Such sweet strokes of the Impressionists

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

A horde of Renoirs and other works from the high-water mark of Impressionism have descended on Tokyo — rampaging in their quiet, colorful way through the labyrinthine exhibition spaces of Tokyo’s Mitsubishi Ichigokan.

“Great French Paintings from the Clark” mainly presents a riot of feathery brushstrokes, dappled surfaces, fluffy flowers, burnished apples and sloe-eyed maidens. There is lace and gossamer, hints of fragrant winds and a forgotten femininity that probably didn’t quite exist even when these paintings were painted.

In other words, this exhibition aims its arrow directly at the big soft spot in the heart of the Japanese art public, who definitely like this sort of thing. In that sense the art from the Clark Art Institute in Massachusetts certainly delivers.

But this is the problem. In anticipation of the tastes of the average museum-goer, it’s all too nice and sweet: saccharine with honey on top, dusted off with icing sugar.

There’s no edge, no danger, and a definite lack of excitement. You know this because after a while you start ignoring the subjects — Edgar Degas’ ballet dancers, Claude Monet’s geese, Camille Pissarro’s meadow — and start examining anything else, such as the individual dabs of pigment, the brushstrokes — even the cracks in the surface of the paint. In this way, paintings of people, animals, “nature” and bowls of fruit descend into almost abstract works.

Pissarro’s “Saint-Charles, Eragny” in particular lends itself to this approach. Tiny points of different color create a granular texture that seems to vibrate as we do the artist’s work of mixing the colors, not on the canvas but in our eyes, to create intermediate hues. But after recognizing this great innovation of Impressionism, there is a sense of anticlimax. We realize once again that all has been in aid of a basket of onions or a dreamy girl with a fan.

What’s lacking is a sense of symbolism and drama. Monet’s seascape, “The Cliffs at Etretat” (1885), hints at the drama of nature, but apart from this work, we are confronted with subject matter befitting biscuit tin lids. It is almost as if the artists were trying to compensate for the radicalism of their technique by the mundanity of their subject matter.

The only point of real interest in terms of subject matter is provided by a few works by Jean-Leon Gerome, an artist usually described as an “Orientalist.”

Gerome cheerfully ignored the trends of his day toward featheriness, dappling and bowls of fruit. Instead he persisted in a masterful academic realism devoted to dramatic and exotic subject matter. His “The Snake Charmer” (1879) and “The Slave Market” are works that have an air of sinister mystery, menace and drama, something that renders them charismatic in such saccharine company.

“Great French Paintings From the Clark: Renoir and Masterpieces of French Painting” at Mitsubishi Ichigokan runs till May 26; Tue., Wed., Sun. and holidays 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Thu., Fri. and Sat. till 6 p.m. ¥1,500. Closed Mon. www.mimt.jp.