Going, Going, Gauguin

We went to Tokyo last week to see a wonderful exhibition of paintings, wood prints, etchings, and a sculpture by Paul Gauguin. Funny thing was, we had skimmed over the information about it and assumed (you know what means) that it was to be held at the National Museum of Western Art in Ueno Park where we saw "Master Paintings of 17th Century Europe" in June.

K bought our tickets on line and had found out that there is a free shuttle bus from Tokyo Station to the Gauguin exhibit, but not exactly from where it leaves.

Window cleaning with a loooooong extension pole at Tokyo Station's North Entrance

So, it was with very incomplete data that we arrived in Tokyo on the last Wednesday in July. I had some business to take care of just a block from the station, which went smoothly enough. We then set off to find the free shuttle. As you will see, it is a good thing that we didn't just hop on a train to Ueno Park, but the bad news was we spent time roaming around Tokyo Station (which ain't small) looking for the shuttle bus.

Finally, we came across some posters which pointed way to the bus stop. Oddly enough it was at the North entrance - right where our bus from home had arrived. Ah well, I needed the exercise. We had just missed a bus to the exhibit, but another would be along soon, they run every 30 minutes. When we boarded, due to the crowd (and a lady who needed a seat more than I did), K and I were in different parts of the bus. I watched the scenery go by and was was surprised to see the moat of the Imperial Palace. I thought, "wait a minute, this is on the west side of Tokyo Station and Ueno Park is four kilometers to the north." I glanced at my watch - the bus was supposed to take 15 minutes and 10 minutes had already passed. How the hell were we going to get to Ueno from here in 5 minutes? About then, we pulled up at "The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo" which is right across the street (and moat) from the Imperial Palace. DOH! Good thing we took the shuttle bus, otherwise we would have been in Ueno Park at the wrong museum wondering what happened to the exhibit.

The Guaguin Bus

By this time we were interested in lunch so got in line for the "Queen Alice Aqua Restaurant" (not to be confused with Arlo Guthrie's Alice's Restaurant) that is said to be "produced by the Iron Chef French, Ishinabe Yutaka". Whatever. It was "OK" but only offered meat dishes - mostly pork - tiny portions, and was very pricey to boot (¥1200 for a sandwich and 5 potato wedges, plus ¥400 for iced tea or coffee?). The wait was long as well. I would recommend eating at one of the many restrauants in the train station before getting on the shuttle bus. Anyway, that out of the way, we were free to view the exhibit at our leisure. And what an exhibit it is.

From the art museum - Bridge across the Imperial Palace's Moat leading to the Hirakawa Gate. The building on the left, partly obscurred by a tree is the Mainichi Shimbun building - one of Japan's major newspapers.

Surprisingly, there was no line. There were plenty of people, but no waiting to get in. The exhibit is presented chronologically with 18 paintings in the first section dating from 1882 to 1894, then a plaster sculpture "Oviri" and an Etching. Following that are 23 wood prints, and more oil paintings. In all, 53 works.

The Avenue of Les Alyscamps, Arles (1888) - a house that Guaguin shared with van Gogh

The paintings come from collections around the world, some in Japan which we have seen before, many from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, including the main draw - "D’où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous?" (Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?) (1897–98).

Washerwomen, Alres (1888)

I was surprised to find "Where Do We Come From?..." is a huge work at 139.2 by 374.6 cm (about 55 inches high and 12 feet 3.5 inches wide). Just before it, one passes through a darkened room where a video about the elements of the painting is presented. The painting has a room to itself and because it wasn't crowded we could view it from different distances. The colors are wonderful and some of the figures even seem to glow. The elements of the painting, which is to be "read" from right to left, represent Gauguin's view of human life through it's stages.

"D’où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous?"

Many of the figures are ones he used in earlier paintings. The black dog for example represents himself in many paintings. The old woman at the far left represents death and comes from a Peruvian mummy which he saw and used in other previous works. The woman in a black dress just to the right of the idol is his favorite child, Aline, who had recently died of pneumonia at the age of 21 and was the inspiration for this painting as well as the source of his depression. He considered the painting to be his masterpiece, and after it was finished he attempted suicide.

Lucky for us, he was unsuccessful and in the last room were six later paintings, two of which were favorites for us.

Te Pape Nave Nave (Delectable Waters) 1898, has "nave nave" colors and interesting figures - both beautiful and curious - note the woman and child in the background and the idol which is featured in "Where are we from...". The idol in his paintings does not represent a specific religion (Tahitians had no such figures), but rather the gradual stripping away of Western culture and Christianity from Gauguin the longer he stayed in Tahiti.

"A Horse On A Road" 1899, reminds me of Taveuni, where one can still see such a scene.

The exhibit runs through September 23, so there is time to go back for a second look. "D’où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous?" by itself would be worth the trip, but there is much more to see and the other paintings help to bring context to the key work.

The weather had been mostly cloudy with some thunder. As we neared home, I noticed a strange funnel-like cloud that corkscrewed toward the ground. It lingered even as I walked Momo at dusk, the sky itself looking like an artist's canvas.


ladybug said...

Amazing...I'm speechless! How lucky you are to see all the fine exhibits that pass through Tokyo!

Martin J Frid said...

Excellent report as usual (although a bit brief, no?) and the bus trip must have been special, I can really imagine you feeling increasingly lost before arriving.

Nothing like Gaugin must have felt on the long journey by ship all the way to Tahiti.

His art works are among my favourites from an era when Europeans were just beginning to become aware of the power of non-Christian cultures. I could be wrong but I think that was one of Gaugin's main achievements. Magic.

Pandabonium said...

Ladybug - yes, we do enjoy that. And after we get to go home to the peace and quiet of the "boonies". Best of both worlds.

Martin - well, the exhibit left me almost speechless. On the bus it was evident something was off - and I figured it was me, not the driver.

There is an interesting painting there which represents your last thought - Still Life with Horse's Head. It features Japanese fans, a Chinese doll, and a horse's head from the Parthenon as well as an open photo book - inviting one to imagine a travel memoir. Magic, yes.

Robin said...

oh dear..

Was that a storm coming..

It kill too many people already

Pandabonium said...

Robin - oh, yes, there was a storm and it did kill many in southwestern Japan with floods and mudslides. We were lucky and it passed far to the south of us yesterday.

Don Snabulus said...

Ladybug is the art connoisseur in the family, but I enjoy it with a layman's eye. Thank you for the enlightenment.

Peceli and Wendy's Blog said...

Brilliant artist. My favourite for many years, even before I headed for Fiji in 1961. That masterpiece - where are you going? etc. I wish I could paint like that!

Pandabonium said...

Don - I'm a layman too, but art can touch us all. It is part of the human experience.

Wendy - from what I've seen, you do beautiful work, though Gauguin was certainly in a class by himself in many ways.