Out of Japan: 'Essence of the West' makes a big impression

TOKYO - In Ueno Park snow was still on the ground after Tokyo's heaviest fall in 25 years. But the cold did nothing to deter the crowds from the biggest art exhibition to arrive in Tokyo for years - 'Great French Paintings from the Barnes Collection', a one-off world tour of the greatest private collection of Impressionists in the world.

The queue of art lovers waiting to see paintings that have been kept out of public view for seven decades stretched out of the building, across the courtyard and into the park. But the wait only heightened the excitement for the line of fur coats and woollen shawls, chattering as they inched towards the entrance, and above all towards the canvases of that painter supremely venerated by Japan: Renoir.

The Independent queued dutifully as well. Its mission: to discover what attracts the Japanese to Renoir above any other Western painter. The 80 paintings in the Barnes Exhibition also included works by Matisse, Picasso, Monet, Van Gogh, Seurat and Modigliani. But there was no doubt that it was Renoir that most people had come to see. That is where the crowds would be inside the exhibition hall. Not so long ago, in the madness of the bubble economy in the 1980s, Renoirs were bought by Japanese investors at auctions all over the world, money no object.

Two girls in the queue said they had come from Chiba, one hour's train journey from Tokyo, to see the exhibition, but particularly the Renoirs, of which there were 16 on display. Why did they like Renoir? 'Because we like his paintings,' answered one dismissively, as if I had asked her why she liked breathing.

Inside, suspended television screens told the story of Dr Albert Coombs Barnes, the businessman turned art collector who amassed 180 Renoirs, 60 Matisses and 57 Cezannes - two more than all the Cezannes held in Paris museums today. The son of an Irish-American butcher, Barnes was born in 1872 and had made his fortune before he was 30 with the invention of a popular antiseptic. He then spent this fortune on French Impressionists, which he was astute enough to buy before prices spiralled.

He scorned the art establishment back home in Philadelphia and kept his art works in a mansion that was all but closed to outsiders, even after his death in 1951. 'Art appreciation can no more be absorbed by aimless wandering in galleries than can surgery be learned by casual visits to a hospital,' he wrote, justifying his decision to limit access to his paintings. It was not until 1991 that a US judge overturned Barnes' will and allowed some of the paintings to be sent on a world tour to pay for maintenance work to the Barnes mansion.

Barnes would no doubt have been horrified at the scenes in the Tokyo gallery of 'aimless wandering', crowds being kept moving by guards waving their hands like traffic policemen, and people shoving, pushing and craning for a view of the canvases. 'His paintings are so young - it is almost as if you could touch the figures,' said a starry-eyed pharmacology student, peering through thick glasses at a fleshy nude.

Art critics say Japan's fascination with Impressionists started because the country was just opening up to the West and sending eager students overseas to study at the end of the last century, when the Impressionist movement was taking hold. The simple landscapes and carefree figures, painted in gentle colours, required no detailed knowledge of previous art history. Japanese painters of the day began to mimic the Impressionist style.

But what was it about Renoir that vaulted him above the rest? 'He is soft and easy to understand,' said Kyoko, who worked in an art gallery in Mashiko, in Tochigi prefecture, and had spent three hours on the train to come to the Barnes Collection. 'Matisse or Picasso are harder . . . more abstract.' Perhaps the softly focused figures of a woman bathing, men in top hats, or a mother with a child on her knee had come to represent to Japanese an easily digestible 'essence of the West', I suggested, just as Europeans have tended to think of woodblock prints of geisha women as the beginning and end of Japanese art. 'So, maybe . . . that is an idea,' said Kyoko.

'It is rare to see so many people at an exhibition these days,' she said, ruefully. Her gallery, which deals in Japanese paintings and pottery, was not doing so much business in the current recession. One of the attractions of the Barnes Collection, she thought, was that it would never return again: as transient as the cherry blossoms that the Japanese revere for a few short weeks in the spring. And then, just as suddenly, she disappeared with a smile into the crowd of Renoir lovers, and I was left alone, in front of a blissfully disinterested Reclining Nude. By Renoir. Oil and canvas. 1895-97.

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