Replicas allow the public a detailed understanding of Vermeer’s paintings


Special To The Japan Times

Johannes Vermeer, one of the best known artists from the Dutch Golden Age, appears particularly popular in Japan. Once in a while, one or two of his works show up in Tokyo galleries and are used as bait to attract fans to otherwise dull and uninteresting exhibitions. There, his masterpieces are surrounded by indifferent paintings by little-known artists.

It’s difficult to blame curators for this, though, when only 37 works have been recognized as authentic Vermeers, a few of which are actually still being disputed, and one of which, “The Concert,” was stolen in 1990 and never seen again. These works are also scattered over 17 different institutions in North-Eastern America and Europe. Even The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which has the most, only owns five of them.

Molecular biologist Shin’ichi Fukuoka, however, has come up with a high-tech solution to house all Vermeer’s works under one roof. He spent four years traveling the world photographing the originals. Then, using state-of-the-art digital mastering and printing techniques he re-created the masterpieces in their true dimensions. These prints are now being exhibited at the Vermeer Center in Ginza.

Even the more skeptical of art lovers will find themselves admitting that the resulting 37 reproductions are impressive in their replication of the originals’ rich colors and the quasi-photographic precision with which Vermeer portrayed the faces of his models and the voluptuous folds in his female subjects’ clothing.

The advantage of viewing replicas is what makes this exhibition experience a truly surreal and novel one: Nobody will stop you from taking pictures (only the use of the flash is prohibited). It’s a free for all where everybody frantically moves around the relatively small dark room, darting from one picture to the next, taking photos cell phones and cameras, sometimes without even stopping to look at the real thing — I mean the reproduction.

When you are finished photographing or fiddling with rented high-tech audio guides, you can go downstairs to “Vermeer’s Atelier” where the master’s secrets and the details of Fukuoka’s so-called “re-create” technology are explained. For a truly unforgettably cheesy experience, the organizers have even prepared a corner where you can get photographed as if you are a subject of the artist’s works.

Even if it might seem like cheating to go see replicas of famous artworks, this exhibition raises important questions: What is “art viewing”? Is it better to go see a poorly lit, sometimes ruined, original in an overcrowded space, or to get up-close to a faithful reproduction and see real detail? And is this at least one good way to make important artworks accessible to a public who likely can’t afford to travel the world to see the real thing?

The Vermeer Center Ginza is open till Aug. 20; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. ¥1,000. Closed the first and third Mon.