own narratives. The most intriguing one for me was that concerning American artists. They are comparatively few, but there are enough of them and they are spread widely enough throughout the exhibition to tell a continuous story.

As essentially a European colony, America has historically had a cultural inferiority complex. This means that American art usually falls into three categories — art that defers to Europe, art that rejects Europe, and art that does neither and therefore expresses a true American spirit. Most “serious” American art is included in the first two categories, while the third category is dominated by naive and folk art.

The Met started out as an institute that enshrined this inferiority complex, striving to acquire the best European masters. The magic of Claude Monet’s seascape “The Manneporte” (1863) and Vincent van Gogh’s “Cypresses” (1889) demonstrate the power of the best European artworks. These then served as models for aspiring American artists. Most of the American artists represented here fall into this deferential category. For example Thomas Cole’s landscape “View of the Catskills: Early Autumn” (1837) transposes Claude Lorrain’s idyllic Arcadianism to upstate New York.

Edward Hopper’s “The Lighthouse at Two Lights” (1929) by contrast has an atmosphere of self-consciously trying to be “American.” The composition, clean surfaces, functional shapes and clear sky infuse the painting with a brash, breezy, almost puritanical Americanism. Set defiantly atop its windswept ridge, the lighthouse seems to tilt its hat and snub its nose at Europe, far, far away across the water.

“Earth, Sea, and Sky: Nature in Western Art: Masterpieces from The Metropolitan Museum of Art” at Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum runs till Jan. 4; open 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. ¥600. Closed Mon. www.met2012.jp.