Portraits of an artist as a young man — and an older one

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

Yasumasa Morimura is a weird mixture of curator, artist and simple art lover. Throughout his career he has selected famous portraits and paintings of people and then faithfully recreated them, with the exception of superimposing his own face on the subjects.

This is both an act of sacrilege and adulation that sends out the message that the art world that we carry in our consciousnesses is already so crowded with famous creations that there is little left to do but dwell on our relationship to them.

This is more or less what the “Rembrandt Room Revisited” exhibition at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art does. The exhibition presents us with a selection of Morimura’s narcissistic musings on some of Rembrandt’s most famous works, all beautifully lit so that you may at first think you are in the presence of actual Rembrandts. The works themselves are photographs of the artist in costume or make-up merged into the original image and then printed on canvas.

Morimura first created art along these lines back in 1985, when he “impersonated” himself into a self-portrait of Vincent Van Gogh; but, once the technique had been developed, it was only a matter of time before he took it to Rembrandt. Not only is the 17th-century Dutch painter acknowledged as one of the greatest painters of the human face, but much of his art also focused on himself, presaging Morimura’s own narcissistic interest.

The Hara exhibition is a rebooting of the original “Rembrandt Room” exhibition held there in 1994. It features about 20 works based on Rembrandt’s paintings, along with a series of smaller monochrome works based on his etchings. There are also some unconnected works, including an astounding video installation in which Morimura mimics writer Yukio Mishima delivering his famous speech at the Ichigaya barracks prior to his ritual suicide.

The main criticisms that can be made of Morimura is the simple one of unoriginality and the more complicated one of feeding off the fame of works he associates himself with. These criticisms are hard to deny when faced by a single work, but when viewed collectively, as at this exhibition, his art starts to speak with its own voice and create its own atmosphere and message.

In the main gallery, the works all come together as aspects of one life. We have different ages, from youth to old age, and the main objects of love: the spouse and the lover — positioned at opposite ends of the gallery.

What the artist is expressing is the subjective way that we all consume art, constantly looking for parts of ourselves in it, and seeking completion through it. Although this idea is actually quite profound, the irony is that an exhibition which comments on this act also interferes with it happening. Rather than consuming art ourselves, at this show we are forced to watch Morimura doing so, and feel vaguely uncomfortable as voyeurs.

“Yasumasa Morimura: Rembrandt Room Revisited” at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art runs till Dec. 23; open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. (Wed. till 8 p.m.). ¥1,000. Closed Mon. www.haramuseum.or.jp “In Praise of Velasquez,” a concurrent exhibition by Yasumasa Morimura, is also running at Tokyo’s Shiseido Gallery till Dec. 25. group.shiseido.co.jp/gallery