Show undermined by a surfeit of masters


Save us from the well-rounded exhibition! For museum visitors in Japan, this is a constant danger; something I was reminded of again by the Setagaya Art Museum’s latest show: “Masterpieces from the Collection of the Kunstmuseum Winterthur.” Like other multi-faceted exhibitions that endeavor to provide visitors with a “comprehensive” experience, this show, sourced from a relatively well-known Swiss museum, tries to push in too many directions and include too many facets of art. The end result is a show that fails to impress or inform.

On paper it sounds like a not-to- be-missed opportunity. There are works by a veritable who’s-who of modern art, starting from precursors of modernism, like Eugene Delacroix and Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, leading right through the ranks of the ever-popular Impressionists — Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley: all included — to Post-Impressionists, Symbolists, Fauvists, Cubists, and representatives of several, lesser-known movements such as Nabis and Purism.

Throwing the net this wide brings in almost all the fish in the sea. We get an astounding variety of names. In addition to those already mentioned, you can also see works by Degas, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Redon, Rodin, Bonnard, Giacometti, Klee, Kandinsky, Kokoschka, Utrillo, Braque, Leger, Picasso, Rousseau, and Morandi — all names that are on the radar of the average art fan.

From all this, one has the feeling that if the curators could have scraped together a da Vinci, Vermeer, Caravaggio, and a particularly well-known kitchen sink (possibly by Duchamp), then a way would have been found to include them in the exhibition as well.

Many visitors will make the decision to see the show based on its impressive list of names alone, and that seems to be the problem. Art museums in Japan often feel a need to play the brand-name game by assembling as many names that their target demographic is likely to know as possible.

But building up a list of artistic worthies doesn’t necessarily make for a good show. In fact, usually it’s the reverse. Instead of a truly satisfying exhibition that helps visitors to develop a deeper appreciation of some specific aspect of art, it becomes one that only scrapes the surface and refers loosely to art in a general sense.

In cases like this, where the main attraction is a constellation of star names, the visitor is short-changed in two ways. First, the works by the famous artists are seldom their best ones. In this show, Alfred Sisley’s “The Church at Moret: Morning Sun” (1893) has the impressive luminosity of his best work, and the Cubist works by Leger seem on par, but most of the other big names are represented by lesser works.

The Claude Monet, “Boat, Low Tide” (1868), is a lackluster study in dull, muddy grays and browns that has none of the colorful effervescence we associate with the master of Impressionism. Likewise, Vincent van Gogh’s “Joseph Roulin” (1888), a flat-looking portrait of a postman the artist befriended while in Arles, skimps on the strong tactile sense, vivid colors and psychological dynamism that characterize his best works.

The second way such an exhibition under-delivers is in the presentation of an excessively wide range of art. The problem here is one of amplitude and our ability to meaningfully absorb it. With only a handful of works for each of the many artistic movements represented, how do we successfully navigate from, say, the Romanticism of Delacroix to the lurid primitivism of German Expressionism and then on to the abstract tweeness of Kandinsky?

With only 100 works for such a wide-ranging exhibition the mental gear-changes required are abrupt, clunking, and jarring. Rather than complementing each other, each style or genre included seems to serve as a distraction to the rest. The constant flitting between radically different artists and genres that such a show entails can be likened to channel surfing. Just as a finger flickering over a remote control can turn TV into a general parody of itself, so the widely disparate flow of images engendered by this show turns art into a caricature. With deep appreciation an impossibility, we stop investing our attention and emotions and develop instead a glib, blase attitude.

In many ways, the show reminded me of “Post-Impressionism: 115 Masterpieces from the Musee d’Orsay” held recently at the National Art Center, Tokyo. Many of the same names feature in both exhibitions. That show also covered too much ground, but it did have larger paintings, more masterpieces and a narrower focus. Attempting to cover even more ground with fewer, smaller, and lesser paintings, the impression this Setagaya show gives is of a quick flick-through of a popular illustrated guide to the history of modern art.

“The Collection of The Kunstmuseum Winterthur: Masterpieces From the Collection” at the Setagaya Art Museum runs till Oct. 11; admission ¥1,300; open daily 10 a.m.-6 p.m., closed Mon. For more information, visit www.setagayaartmuseum.