East Meets West at Ueno Kōen
8 February 2013
Ueno Kōen is a large park in Tokyo where several major museums are located, including the Tokyo National Museum. The latter was my reason for coming to Ueno Park. On Tumblr I wrote that, “A national museum is the record of a civilization seen through the lens of a nation-state.” In the case of an island nation-state like Japan, its geographical boundaries were well-defined long before Japan emerged as a nation-state in the contemporary sense, so there is a significant continuity between pre-national Japan and Japan as a nation-state. Indeed, Japan could be termed a “civilization-state” — an idea that was introduced by Martin Jacques in order to try to define the relationship between the People’s Republic of China and Chinese civilization (cf. A Point Of View: Is China more legitimate than the West?).
This politicized conception of civilization makes national museums particularly interesting to me, and so I make a practice of seeking them out whenever possible. However, when I arrived at Ueno Kōen I discovered that the park is also the home of the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, which is currently hosting a temporary exhibition of fifty-one El Greco paintings, El Greco’s Visual Poetics. Yesterday at the Edo-Tokyo Open-Air Architectural Museum I noticed a posters advertising a major exhibition of El Greco paintings currently on show, and I made a mental note to look this up and see if I could find it; it found me when I arrived at Ueno. The pull of El Greco proved the stronger, so I went to the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum first.
The ticket to enter the El Greco exposition was 1,600 Yen, so it was rather expensive as museums go. Despite the price, once I entered the exposition space I was surprised to see how crowded it was. One almost had to shoulder one’s way through the crowd in order to get up close to any of the pictures. I was even more surprised how quiet everyone was. In an interconnected series of rooms housing 51 paintings and hundreds of viewers milling about trying to get close to the paintings, the atmosphere was so quiet that one felt self-conscious coughing or clearing one’s throat. El Greco has long been a favorite of mine; I felt his presence at a show of icons that I viewed in Iraklion in 1993, and saw some of his most significant work in Toledo in 1998. Since then I have encountered individual paintings in many museums (for example, I wrote about an El Greco painting in Norway at the National Museum) but never before had a see an entire exhibition dedicated to El Greco’s ouvre.
The El Greco exhibition made a point of showcasing El Greco’s artistic development by showing paintings from early and late in his career side by side, sometimes the two contrasting paintings being of the same subject, as with the two portraits of Diego de Covarrubias. Of the two portraits, the earlier is more conventional and more superficially lifelike, but lacking the inner life — we might even say, lacking the inner disquiet and turmoil — of the later picture, which is pale almost to the point of a deathly pallor, i.e., exactly what one expects from a mature El Greco painting. The two paintings of The Adoration of the Shepherds, again, early and late, are as different as night and day — indeed, the earlier seems to depict the scene during the light of day, and the later to depict the same in the dark of night, illuminated from within by the life and spirit of the figures. I was especially interested in the painting “The Glory of Philip II” (which came from El Escorial, though I don’t recall seeing it there when I visited in 1994), which was remarkable in its medieval conventionality, and not at all what one expects from El Greco. Artists (and all creative individuals, for that matter) achieve greatness through the elimination of the conventional and schematic. Yet it may be necessary to begin with the conventional and the schematic in order to overcome it.
After spending a couple of hours entranced by El Greco I left and walked a few minutes away to go to the Tokyo National Museum, my original object in coming to Ueno Park. After the experience of some of the most intense Western art, I saw what the Tokyo National Museum itself calls “Highlights of Japanese Art” — in other words, some of the most intense art of the Japanese tradition. This is another way to work toward the elimination of the conventional and the schematic — to see the world through the eyes of a distinct and alien tradition. One recognizes the objects depicted, but not the style in which they are portrayed. Everything is both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. It is difficult to say whether or not this is a process of defamiliarization, as it is difficult to say whether or not the experience corresponds to the idea that to see is to forget the name of the thing one sees. Is to forget the name to forget the identity, or is to hold fast to the identity while forgetting only the formal linguistic apparatus by which we grasp the identity? Both interpretations are valid in their own sphere, and each represents a distinct idea — a distinct idea of the potential radicalism of perception.
Make of the experience what you will, interpret as you please, see it through the lens of whatever idea best illuminates it, but this is precisely why I seek out the great museum collections. As I wrote above, a national museum is already a record of civilization seen through the lens of a nation-state. In viewing the collection we see it through our own lenses, which may correct, may magnify, or may distort the intended image. Only know that it is an image, and do not mistake the image for anything other than what it is. No one looking upon El Greco can forget that they look upon an image. There is no pretense of naturalism. This is the ideal perspective to bring with one when one goes to visit a national museum.
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