One take on the past two centuries of artistic development is as a cacophonous cache of “isms.” With latter-day Japanese museum curation, impressionism regularly glistens as the golden-haired, oft-cited draw among recurrent “ism”-titled exhibitions — historical precedents, collection-building imperatives, curatorial agendas and crowd-pleaser incentives all impacting on the state of play.
Exhibitions whose retrospective glances are not pigeonholed by labeling are welcome. “Van Gogh and Gauguin: Reality and Imagination,” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, avoids typecasting the artists as simply personifying the tenets of a movement, namely post-impressionism. As the title intimates, viewers are afforded insights into the artists’ intrinsic makeup as individuals, and artistically, in tandem with their milieu.
Their oeuvres have been seen on these shores over the years, albeit in exhibitions highlighting one or the other, three of these being “Van Gogh in Context” at The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo in 2005, the simply-titled “Paul Gauguin” at the same venue in 2009 and “Van Gogh: The Adventure of Becoming an Artist” at the National Art Center, Tokyo in 2010.
“Reality and Imagination,” however, the brainchild of Dutch curator Sjraar van Heugten and five years in the making, brings (with assistant curation by Natsuko Ohashi) these exemplars of artistic conviction together — the potpourri reminding us of their collaboration and synonymity with the beginnings of the Belle Epoque during the late 19th century.
Five sections transport us through thematic and chronological trajectories. “The Making of the Two Fathers of Modern Art” and “Modernisation, New Influences and Artistic Friends” include works made while both artists were in their 30s. Two early works, Vincent Van Gogh’s “Peat Boat with Two Figures” (1883) and Paul Gauguin’s “The Little One is Dreaming, Etude” (1881), reveal divergent predispositions while exemplifying the thematic proposition underpinning the exhibition.
The former’s somber tonal palette lends the depiction of boat-loading an earthy realism, its tiered compositional diagonals imparting movement to this spartan depiction of working-class life. The latter work prefigures the imaginative and existential questions that increasingly preoccupied Gauguin, via the tranquil image of his daughter sleeping vis-a-vis provocative doll and bird motifs. Works by Millet, Monet, Pissarro, Toulouse-Lautrec and others round things out, all figures on the scene when Van Gogh and Gauguin first met in 1887 in Paris.
The crisp harmonies of Van Gogh’s “The Harvest” (1888), and Gauguin’s “Path of Alyscamps, Arles” (1888) with saturated reds and greens help form the “Pont Aven, Arles and Working Together in Arles” section, covering the productive though ultimately fraught period when the two painted together in Arles before Van Gogh’s breakdown. “Developments after Arles” focuses on 1889, after they parted ways — Gauguin to Paris, thereafter Pont Aven where he created the pastoral “Girl Herding Pigs;’ Van Gogh to Saint-Remy-de-Provence where “Olive Grove” was completed while at Saint-Paul Asylum.
The final “Gauguin in Tahiti” section reflects yearnings for a simpler, primitive life. Paintings executed from 1892 to 1901 include “Three Tahitians” (1899), with its simplified shapes and strong planar color, and “Sunflowers on an Armchair” (1901), an emblematic tribute of sorts to Van Gogh.
“Reality and Imagination” is beautifully presented, and in bringing together such key works from around the globe permits unique insights into the foundations of modern art.
“Van Gogh and Gauguin: Reality and Imagination” at Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum runs until Dec. 18 (9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m., Fri. until 8 p.m., closed Mon.). Admission is ¥1,600. For details, visit www.g-g2016.com. The exhibition then moves to Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art in Nagoya, Jan. 3 to March 20; www-art.aac.pref.aichi.jp
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