“Normandie — L’Estuaire de la Seine: L’Invention d’Un Paysage” (“Normandy — The Seine Estuary: The invention of a Landscape” is an exhibition at the Sompo Japan Museum of Art that recently changed its name to Sompo Japan Nipponkoa Museum of Art. Just as the museum’s name is rather too long — something to do with changes in the corporation that owns it — so the title of this exhibition feels elongated and cumbersome.
This is because the title is struggling to present a lot of important information up front. The art is mainly 19th-century, with some early 20th-century overlap, and is of course connected to Normandy. But, alas, Normandy may evoke only the vaguest ideas among the public, so it is important to remind them that it is on the coast and connected to Paris, hence the mention of the Seine Estuary.
With this and the reference to landscape, the expectation raised is of a very “Parisian” artistic experience of rural land- and seascape, while the word “invention,” hinting at artistic innovation, can perhaps be seen as an allusion to Impressionism.
So, does the exhibition live up to the promise implied by its title?
In terms of the works displayed, the exhibition is more provincial than Parisian as the paintings are sourced from small museums in Normandy and elsewhere in France — and it shows. Although there are some big names, such as Claude Monet, Raoul Dufy and Gustave Courbet, and some respectable lesser ones, including Felix Vallotton and Eugene Boudin, most of the works are not their best. For example, Boudin was famous for being an early outdoors painter who was called the “King of the Skies” for his vivid depictions of clouds, but the several works by him here are rather drab and uninspiring.
Monet’s “Walkers on the Cliff of Saint-Adresse” (1867), however, makes up for this with a luminous “mackerel sky” of cirrocumulus clouds. This gives us a vivid sense of the “sea air” and reminds us of why Normandy would be such an attractive getaway for Parisians such as Monet, following the opening of the railway to the port city of Le Havre in 1847.
In a similar vein, there are several interesting seascapes, including “Farewell” (undated) by the Italian painter Vittorio Matteo Corcos. As befits an artist best known for portraits, it is the figure of the fashionable young lady gazing longingly at a disappearing trail of smoke from a steamship that dominates the canvas.
Perhaps the most impressive section of the show is that dedicated to some late Impressionists. After duller, drabber realist works, this breaks through like a little burst of sunshine, and it leads onto the similarly bright works of Raoul Dufy. The overall impression one gets is of visiting the coast on an overcast day with occasional bursts of sunshine.
“Normandy — L’Estuaire de la Seine: L’Invention d’Un Paysage” at Seiji Togo Memorial Sompo Japan Nipponkoa Museum of Art runs till Nov. 9; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.). ¥1,100. Closed Mon. www.sompo-japan.co.jp/museum/english
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