There are many ways in which an art exhibition can make a positive impression, but the two main ones are through the quality of the artworks and the narrative that ties these together. The present exhibition at Bunkamura The Museum is rather weak on the first element but much stronger on the second.
The title — “The Genesis and Development of Landscape Painting from Kunsthistoriches Museum Wien” — is ambitious and raises expectations of seeing works by some of the great landscape artists, but big names are in relatively short supply at this exhibition, with most of the paintings by lesser known, unknown or even anonymous artists. This is partly because the exhibition’s focus is on the gradual evolution of the genre of landscape painting rather than its fully formed expression. But also, one can’t help suspecting that it is because the Kunsthistoriches Museum was only prepared to send its B-team on this artistic odyssey, a long way from Vienna.
Despite this shortcoming, the exhibition still manages to be highly informative and enjoyable. It begins with the premise that what seems obvious to us today — the charm and beauty of landscape painting — was not obvious to earlier generations. Instead it had to slowly evolve out of other aspects of culture, such as religious painting, seasonal calendars and the revival of classical pastoral poetry.
The exhibition’s starting point is a series of religious paintings. In these, scenes of nature appear either as tiny decorative details glimpsed through a window, or as lush backgrounds that recall the ideal of spiritual harmony with nature, symbolized by the Garden of Eden.
In “The Virgin and Child with Two Angels” (c. 1500), attributed to Bastiano (or Sebastiano) Mainardi, we glimpse it through a window as the Madonna uncovers her breast to feed the infant Christ. Jan Brueghel the Elder’s “Landscape with St. Fulgentius” (c. 1595), however, presents a much more extensive landscape that evokes ideas of Eden. St. Fulgentius was an early church father whose career vacillated between important church positions and monkish interludes spent in the wilderness.
In an age when religious themes dominated art, those Bible stories or tales of saints that featured landscapes were key to the development of the genre. Jan Brueghel the Elder’s “Mountain Landscape with the Temptation of Christ” (c. 1605-10) is another work where the impulses to paint something pious and something scenic come together. Other significant Biblical-landscape themes are the flood, the wandering of the Jews in the wilderness, the story of Jacob, and the Holy Family’s flight from Egypt.
The exhibition includes several examples of the latter subject, including Domenico Fetti’s “Flight into Egypt” (c. 1622-23), where the turbulent brushstrokes capture some of the drama, and Jan Brueghel the Younger’s more sedate and soothing “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” (after 1626), which presents a lush European forest with cool shadows that looks nothing like the arid and scorched terrain between Palestine and Egypt.
By the time these works were painted, it had become increasingly acceptable for artists, especially in Flanders and Holland, to paint simple landscapes, although often the focus was on dramatic and imaginary scenery. The interest provided by a religious or saintly narrative could be replaced by the thrill of exotic terrain and adventurous vistas. This is the appeal of Lucas Van Valckenborch’s “Mountain Landscape with Blast Furnace and Robbers Attacking a Man” (c. 1580-85), which is a landscape, a geological treatise and a warning about travel in distant parts all rolled into one.
While religious painting provided the main channel for landscape painting to develop, another important stimulus to the genre was calendar painting, which both celebrated the changing seasons and reminded people what tasks and activities were appropriate to each month.
The exhibition includes a very impressive, although incomplete, set of paintings of the months by the Venetian artist Leandro Bassano. Painted around 1580, these expansive canvases show the characteristic weather and occupations of people at each time of year, with the horoscope symbol of the month hovering above in the sky. Particularly effective is his painting of January, with its frosted effect.
Time is also an element in pastoral painting. This, taking its inspiration from pastoral poetry that originated in classical Greece, was another important influence on the landscape genre. It tended to emphasize rustic simplicity and the temporality of human greatness.Among its favored themes were simple shepherds in wooded glades and ruins of the past, often with an implied contrast between the two. The urge to drop out and become a hippy “at one with nature” runs deep in our culture.
A perfect pastoral example is provided by Cornelis van Poelenburgh’s “Landscape near Albano with Bathing Girls” (c. 1630-40), which shows an Edenesque scene of carefree peasant girls skinny dipping, with the ruined tombs of Roman heroes in the background.
“The Genesis and Development of Landscape Painting from Kunsthistoriches Museum Wien” at Bunkamura The Museum runs until Dec. 7; daily 10 a.m.-7 p.m. (Fri. and Sat. until 9 p.m.). ¥1,500. www.bunkamura.co.jp/english/museum. It then moves to the Shizuoka Prefectural Museum of Art from Dec. 19-March 21, and to the Ishibashi Museum Of Art from April 2-July 12.