A painting by a Flemish artist (who died in 1569) of an ancient Greek myth – one which inspired an Englishman to write a poem after seeing it in a museum in Brussels in the 30s (a poem I studied and admired at school in Canada in the 80s) – is on display in Osaka, Japan until June 24th, 2007. So, like , I was so there to see it on Tuesday.
This was at the The National Museum of Art, Osaka, a real architectural marvel in a city not known for such things (“National” is the key word: the Japanese government built this. Osaka City Council’s expertise runs more along the lines of bankrupt-in-a-year shopping centres and failed, un-amusing amusement spaces). The whole museum, with the exception of the giant jabberwock-skeleton entrance, is underground. What sounds like should be a bunker is in fact quite spacious and relaxing (unless you try to see a special exhibition on a Sunday, in which case it’s like Ellis Island, c. 1902, but you could say the same thing about anywhere downtown on a Sunday – a coffee shop, even).
The painting, Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, is smaller than you’d expect, like the old originals always seem to be because you’ve only ever seen them as posters on the walls of college dorms (or of late, Osaka subway stations). It’s the showpiece of an exhibition from the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, comprising 400 years of Flemish and Belgian painting. It occurred to me that prior to this showing, the only image I had of the painting was from W.H. Auden’s “Musée-des-Beaux-Arts,” a poem I have always liked (incidentally, both the painting and the poem oddly sync with the recently-fallen Kurt Vonnegut’s “so it goes,” philosophy). Auden’s centenery was this year, and “Musée des Beaux-Arts” is (was?) a fairly well-known poem in the English-speaking world (or syllabus), so you’d think the painting would be in London or New York this year. Instead, it’s at least three stories underground for two months in Japan’s perennial second city (the Chicago, Montreal, Manchester of these islands). Well, good for me!
Icarus is the Big Draw, which most museums, especially here, must have to bring the punters in these days. Although I was happy to see it, all the hoopla takes away from the rest of the exhibition, which is really two-in-one: Flemish Old Masters and offbeat Belgian modernists, which have to be tacked together rather scantily with some big, dull, late-18th/early-19th century Academy stuff, which only serves to lead you from Point A to Point B without too much of a thud. I saw some wonderful van Dykes and Rubenses, as well as some other unknown-to-me Flemish masters whose works were lively and fascinating. Next you’ll be wanting names, but sadly, I have no names to drop, although I suppose I could decipher a few from the Japanese katakana list to my right (on second thought, no). The big revelation for me was the completely off-the-wall work of James Ensor, especially this (click here). After spending some time with his cartoonish wit, even the Magrittes at the end seemed a bit stodgy. I’ll be back.