Seven decades of art history; one masterpiece for every year, each created by a different artist from France or closely connected with the country; and all from the collection of an iconic Paris art institution — that’s the premise of the current exhibition at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum.
“Masterpieces from the Centre Pompidou: Timeline 1906-1977,” openly aspires to be a blockbuster, and to help achieve this end it harnesses works from the titular art centre, which houses the largest modern art museum in Europe, the Musee National d’Art Moderne.
The exhibition’s departure point is the early 20th century, when new art movements such as fauvism and cubism were emerging from the studios of Paris. The first work featured is a 1906 Raoul Dufy painting of a street decorated with French tricolor flags, establishing the national theme of the show. This theme runs through the museum’s three floors, which provide either a blue, white or red backdrop to the work of such greats as Constantin Brancusi, Jean Dubuffet and Henri Matisse, who is represented by his impressive “Large Red Interior.” The three colors of the flag are also present in the very last item on display, an architectural scale model of the Pompidou building, which was designed by Richard Rogers, Renzo Piano and Gianfranco Franchini and opened in 1977.
While much is made of the Frenchness of the exhibition, less attention is drawn to how this intersects with prevailing notions surrounding the modern art on display. In this sense, “Timeline 1906-1977” risks appearing somewhat out of step with recent moves in the museum world toward examining modernism’s established geographies, chronologies, canons and institutions.
The Pompidou itself even asked such questions by staging the “Modernites plurielles” (“Multiple Modernisms”), a 2013 exhibition that widened the scope of modernism from its usual European orbit to encompass examples from elsewhere around the globe.
In this light, “Timeline 1906-1977” could be criticized as a return to business as usual, an attempt to re-establish modernism’s position not only as a European phenomenon but also as a distinctly French affair. This seems particularly so as the exhibition chooses to emphasize emblems of French modernism through works such as Robert Delaunay’s “Eiffel Tower,” one of many paintings he made on the subject.
The exhibition does, however, have a few tricks up its sleeve to flesh out the established narrative of modern art. One of these is to include lesser-known artists, albeit French or France-related, alongside the usual suspects. Staples of French art rub shoulders with less familiar works, such as Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous 1932 photograph of a man jumping over a puddle, juxtaposed with a 1933 abstract painting by Otto Freundlich.
Similarly, the classic “Bicycle Wheel” (a wheel fixed to a wooden stool) by Marcel Duchamp from 1913 is followed by Jean Pougny’s “The Red Violin,” which, painted a few years later, has a sparsity that anticipates some of David Hockney’s work.
The chronological approach, however, raises the question of whether it is simply a framework to display artworks related to France, or if the selections actually represent wider artistic developments of any given year.
For example, the Pop and Op Art selected for the the mid-’60s points to an ample number of examples of similar interests taking place around the globe at that time, but it’s not clear why Henry Valentin’s “Symphony in Pink” was chosen for the 1946 slot. The synesthetic-like expression in painting Valentin pursues here had been a subject of artistic interest in various periods before and since the work and does not particularly capture the zeitgeist of its time.
Such quibbles aside, one of the unexpected delights of the exhibition is the inclusion of artists in the broad, related categories of naive art and outsider art. Fleury-Joseph Crepin claims 1941 for himself with his colorful depiction of a temple. Others in this vein include Camille Bombois (for 1930), who was once a circus wrestler, and Seraphine Louis (for 1929), a former house cleaner for the art dealer Wilhelm Uhde (a champion of Henri Rousseau, the cubists and the others), who first “discovered” her work hanging in a neighbor’s home.
“Timeline 1906-1977” features the work of a few other female artists as well, perhaps in a much-needed attempt to fill a gap in art history, but they are mainly clustered in the 1960s and ’70s. These include a large abstract canvas by Aurelie Nemours based on the color black.
Unabashedly designed to inspire awe rather than critical refection, “Timeline 1906-1977” is best approached as a celebration of all things French, not as an investigation into our understanding of modern art. Taken on those terms, the exhibition has plenty to entertain and feed the eye.
“Masterpieces from the Centre Pompidou: Timeline 1906-1977” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum runs until Sept. 22; 9:30 a.m.- 5:30 p.m. ¥1,400. Closed Mon. bit.ly/pompidoucentre
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