The best from a bygone era


I was recently tempted to term the handsome old Bridgestone Museum as “the last of a dying breed.” But that hardly seems appropriate any more, considering the Nihonbashi art space’s ongoing evolution. Instead, the Bridgestone might be better described as “a survivor” — and one of the best — from a bygone era.

Opened in 1952, the Bridgestone presaged the rash of department store and corporate “museums” that mushroomed throughout Japan in the bubbly 1980s. Then, as those players one by one dropped out of the art game during the belt-tightening ’90s, it seemed only a matter of time before the Bridgestone Corporation would pull the plug on its central Tokyo art space. So when the museum closed in 2002, “for extensive repairs,” it seemed we’d maybe seen the last of the place. But, just as promised, the Bridgestone reopened early in 2003, looking better than ever.

Unlike most of the so-called museums that sprang up during the ’80s — and more than a few “museums” operating in Japan right now — the Bridgestone has its own collection, and so it does fit the classical definition of that term. I think this is the key to the Bridgestone’s enduring appeal: It has not radically changed its format over the years, rather it has survived on the strength of the collection it shares with its sister institution, the Ishibashi Museum of Art in Kurume, near Fukuoka.

The Bridgestone has a lot of good things going for it — the informal and popular Saturday afternoon lecture series continues a 50-year tradition in Tokyo; the airy first-floor cafe, the Tearoom Georgette, is perhaps the only art space in Japan that serves both of the internationally standard sparkling beverages of museums, Orangina and Perrier; and the recently extended weekday opening hours allow after-work visits.

But perhaps most noteworthy for a museum of its size, and for Japan Times readers, the Bridgestone has a new, English-language audio guide for its collection.

The audio guide, which debuted in April this year, features 97 topics and runs some 100 minutes. With narration from a suitably bourgeois British-accented voice, its concise, crisp and clean clips outline the museum’s history and key terms and movements in Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. They also provide back stories for paintings such as Renoir’s “Mme. Georgette Charpentier Seated,” which is one of the gems of the Bridgestone collection.

The clips run about a minute each, and manage to be both informative and interesting. The headsets fit well, and while the round-the-neck players are a little clunky, that is not a major problem. Having dealt with many audio guides in overseas museums, I would say that this is a world-class addition to the Bridgestone.

And so to the Bridgestone’s current exhibition, which is the homemade “Two by Two — Pairs, Couples and Lovers in Art.” A simple yet appealing curatorial choice, the show is subdivided into the categories of Lovers, Two People and Their Stories, Mother and Child, The Artist and his Model in the Studio . . . and Pairs.

Here we find representations of Adam and Eve, of contemporary lovers, and of all sorts of couplings in between. Highlights include an 1897 woodcut by the German illustrator and architect Peter Behrens, which looks a little like it was done in the 1970s; a 10-panel 1974 iridescent acrylic set, “Ms. And Mr. Rainbow,” by Japanese artist Ay-O, which really seems like it was done in the ’70s; and an excellent trio of dreamy Chagalls.

There are many variations on the “Two by Two” theme here — the Japanese painter Masanari Murai’s large oil painting “Two Persons in Mode” (1986) reveals only heads and feet in an Abstract Expressionist composition that suggests a couple lost together; Ben Shahn’s 1968 lithographs recall memories of intimacy; Honore Daumier’s “Don Quixote in the Mountains” (1850) sees the knight and his squire Sancho Panza in a study of the timeless relationship between master and understrapper.

After the two rooms dedicated to the exhibition, visitors continue on through several rooms of selections from the permanent collection.

A good show, but I feel compelled to comment on the fact that, of the 80 pieces in the show, only six are on loan. This is a low ratio — and, as fine as the Bridgestone collection is, adding a few more loan works would have provided a little jazz for regular visitors who are fairly familiar with what they’ve got.

Still, it’s recommended as a fine way to spend an afternoon, especially as the Bridgestone is not as crowded, or tiring, as the big Ueno museums are during the summer.