Art’s 20th-century identity crisis

by C.B. Liddell

Staff Writer

The 20th century is rather like the teenager who never grew up — a century that saw itself as perpetually young, as the “modernist” culmination of history rather than part of the historical process. In short, an age guilty of “chronocentricism.” But, like all the other centuries, culled and packaged by the relentless march of time, it, too, is receding into the past, becoming covered with the same rust and dust as the rest.

It is still difficult to say how it will shape up under the historical lens and what its overall image will be for future generations, but some idea can perhaps be gleaned from “Picasso and The 20th Century Art Masterpieces from the Museum of Modern Art” at Tokyo Station Gallery (TSG) — a show that provides a cross section of most of the important artistic trends of that century.

Sourced from Toyama, a coastal town on the Sea of Japan that has recently been linked to the Hokuriku Shinkansen Line, it seems this show is, among other things, a subconscious suggestion to hop on a bullet train and visit the home town of the paintings.

The title of the exhibition puts way too much emphasis on Picasso, perhaps because he’s still the best name to get people through the door. Of the 100 works on display, however, only nine are attributed to him. Other notable names are Kandinsky, Max Ernst, Joan Miro, Paul Delvaux, Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol and Gerhard Richter.

But, although Picasso hardly dominates to the degree implied by the show’s title, his career, characterized by radically shifting styles, is a good example of the turbulent, diverse and sometimes even schizophrenic character of much 20th-century art.

His earliest artwork here, an impressive charcoal sketch titled “Young Man Seated” (1899), predates the 20th century, with his most recent being “Seated Woman” (1960). Between the relative realism of the first and the angular abstraction of the latter, there are examples of Picasso’s radical cubist works, the classical-influenced statuesque “Woman in a Wheelchair” (1923) and the curvilinear simplicity of “Seated Woman with Yellow Background” (1937).

The most interesting work from a historical point of view is “Woman in a Wheelchair.” This gives us a taste of the conservative mood that followed World War I, a mood that even seems to have temporarily reeled in an incorrigible avant-gardist such as Picasso.

But while Picasso’s work is always stimulating and full of vigor, there are times when you find yourself thinking that it is “just ugly.” It is this tension between beauty and ugliness that is the warp and woof of 20th-century art.

Francis Bacon’s “Lying Figure” (1977) has a certain aesthetic grandeur, but with its distorted anatomy and smudged flesh tones, it also perfectly evokes the artist’s rather gruesome intention of creating paintings that “look as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail, leaving a trail of the human presence.”

The venue itself has a little of this tension. The old TSG, which existed before the Tokyo Station Hotel was extensively renovated some years ago, was a charming and old-fashioned museum with creaking floorboards and wood panelling in keeping with the style of the building. This no longer exists, having been converted into shops or hotel rooms.

The present TSG, which opened in 2012, adjoins one of the large cupola domes of the Tokyo Station Hotel. It is more or less a “white cube” style venue, but with some interesting spaces, such as the connecting stairs and side galleries that have been worked into the pre-existing architectural framework. The most memorable feature is the rough, naked brickwork on many of its walls. These sometimes show burned timbers left over from wartime bombing raids.

This creates an exhibition space that is edgy and just slightly reminiscent of converted lofts in New York City. The harsh, modernist elements serve to keep the tweeness of Tokyo Station Hotel’s Edwardian architecture at bay. But the space also seems to call for art that veers towards the garish, brutal and modernist. This is why Andy Warhol’s “Marilyn” (1967), a set of lurid screen prints of the iconic actress, and Gerhard Richter’s explosive but nuanced abstract “Orangerie” (1982) seem so at home.

Another thing to always look out for in exhibitions at this venue is artwork that refers to train travel. After all, the gallery does belong to Japan Railway.

At this exhibition, the best treat for artistic trainspotters is the large impressive canvas by the Belgian surrealist Paul Delvaux, “Overnight train” (1947). This shows the artist’s characteristic “sleepwalking” female nudes, with the masculine element cryptically represented by a steaming locomotive that we catch a glimpse of through the open door. This perhaps reminds us that art is a journey with no final destination.

“Picasso and The 20th Century Art Masterpieces from the Museum of Modern Art, Toyama” at Tokyo Station Gallery runs till May 17; open 10 a.m.- 6 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.). ¥1,000. Closed Mon.