For too long the fine academic art of the 19th-century has lingered in the shadow of the Impressionist movement. The French Academy, with its rules and standards, has often been cast as the villain in the story of the period, standing in opposition to the “heroic” Impressionists in their quest for “artistic freedom.”

It made for a good story, but, after too many retellings, it is now too much of a cliche. So a search for new narratives is under way, as shown by “The Birth of Impressionism — Freedom in Painting: Masterpieces from the Musee d’Orsay” at the National Art Center Tokyo, an exhibition that sets out to celebrate Impressionism without also damning academicism.

You wouldn’t know this from the title, though, with its emphasis on Impressionism and freedom, but the museum’s website is a little more helpful: “The exhibition attempts to give new life to the rich and diverse era from the late 1860s to early 1880s in which a broad spectrum of movements and talents coexisted alongside each other, and to free ourselves from the stereotype judgment of Impressionism being ‘good’ and academicism being ‘bad.’ “

Extending the idea of “freedom” in this way to also embrace academicism suggests that Impressionism, rather than being merely a grab for freedom, became — as so many revolutions do — also a kind of tyranny. What is being liberated here, then, is the much derided and dismissed academic art. This is certainly the part of the exhibition that is new, radical and unexpected, and which therefore stands out, although the promotion material is still overwhelmingly slanted toward the Impressionists.

Indeed, a visitor could walk through the show without fully realizing what is afoot, as there is much here that fits into the well-worn grooves of the old story. Also, regardless of the merits of their respective works, the names of Millet, Manet and Monet still count for a lot more than those of academicians such as Bouguereau, Meissonier and Cabanel.

As you would expect, there are painters from the Barbizon movement, a precursor of Impressionism, which started the exodus back to the natural, the simple and the real by painting common people and scenery in the open air. The most impressive of these works is Jean Francois Millet’s “The Angelus” (ca. 1857-9), one of the most famous paintings in the world, which purports to show a disarmingly humble slice of reality: two peasants giving thanks to God at the end of a day of toil.

It was this embrace of the mundane and humble that challenged the elitism of academicism with its grand themes, and this also resonated with the democratic spirit of the age. As gods and legends were thrown down, the everyday life of man was elevated in their stead. Following the collapse of the Second Empire in 1870, “The Angelus” became a kind of icon of France’s Third Republic.

But “The Angelus” is not quite as simple as it seems. Despite its banal subject matter — two peasants hunched in prayer over a basket of potatoes — the painting has a strange intensity that later fascinated the great surrealist artist Salvador Dali. He came to the conclusion that Millet had originally painted the couple praying over a child’s coffin, something that was later confirmed by X-ray photography. So, rather than a humble slice of life, this is a painting dealing with one of great themes of Western art — death.

The best of the Impressionist works — Claude Monet’s “The Magpie” (1868-9), with its glistening snow full of hidden tints, or the unearthly light that Edgar Degas conjures up in his ballet paintings — are impressive assaults on the senses. But once you get used to the Impressionists’ tricks, so much of their art seems like a descent into the banal and ordinary — a tree here, a riverbank there, a bowl of fruit, a few clouds, a dowdy woman. Some of it is the 19th-century equivalent of the “selfies” and pictures of food that many of us post to social media.

Set against this, the academic art at the exhibition, with its imperative to invoke the grand, the heroic and the ideal, stands out with a power to shock and amaze. While Millet presents us with peasants, Ernest Meissonier shows us Napoleon at his most heroic. Then there are astounding visions and flights of imagination skillfully brought to life, such as William Bouguereau’s astonishing “Dante and Virgil” (1850). Inspired by a passage in Dante’s “Inferno,” it shows two naked figures locked in brutal combat. In cases such as this, rather than impeding the artist, the rules of academic art seem to have served as a spur to greater creativity. It is these works that now seem more radical, memorable and creative.

“The Birth of Impressionism — Freedom in Painting: Masterpieces from the Musee d’Orsay” at the National Art Center Tokyo runs till Oct. 20; open 10 a.m.- 6 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.). ¥1,600. Closed Tue. www.nact.jp


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