From the low key comes high art


Special To The Japan Times

The Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum is deceptive in more ways than one. Not only is it a lot younger than it looks — it was built in 2009 as a recreation of a Meiji Era building — but the interior doesn’t quite match the exterior. The latter looks somewhat grand and even slightly palatial, but once inside the building is in fact rather poky, with galleries that are generally quite narrow, small and winding.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it creates a cozy, even intimate atmosphere, but it does limit the kind of art that can be displayed. For example, the large canvases by Paul Rubens now showing as part of the Liechtenstein exhibition at the National Art Center Tokyo (NACT) would never fit. But equally, the large open spaces of the NACT would never work with the paintings now on display at the Ichigokan.

These are by the 18th-century French painter Jean Simeon Chardin, renowned for his subtle and low-key still lifes and genre paintings of normal folk, infused with a kind of French wabi-sabi. These smallish paintings would clearly struggle to dominate large, palatial spaces or the expansive white walls of the typical large art museum. They are designed to whisper to us from shady corners and gentle alcoves, which makes the Ichigokan their ideal venue.

This exhibition represents a considerable effort and investment of resources to advance Chardin’s international reputation. The show is organized with the “exceptional participation of the Musee du Louvre” and is overseen by the director emeritus of that institution, Pierre Rosenberg. The selection of works is also strong, and includes some of the painter’s best-known works, such as “Saying Grace” (1740), “The Good Education” (1753), and “Basket of Wild Strawberries” (1760).

The only flaw in this artistic blitzkrieg is the petty-minded insistence on the use of French instead of English in all exhibition materials, something that has no doubt been decreed by bureaucrats back in Paris.

But back to la grande strategie: one almost suspects that, having seen the phenomenal rise of the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer in recent years, those in charge of the Frenchman’s legacy have decided to groom him to be the “next Vermeer.”

This may be a wise strategy for a number of reasons. First, there are broad similarities in subject matter (domestic) and atmosphere (tranquil) in the genre paintings of the two. There is no mythological or religious subject matter to confuse, bewilder, or alienate modern audiences.

Second, the craze for Vermeer may be limited by the scarcity of his paintings. When audiences have grown tired of “Girl with a Pearl Earring” (1665) or the perpetual pouring of milk from the same jug in Vermeer’s “The Milkmaid” (1658), then they might well be drawn away by Chardin’s “The Convalescent’s Meal” (1747). This not only features a jug and a demure maiden, but also a boiled egg and a bedpan!

A third reason why Chardin may be a good bet is that he already has the aura of past success. He enjoyed great popularity during his life, including royal patronage, and also exerted an influence on subsequent artists, such as Jean Francois Millet. The French Enlightenment philosopher Denis Diderot even enthused that Chardin “gives such breadth to his little figures that it is as if they were cubits tall.”

Such comments may seem exaggerated, but there is nevertheless a great charm in his work that derives from its humility and lack of ambition. Rather than striving for greatness and pretentiousness, he preferred to slowly evolve his technique with a narrow range of subjects. It was the sight of a dead rabbit that first drew him to painting. From rabbits, he slowly expanded the range of his subjects to include poultry and kitchen utensils before moving on to the genre paintings of ordinary people that represent his best work.

The exhibition includes two versions of “Saying Grace,” perhaps his most famous painting, which shows a mother and two daughters about to enjoy some soup. These were painted four years apart — 1740 and 1744 — and are slightly different. That he was content to paint practically the same picture again tells us all we need to know about his lack of avant-garde spirit.

But why was such humble, unadventurous art such a hit in 18th-century France? Some might see it as a cultural precursor of the egalitarianism of the looming Revolution, but a more tangible reason was the French inferiority complex with regard to Dutch and Flemish art at the time. Rejecting grand subject matter and capturing the mundane with stunning realism, this was art that stooped to conquer. Throughout his career, Chardin was best praised by being compared to Dutch and Flemish masters. The intent of this exhibition seems to be to revive such comparisons.

“Chardin: 1699-1779” at Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum runs till Jan. 6; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Thu.-Sat. till 8 p.m.). ¥1,500. Closed Mon.