Switzerland is an “island” in a “sea” of Europe. From its elevated Alpine position in the heart of Western Europe, it figuratively looks down on the main European cultural heartlands of Italy, France and Germany, the perfect place for a wide-ranging, cosmopolitan collection of European art — which is just what the Kunsthaus Zurich has managed to build up over the years.
Now, to celebrate 150 years of diplomatic ties between Switzerland and Japan, the museum is presenting 74 of its works at a couple of venues in Japan, starting with the National Art Center, Tokyo (NACT), followed by the Kobe City Museum next year.
At first glance the most obvious problem with this exhibition is the surfeit of big names. The stellar cast includes Claude Monet, Edvard Munch, Paul Klee, Marc Chagall and Alberto Giacometti, who all have their own sections, and Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cezanne, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Vassily Kandinsky and Salvador Dali, who don’t. Why should this be a problem? In my experience, having this many big names in an exhibition this size is usually a negative. The exhibition ends up trying to cover too many bases with limited resources.
The show attempts to give an account of every major artistic movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the period when art was most dramatically changing. It is simply not possible to do this with 74 paintings — more like 500 paintings would be needed; 250 at a bare minimum. What this means is that such a show is unlikely to have any kind of aesthetic or art-historical coherence. Instead, what we can expect is a jumble of paintings that don’t really correlate or work together, as they would have if they were within a smaller or tighter-knit group of artists.
Another problem with having so many big names in such a moderately sized show is that there is an immediate suspicion that, rather than artistic merit, the pictures have been chosen simply for their “brand name” recognition, in an attempt to cause the usual visitor stampede.
Put all this together and you are quite likely to find yourself in a rather crowded museum gallery straining to read the label next to some lesser-known work by some rather well-known artist, hung next to what is essentially a visual non sequitur.
This is what I expected when I visited the NACT, and my apprehensions turned out to be partly right. I found myself having a perfunctory look at a handful of paintings by the Austrian Expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka, whose art always reminds me of crumpled dirty laundry, then the next moment faced with some Cubist works by Georges Braque, quickly followed in short order by the toylike surrealism of Paul Klee and a range of abstract paintings by Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian and Fernand Leger.
Faced with such a presentation, the eye is jerked around as if on a visual rollercoaster — one that is quite bumpy. Before you can absorb one genre or style another one comes along, and you just end up feeling aesthetically irked.
But although the concept of the exhibition is like a quick flick through certain pages of the art encyclopaedia, the quality of the paintings was better than is normally the case in such name-heavy exhibitions. Among the show’s highlights was a very large Monet, “The Water Lily Pond in the Evening” (1916-22), measuring 6 meters by 2, although more impressive was his smaller “Houses of Parliament, Sunset” (1904), showing the Gothic-looking Victoria Tower through a haze of smog.
With interesting works such as this that didn’t particularly relate to other works, I soon gave up trying to tie everything together, as part of a unified show. Instead, I switched to treating them as individuals, roaming around — as one does at parties — looking for interesting works or small clusters of paintings to enjoy on their own.
The Munchs proved to be a bore, but the section on Les Nabis included some intriguing works by Felix Vallotton, such as the cinematic “The Visit” (1899) and “Solitaire: Nude Playing Cards” (1913), which show what a refreshingly original and daring painter he was for his time.
German expressionist painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s daring use of color in “Landscape in a Forest With Stream” (1925/26) was also a delight, as were the paintings by Ferdinand Hodler, the most “Swiss” artist in this esteemed company. His bleak empty landscapes seemed to provide a refreshing contrast to the visual cacophony generated by having too many other styles and genres in the exhibition.
He was also represented by a large symbolist work, “The Truth, Second Version” (1903), showing a sibyl-like nude surrounded by cloaked figures, a work of endearing over-earnest pomposity that conjured up the turn-of-the-century mystique of spiritualism with its paraphernalia of Ouija boards, seances and cunning charlatans.
“Masterpieces from the Kunsthaus Zurich” at the National Art Center, Tokyo, runs till Dec. 15; open 10 a.m.-6p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.). ¥1,600. Closed Tue. www.nact.jp