Dripping with Wonder: Impressions of the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo

vetheuil monet

Japan is what first sparked my interest in living abroad. The promise of something so unlike what I saw everyday, the energy, the atmosphere. A change from the sweaty days spent in Azusa. That was nearly four years ago. I am glad to say I have finally visited Tokyo, Japan.

And though I am tempted to immediately spill out my enthusiasm for the city right away, I have decided to let it simmer a bit, to let the best parts float to the top (otherwise I would be blurting out a five-thousand word ramble on how Tokyo is oh just the best) and first write about how I fell in love with the paintings of Claude Monet and other pieces during my beatific experience at the National Museum of Western Art in Japan.

A Museum Hugger At Heart

redon le jure II
Le Juré, II: Redon when he decided not to paint bland flowers.

I prefer the company of a good chunk of words and am far from an art critic or expert, but there are few things I enjoy so much as an excursion to a museum. In every city of every country I visit, my first instinct is to look up what new delights await. Museums of art, history, science, a giant 17th century boat. All kinds. Rarely expensive, they provide a wonderfully condense insight to the local history and culture, open a window to the past, cause me to reflect on various lofty paradigms, or simply situate me in front of something enjoyable to look at. Sometimes all at once.

Tokyo proved no exception to this addiction. In the two weeks I spent there, I visited four museums. I learned about Japanese flora and fauna, horology and seismology. I splashed in the unsatisfying lukewarm waters of Odilon Redon’s work. Stood baffled by some modern art at the Mori Museum. And, as I mentioned, found myself infatuated with the works of Monet.

Let’s Start With Claude

rouen cathedral in morning light_getty
This one.

My first major experience with Monet was one of his paintings of Rouen Cathedral, a Catholic structure located in Normandy, France. Specifically, it was The Portal of Rouen Cathedral in Morning Light located at the Getty Center in California. One of a series of more than thirty paintings the artist made on this single subject, each one portraying the cathedral at a different time of day and year. Each work portraying the building in a slightly different light. It captivated me with its spectral weight. The stone facade discarded for the truth beneath it.

Before this I had not given much thought to impressionist painters. Many of their works had had little effect on me. Some downright turned me away. Monet didn’t. And one brisk Saturday afternoon in Ueno Park, I spent my day in a room at the National Museum of Western Art surrounded by about ten of his works. Not all of them left me amazed, but each had its own appeal.


Oh, How the Light Hits Giverny

haystacks giverny monet

The first of Monet’s works I saw that day was one of his Haystacks in Giverny series. I was captivated by the lack of earth tones in a scene that should have been as earthy as things get. Stacks of hay in an otherwise empty field. Though I think the piece depicted morning, it gave me the sense that the sun was setting, that it was time for me to put a hard day’s work of gathering hay behind me and have a smoke on the porch as the light disappeared. I thought that I had simply chanced upon another pleasing Monet, marked that down as a plus…and then I saw the next painting on the wall was also by him.

I smiled. Not blown away, but glad that his two previous works hadn’t been contaminated by seeing something unpleasant. As had been the case after I saw In the Woods by Renoir, which I enjoyed, only to realize that three steps later I would find myself repulsed at how he draws faces. They might be brilliant in technique, I wouldn’t know, but they nearly stole away the magic of the Woods. Such did not happen with Monet.

in the woods renoir
In the Woods

Then It Got Out of Control

morning on the seine money
Morning on the Seine

And then I saw Morning on the Seine and Vétheuil. I spent the majority of my time staring with rapture at these two. I tried different distances, angles, squinted my eyes, took off my glasses. Anything to experience the paintings more, to keep the experience going, to just completely suck them in, as though I were Polyphemus and the works were Odysseus and his men (a grotesque analogy that I cannot quite explain why it came to mind).  I saw I had nothing to fear regarding being disappointed in Monet. Even were I to encounter a painting by him that was less that pure luster (as soon happened when I moved on to On the Boat), it wouldn’t dampen the effect of what I had seen.

Still brimming with pleasure after I left the Monet room, I went downstairs. Spent some time with their single Van Gogh and Gauguin respectively, pretty sure by then that I had had my fill of art for the day. Much like Elliot pointed out in The Razor’s Edge by Maughaum, you can only spend so much time in a museum looking at art in one go. My art faculty was getting used up and I thought there no room for anything else. I blurred by paintings, none catching my eye…

Further Down the Hole

the port at saint tropez signac
The Port of Saint-Tropez

And I stopped. Geeze I muttered. Paul Signac’s The Port of Saint-Tropez loomed in front of me. Oh hell, those can’t all be dots I thought, leaned in, groaned, and smiled. A perfect dessert to end the day. His pointillism massaged my eyes in a way even Seurat never did. After I was fully sated, warmed by the work, I went in to the next room, just in case a morsel tempted me to gluttony.

The room of was full of Picasso and his ilk.

I spent as much time in that room as it took for my feet to carry me through one side and out the next. I thought myself out of danger of falling into sin. Made it out of the museum and into the outer yard, looked around wondering what to do next and dammit I laid eyes on one of the three original bronze casts of Rodin’s The Gates of Hell. It stood over three times my height, proud, and pulled at my imagination. The smallest details of each figure’s muscles straining against their punishment, their silent and still writhing, were haunting. Never had much appreciation for sculpture until then.

gates of hell rodin
Good lord.

Glad I Got That All Out of My System

Allow me to reiterate, I know jack diddly piddidle squat nada about art. Other than that I know I like it. When it does something for me. When it can latch on and pull me in with its gravitas. I find some masters like Redon or Cézanne mostly dull experiences, but can find the obscure scratchings of Hilma af Klint to be a source of fascination. Pollock is bollocks and Picasso churns my stomach. Monet makes me feel like the world is a better place than it is. Van Gogh can make my dreams seem dreary in comparison to his depiction of a mulberry tree. I quite literally call them as I see them, and it is what it is.

And that day in Tokyo will keep me gratified for some time.

Honorable Mentions Worth a Gander

Edgar Degas’ Three Dancers in the Wings

Max Ernst’s Petrified Forest

Antoine Bourdelle’s Hercules the Archer