First impressions of the late impressionists

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

Any great story tends to focus on a limited number of characters, with everybody else either reduced to anonymity or the status of extras. In literary fiction or movies this is never a problem, but when the narrative is a historical one, it can lead to a certain amount of neglect and unfairness.

This can be demonstrated by the unjust obscurity that has enshrouded so many talented 20th-century artists who simply did not fit into the great iconoclastic avant-garde narrative of modern art, a story that now seems to have spent most of its energies.

“The Last Impressionists: Time of Intimacy,” the latest exhibition at the Seiji Togo Memorial Sompo Japan Nipponkoa Museum, seeks to redress some of this injustice by focusing on the works of artists who continued to express themselves through impressionist, post-impressionist, and even realist styles, while other artistic revolutions unfolded elsewhere.

As the title makes clear, the dominant style here is impressionism. Given its powerful aesthetic appeal and perennial popularity, it is understandable that many artists preferred to stick with it. But one of the points the exhibition makes is that they took it in slightly different directions to the early generation of impressionists by focusing less on the outdoors and public spaces and more on indoor and intimate spaces.

Edmond Aman-Jean’s “La Captive” (1913), with its mysterious turbaned figure and aura-like surrounding colors, shows how when focused on the intimate, impressionist techniques could create art that had clear affinities with spiritualism and symbolism.

The most effective part of the show is that dedicated to the artworks of Henri Le Sidaner. His “Place de la Concorde” (1909), a rain-soaked Parisian night scene full of blurred and reflected light, reveals the ability of impressionist techniques to achieve a higher realism with the right subject. But more typical are works such as “The Red Tablecloth” (1931) and “The Table, White Harmony” (1927) — images of unpeopled interiors that seem to catch moods and atmospheres hanging in the air.

The art critic and Le Sidaner’s friend, Gabriel Mourey described him as “a sort of mystic who has no faith,” and there is definitely a sense of displaced religiosity about these paintings.

While much of the art on display points in a symbolist or intimist direction, other works veer toward realism. Norwegian painter Frits Thaulow uses composition, color balance and the shading of an entire painting to bring a solitary ripple in the water to life in “Hameau, a Bend in the River” (1895). Then there are delightful images like Emile Claus’ “Coucher de soleil sur la Lys” (1911), an evocative painting that seems to defer to the best work of the earlier impressionists Monet and Renoir.

“The Last Impressionists: Time of Intimacy” at the Seiji Togo Memorial Sompo Japan Nipponkoa Museum runs until Nov. 8; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri. until 8 p.m.). ¥ 1,200. Closed Mon.