Painters and trees have a lot in common. Both are light-catchers: the painter looks at the world around him and tries to capture it, while a tree catches the light in order to grow. Trees are also part of the world that many artists see and often depict. So, there is quite a lot of synergy at the Togo Memorial Sompo Japan Nipponkoa Museum of Art’s latest exhibition — “Trees in French Landscape Paintings, 1850 to 1920.”
Given its scope, there are two ways in which to approach the exhibition. You can either treat it as a potted history of the great transitional period of European painting — from academic art to more avant-garde styles — or you can view it as something more essentialist, as a reflection on the nature of the tree as an artistic object. Both ways work.
Stylistically, the exhibition moves from the Barbizon school of painters (Camille Corot, Theodore Rousseau, Claude-Francois Daubigny) to impressionists (Frederic Cordey, Camille Pissaro), and then beyond, to pointillists (Maximilien Luce, Leo Gausson), symbolists (Paul Serusier, Odilon Redon, Maurice Denis) and fauvists (Orthon Friesz, Henri Matisse).
Viewed in this way, the influence of trees on art history becomes very palpable. Unlike earlier academic painters, who tended to be studio-based, the artists of the Barbizon and impressionist movements preferred to paint outdoors, where they were directly confronted with the diffuse, ambiguous shapes of trees, as well as ever changing effects of light and shade.
Barbizon artists, such as Corot and Rousseau, responded by developing delicate, rapid, feathery brushstrokes that laid the groundwork for impressionism. Corot’s “Landscape near Etretat” (1872) also reveals another appeal that trees had for artists, their ability to serve as unifying and harmonizing devices that help tie a painting together. While the trunks of Corot’s trees are as solid as the earth, his soft foliage texturally blends with the sky, evoking in its aesthetic function the symbolism of Yggdrasil, the immense tree that supposedly unites the cosmos in Norse mythology.
The selection of paintings here is also very effective at showing how the arboreal subject matter pointed artists toward pointillism, a painting style that in an odd way mimicked color printing techniques and even the use of pixels later in TV technology.
Attempting to capture the texture of foliage, artists like Felix Pissaro — the son of Camille — and Charles Frechon, fell naturally into painting dot-like dabs of color, a technique that artists like Luce and Gausson then developed into a more analytical pointillist style.
Gausson’s “Village behind the Woods” (1890) shows the radical direction that this led to, with color no longer enmeshed in form, a precursor to the more expressive forms of art that were to follow.
“Trees in French Landscape Paintings, 1850 to 1920” at Togo Memorial Sompo Japan Nipponkoa Museum of Art runs until June 26; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri. until 8 p.m.). ¥1,200. Closed Mon. www.sjnk-museum.org/en