When you enter “Arcadia by the Shore: The Mythic World of Puvis de Chavannes,” an exhibition of the work of the influential French 19th-century painter, it is not difficult to get a sense of why he was so successful in his own day, and why his reputation later slipped far behind those of other painters then considered his inferiors.
The show at Bunkamura The Museum, is the first solo show in Japan of the work of Pierre-Cecile Puvis de Chavannes, an artist who, because of his prominence at the end of the 19th-century, was also a major influence on the first generation of Western-style Japanese artists. Testament to this, the show contains several works by Japanese artists such as Takeji Fujishima and Seiki Kuroda, and even a faithful copy by Mango Kobayashi of one of Puvis de Chavannes’ most famous works, “The Poor Fisherman.”
This was an artist who played a key role in shaping the style of the first wave of western-style painting in Japan, but he was also a significant influence on artists in his own country, including some who are now much better known than he is, such as Paul Gauguin and Pablo Picasso.
The reason for his enormous success in the late 19th century is well represented on the walls of the museum in the form of expansive canvases, calibrated to his main means of expression — the production of large, relatively grand murals, featuring allegorical or mythical figures, for public buildings. These are initially impressive but are often less rewarding on closer study.
While his work is strong from a compositional point of view, there is also a hint of a “paint-by-numbers” approach and of the work being “just good enough,” rather than attempting to knock the artistic ball out of the park. This impression is actually reinforced by the exhibition’s choices. Instead of enhancing the mythos of the artistic genius, the curators strip it away by giving us plenty of insights into his methodical working processes.
The show includes a plethora of studies in pencil and sanguine, many of them with grids, which give the impression of enlarged doodles from math notebooks. These grids, of course, were to enable him to easily scale up the perfected image onto some great wall of the Palais de Beaux Arts in Lyon or the Pantheon, the national mausoleum of France, both of which his work adorns. Puvis de Chavannes, it seems, was an artist who had a system and stuck to it.
His popularity was based on his mastery of a “neoclassical-lite” style that harmonized well with the grandeur of French public buildings, while also suggesting something more streamlined and modern. This style, with its easy but not excessive grandeur (France, after all, had become a republic in 1870), and accessible symbolism, made his art a kind of suitable “artistic wallpaper” for high-profile public works.
The effect of his murals in combination with grand architecture is partly recreated by a clever bit of staging in the center of the exhibition, using enlarged photo-prints. This could make for impressive effects, but the problem with this kind of public success and acceptability was that it relied on appealing widely rather than deeply, while also veering toward the clichéd and the obvious.
While the contemporaneous artists of the Impressionist movement were seeking radical new subject matter as well as experimenting with new forms of expression, Puvis de Chavannes rehashed perennial themes, such as the muses of ancient Greece or allegorical figures representing charity or some other quality.
His “Study for Charity” (ca. 1893-94), measuring 2.4 x 3.5 meters, is one of the largest studies ever done, but it also shows an excess of clichés: the paupers cluster before the allegorical figure of charity, but by placing the naked figures in a snowy landscape, the artist unwittingly pushes the idea of misery relieved into the realm of farce. The final mural in Paris’ Hotel de Ville (City Hall) tactfully drew back from such excess, by downplaying the snowy.
A more generous approach to his work is to view it with the same eyes as the young Japanese art students visiting Europe at the turn of the century, and to read in it the traces of his love for the frescos he himself saw as a young man during his stay in Italy. He was particularly impressed by the calm spirituality of the Renaissance artists Giotto and Piero della Francesca, something that he strived for in his work, and which famous poets such as Charles Baudelaire and Stephane Mallarme detected.
Although he has long since been outstripped in terms of popularity and critical repute by the less famous artists of his day, it is still possible to see Puvis de Chavannes as an important part of the grand tradition of European art.
“Arcadia by the shore: The Mythic World of Puvis de Chavannes” at Bunkamura The Museum runs till March 9; open daily 10 a.m.-7 p.m. (Fri. and Sat. till 9 p.m.). ¥1,400. www.bunkamura.co.jp/english/museum