To anyone familiar with art exhibitions in Japan, it is clear that Impressionism is one of the most well-known and most-loved of all the “isms” and movements of Western art. The name of the movement is believed to have come from a 1872 painting by Claude Monet titled “Impression, Sunrise.” When it was exhibited at a show in Paris in 1874, its title was picked up by unsympathetic critics and used to give the movement the name by which it has been known ever since.
That painting was recently shown in the “Impressionist Masterpieces from Marmottan Monet Museum” exhibition held at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum. But, alas, it was only scheduled to be displayed for part of the exhibition — by the time you read this it will have been removed. This is a pity because it was one of the highlights in a show that elsewhere seems to be padded out with Monet’s lesser works.
While including much in-between, this show is bookended by large batches of the artist’s juvenilia and the almost-abstract paintings that he did in his final years when his powers were clearly waning. Both of these segments present art that seems far removed from the style for which we remember Monet. The juvenile paintings are mainly skillful caricatures, showing figures with exaggerated features, but with no connection to the impressionist works that followed. As such, they are merely an interesting footnote.
Produced at the other end of the artist’s life, his late works veer toward abstract expressionism. These were painted after he developed cataracts in his eyes — a medical condition that clearly affected his color sense, as the paintings have more reddish tones. But the wildness of his brush strokes in many of these canvases also suggests that these were mere experiments or attempts at paintings that were quickly discontinued. In other words, this exhibition is dominated by paintings that were not meant for public consumption.
We should not be surprised by this, as many paintings here came directly from the artist’s home and were bequeathed to the Marmottan Monet Museum by the painter’s son, Michel Monet.
The exhibition’s centerpiece, “Impression, Sunrise,” is now a famous painting — not least for its historical role in defining the impressionist movement. But it is interesting that it was one of the works Monet chose to hang onto, instead of selling to a buyer or collector. The generous explanation is that it had special significance for him, a less kind explanation is that he lacked confidence in it.
One reason why this painting gave its name to the wider impressionist movement is because it attracted the most criticism at the now-famous 1874 exhibition. The term “impressionist” was first used contemptuously before it was adopted as a badge of honor.
It is easy to see what led to condemnation of the work. To 19th-century critics, its cursory strokes and suggestive shapes would have looked lazy and unfinished, but even setting that aside the painting doesn’t quite work. It presents a view of the port of Le Havre in Upper Normandy, and while some parts of the painting are effective — such as the bright red sun burning through the mist (which must remind Japanese viewers of their flag) — other parts of the painting seem confused. For example, in the upper left of the painting, Monet seems unsure how to work the masts of the ships and the smokestacks into the composition. This creates a jarring note that disrupts the otherwise idyllic morning mood.
One of the early goals of impressionism was to paint the “modern world,” namely cities, factories, trains and the like. We can see Monet attempting that here. But the problem with this approach is that impressionism was much more adept at depicting the harmonies of nature rather than the clanging shapes, mechanical lines and discordant colors of modernity.
“Saint-Lazare Station (The Bridge of Europe),” a 1877 painting of a road bridge above a number of railway lines, is more successful as a harmonious artwork, thanks to the clouds of steam and smoke that serve to soften and unify the different elements. But this work lacks the special note that the brilliant red sun of “Impression, Sunrise” sounds.
With nature scenes giving themselves more readily to his brush, it is easy to understand why Monet retreated from such subject matter to his lily pond at Giverny in northern France, which forms the subject for the most impressive works in this exhibition.
One problem the show has, though, is its popularity. Impressionism is best viewed from a moderate distance, but with tight lines of viewers hugging the walls, the opportunity to step back and let the brush strokes blend their magic may be few and far between.
“Impressionist Masterpieces from Marmottan Monet Museum” runs at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum through Dec 13. Admission is ¥1,600 with discounts for students and seniors. The exhibition then travels to the Fukuoka Art Museum from Dec. 22-Feb. 2, Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art from March 1-May 8, and to The Niigata prefectural Museum of Modern Art from June 4-Aug. 21. For more information, visit www.ntv.co.jp/monet/english.