This year has been a memorable one for art exhibitions at museums in Tokyo, with a surprisingly diverse array of shows and events, ancient and modern, foreign and domestic, metropolitan and provincial.

As usual, a pivotal point early in the calendar was provided by Art Fair Tokyo. Held in early March at Tokyo International Forum, it was a typically bustling affair that seemed to point in several different directions at once — cutting-edge contemporary art jostled with antiques, ceramics and nihonga (Japanese-style painting). This reminded us, once again, that the art scene here has several more boxes to tick than elsewhere: providing a conduit for traditional Japanese culture and identity while also helping the country keep in touch with international avant-garde trends and the hegemonic culture (and historical canon) of the West.

There was plenty to see at AFT, but I was especially impressed by painter Kazuki Takamatsu, who uses multiple layers of translucent gouache to give his otherwise cute figures an ethereal and ghostlike quality.

But there was plenty of other interesting art besides this, much of it with an otaku (obsessed fan) twist, although that’s hardly a new trend. Images featuring sailor-suited girls will always be popular for obvious reasons, but interesting art tends to come from a more counterintuitive place. In this sense, I also enjoyed Korehiko Hino’s oddball art of creepy figures with enlarged eyes. These certainly had the WTF factor and left a strong impression. As I wrote at the time, “once seen, they cannot be unseen.”

The complexity and manifold agendas of AFT are a perfect microcosm of the greater macrocosm of art consumption in Japan. This wider universe was reflected in the exhibition calendar for 2014, where shows of traditional Japanese and Asian art vied with exhibitions of Western and contemporary art.

Shifting museum demographics

It’s often said that the content of larger exhibitions is skewed toward housewives and the older generation, as these are the groups who tend to have the time and money to attend big shows in Japan. This means certain types of exhibitions are naturally favored over others, such as impressionism and other forms of “visual aromatherapy,” for example, or historical and Buddhist-themed shows. Catering to these tastes can lead to uninteresting exhibitions with a lack of edge. In 2014, however, this influence seemed weaker than normal — or perhaps the tastes of those dominant demographics have been changing.

Yes, there were some impressionist shows this year — perhaps the most interesting being “Monet, An Eye for Landscapes: Innovation in 19th Century French Landscape Paintings” held at the start of the year at Tokyo’s National Museum of Western Art — but mostly they seemed to be underwhelming. Instead, there was stronger interest in adjacent movements, such as the French academic art that preceded impressionism, and British Victorian art.

An important exhibition in this respect was “The Birth of Impressionism — Freedom in Painting: Masterpieces from the Musee d’Orsay” at The National Art Center, Tokyo. Despite the title the show mainly focused on academic art, including the works of William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier and Alexandre Cabanel. Paintings such as Bouguereau’s astonishing “Dante and Virgil in Hell” (1850) were more than capable of putting the key impressionists in their place — and even in the shade — for a change.

This widening of “classical” tastes was also reflected in excellent shows of British academic art, the aesthetic movement and Pre-Raphaelites, and the Swiss symbolist Ferdinand Hodler, who was shown as part of the celebration of the 150th anniversary of Swiss-Japanese relations.

“Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde,” shown at the Mori Arts Center Gallery from January to April, was probably the strongest show of the year, featuring the cream of Tate Britain’s unparalleled Pre-Raphaelite collection, including top works by William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais, whose iconic “Ophelia” (1852) resonated strongly with viewers.

What impressed me most about this show, however, were not the obvious choices like “Ophelia” but the quality, in terms of depth, of the works, represented by the inclusion of William Dyce’s “Pegwell Bay, Kent — a Recollection of October 5th 1858.” It’s a painting containing narratives of infinity and eternity, and my personal favorite from the Tate’s collection.

Painting retrospectives

Other impressive shows in a similar vein were the “James McNeill Whistler Retrospective” — the first one in 27 years — at the Yokohama Museum of Art; “Felix Vallotton: the Fire beneath the Ice” at the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum, Tokyo, and “Balthus: A Retrospective” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum. All these presented art that was slightly left field, making for stimulating shows.

Traditional Asian art seemed to have a quieter year. The retrospectives of two nihonga painters from the Meiji Period — Shimomura Kanzan at Yokohama Museum of Art early in the year and Hishida Shunso at the National Museum of Modern Art in autumn — stood out. Both of these skillful and important painters were in need of serious reappraisal, which is what these shows achieved.

The blockbuster shows at the Tokyo National Museum proved less enthralling. The museum’s big show for autumn, the peak season in the exhibition year, was “National Treasures of Japan,” but this proved to be the usual overcrowded linear-layout conveyer belt, with crowds slowly filing past glassed-in works that had little room to breathe.

At least its summer show “Treasured Masterpieces from the National Palace Museum, Taipei” generated a little controversy when the word “National” was temporarily dropped from the title. This was a serious sticking point for Taiwan, whose claims for recognition as a sovereign state have been progressively eroded by the rise of mainland China.

Contemporary shows

With more traditional favorites taking a back seat this year, there was room for more modernist and avant-garde outings. One of the highlights of the year was “Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal” at Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum. Not only was this the biggest retrospective of the artist’s work ever held in Japan, but also the best organized. It included a convincing recreation of his famous studio, “The Factory,” and managed to infuse his often impersonal art with his personality by peppering the whole show with well-chosen and often hilarious quotes painted on the walls.

Warhol’s fellow New Yorker, Willem De Kooning, was given his first Tokyo outing with a small but sufficient retrospective at the Bridgestone Museum of Art. The show featured his paintings of women from the collection of John and Kimiko Powers.

These shows helped update what can sometimes be an overly traditional and deferential art profile, but what about actual contemporary art?

The main events here tend to be the big contemporary group shows, like “Roppongi Crossing” at the Mori Art Museum, the “MOT Annual” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo and “Artist File” at The National Art Center, Tokyo. This year, however, only the “MOT Annual” was held, which disappointingly focused on rather low-key works.

“Roppongi Crossing” and “Artist File may have been skipped due to the return of the Yokohama Triennale, on the understanding that there is a limited appetite for out-and-out contemporary art in Japan, and that the Triennale would use up most of that oxygen.

With artist Yasumasa Morimura serving as artistic director, the Triennale started out with a concept based around Ray Bradbury’s famous dystopian novel “Fahrenheit 451” — later turned into a film by Francois Truffaut — but ultimately it just ended up being the usual lucky bag of oddball, baffling, interesting and ostentatiously avant-garde work that it usually is.

While looking at the exhibition’s centerpiece, Michael Landy’s “Art Bin” (2014), with its daily accumulation of “failed” artworks, I couldn’t help thinking about the real purpose of the Triennale. It is not to present the best and most interesting art, but rather to demonstrate that Japan can do “anything goes” avant-garde art just as well as anywhere else. In that sense, the Triennale is once again a successful advertisement of Japan keeping up with international trends, something that must be weighing on minds in the run up to the 2020 Olympics.

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