Before photography became a relatively affordable pastime at the beginning of the 20th century, lithographic prints were touted as the democratic image-making medium that could reach all classes of society. At the same time, because the design was drawn directly onto stone, it could be used as a platform for artistic expression; not just a cheap way of reproducing images, but creating multiple versions of an original work. This potential was most eagerly embraced in France, with Picasso, Braque and Matisse creating “masterpieces” that could be owned or collected by more than one person at a time. A revolutionary idea, but also good business.

“Listen, I’ll Tell You The Truth …The Actual Center of The World is Where You Are Creating Something Unique,” at Tokyo Station Gallery, is a group exhibition of prints from the venerable Idem lithographic workshop in Paris, which occupies a building of lithographic presses that was originally established in 1881. The title comes from the recently published novel “Romancier” (“Novelist”) by Maha Harada, which features the Idem workshop and a fictional exhibition of lithographic prints at, as you may have guessed, the Tokyo Station Gallery.

‘The idea of this fictional exhibition becoming reality is very mischievous, but self-reflexivity aside for a moment, time and place are also big issues in this show.

As two short videos by filmmaker David Lynch and French artist JR show, the Idem workshop is impressive as a physical space, full of heavy, black, clacking, clunking industrial machinery and white slabs of limestone used by artists who were at the epicenter of the modern art scene at the turn of the century.

Meanwhile, in what would have been considered modernity’s periphery at the time, an “oriental” plan for Tokyo Station created by the German architects Wilhelm Ende and Hermann Bockmann was rejected in favor of a “Western” red-brick design by Japanese architect Tatsuno Kingo. Habu connects these two sites of technical innovation as backdrops to what seems to be a somewhat romantic paean to the virtues of self-expression and creative individuality.

These are unfashionable and problematic things to be eulogizing from a postmodern point of view. On the positive side, the exhibition is certainly a gorgeous and varied assemblage of color, composition and craftsmanship. Spread over two floors, it starts with the pristine white space that is the default look for art galleries, and the prints have been chosen to fit this environment extremely well.

Okabe Masao’s prints are black frottages from the floor of the Idem workshop, offset with small bars of deep crimson; Prune Nourry’s photographic lithographs are a typology of monotone teenage Terracotta Red Guards. Tatsuno Toeko’s images are abstract geometric shapes and patterns that show off the richness of color and graphic precision of lithography, as do prints by Lee Ufan of single oversize brushstrokes and Xavier Veilhan’s polygonal bodies. Though all the work is from the 21st century, the feel is more classic modern, that is to say, cool, cerebral and authoritative.

On the next floor, inflected by the darker and coarser setting created by bare brick walls, the exhibition throws us into a world of fears and desires, humor and protest. Jean-Michel Alberola uses text, sometimes Japanese, in a mixture of agitprop and surrealism that relishes being enigmatic and provocative. The cartoonist Pierre La Police uses a pop color palette to ask “What am I Doing Here?” Documentation of JR’s street art in Kesennuma after the March 11 tsunami, and his work in Phnom Penh and Rio de Janeiro, along with Daido Moriyama’s images of fishnet-stockinged legs show how lithography is being combined with photography and digital processes to bring it into a new stage of innovation. David Lynch’s primitivist deformed heads and blotchy naked figures are, speaking as an unreserved fan of all his films, positively Lynchian.

The bold and joyful 1947 monograph “Jazz” by Henri Matisse makes a cameo appearance near the end of the exhibition. Sometimes accused of being decorative and critically lightweight, especially in regards to his aspiration to “avoid troubling or depressing subject matter,” the contrast between Matisse’s work and the final pieces in the exhibition by Paul McCarthy, which are nervous, scratchy, disturbed and pornographic, summarises the breadth of vision that IDEM has inherited by taking over the lithography workshop that has existed in the Montparnasse district since the end of the 19th century.

The exhibition is a full fat, high calorie, visual feast, and either by supremely clever design or a glitch in the matrix, comes across as being what a great exhibition of art should look like. In conception it is the dream of an art lover come true, and very strangely, this is exactly how it comes across. Sharing the same medium, but varying drastically in content and tone, the exhibits and the setting together form a kind of memory palace; a string of resonant, but not wholly comprehensible, worlds that are somehow both connected and disparate.

“Listen, I’ll Tell You The Truth …The Actual Center of The World is Where You Are Creating Something Unique : Voices of 20 Contemporary Artists at Idem Paris, a Lithography Studio in Montparnasse” at Tokyo Station Gallery runs until Feb. 7; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri. until 8 p.m.). ¥1,000. Closed Mon. www.ejrcf.or.jp/gallery

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.