For the exhibition, Ensor in context, 73 paintings and 59 drawings from the Ensor collection of the KMSKA will travel around Japan through 17 March 2013. What makes the exhibition special and how does the Japanese museum culture differ from ours?
Japan has only relatively recently strongly embraced the modern museum culture, which in Europe is also only 250 years old. Thus was the Tokyo Kokuritsu Hakubutsukan (National Museum) established in 1872 after a Japanese delegation had made acquaintance with similar institutions during a visit to the United States 14 years prior. Today, the Japanese museum public is the largest and most avid in the world. The Japanese museum visitor seems to be indefatigable. According to Toshiharu Suzuki, conservator in the Toyota Art Museum, the unbridled visual hunger has been an important facet of Japanese culture for centuries. "In Japan, we have a long and strong tradition of love-for-figures that continues until today in animation and manga (and porn movies, I guess)."
In 1972, an ensemble of paintings, etchings and drawing by James Ensor traveled for the first time to Japanese museums in Kamakura, Nagoya, Fukuoka and Kyoto. From 1983 to 1985, other Japanese cities had their turn. The Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp organised an Ensor exhibition in 2005 in which special attention was given to Ensor's importance given to the art of the Far East with the title: Japonism to Modernism. On 14 April 2012, an Ensor exhibition was again opened in the Toyota Art Museum that subsequently traveled to Ehime, Tokyo and Iwate and will end on 17 March 2013 in Okayama. In the exhibition, Ensor in context. Ensor and the history of European Art from the Collection of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, the museum visitor can explore the history of the Flemish and European art of the 15th to the 20th Century with the art of Ensor's highly varied oeuvre. In Toyota, Ensor was yet again the guest in a building of the architect Yoshio Taniguchi. The latter was in support of the renovation of the MoMA (The Museum of Modern Art) in New York, where in 2010 a large Ensor exhibition also took place.
Apparently, Ensor is on the wish list of Japanese conservators. Collector Tokishi Sakai gifted in 1992 a Still Life to the Museum of Modern Art in Nagaoka. The city museum of Himeij specialises in modern Belgian art and has in addition to Ensor (a Still Life with Fruit, Flowers and bare lights [lumières effeuillées]) also paintings and prints by Léon Frederic, Fernand Khnopff and Xavier Mellery. Two other museums, in the province of Aichi, are able to boast of masterworks by Ensor: The Portrait of the painter surrounded by masks of 1899 was purchased by the Menard Art Museum in Komaki (the museum also possesses the lovely Self-portrait of the artist at his harmonium of 1932). The Toyota Art Museum purchased Ensor's first Garden of Love (1888) in 1993. Shortly before or after WWI, both paintings were sold to his friend Emma Lambotte-Protin, who with her husband, Dr. Albin Lambotte of Liège moved to Antwerp. Serious financial problems compelled them in turn to sell the majority of their collection of Ensor paintings. The Royal Museum got the chance in 1927 to purchase The Oyster-Eater (1882), Adam and Eve (1887) and a few other pieces for the sum of 1 million Belgian Francs (+/- 25.000 euro). A lack of funds made the museum to limit itself to 6 works. Consequently, the Antwerp lover Cléomir Jussiant bought from Lambotte, among others, the Portrait of the Painter Surrounded by Masks, the Garden of Love and Children at morning toilet (1886, bought by the Flemish Government for the Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent in the meantime). The works likewise traveled to Japan. If paintings could miss each other, then it must have been a nice reunion for The Oyster-Eater and the famous self-portrait surrounded by masks.
Whoever has read Haruki Murakami's three-part 1Q84, knows that literary criticism is a booming genre in Japan. Art criticism, such as we know in Europe and the United States, is, however, not practiced at all. Conservator Toshiharu Suzuki of the Toyota Art Museum told me that the newspapers and magazines don't do any more than to mention an exhibition and do not further publish editorials in which an expert critiques an exhibition. Japanese museum conservators deduce the perceived value of an exhibition by reactions from individual visitors, tweets, emails, comments in the guestbook or to the gallery monitors.
Toshiharu Suzuki is a young conservator and I have bombarded him for a time with a battery of questions via emails. Toshi is a specialist in European art history. Although Toyota is nothing more than the hometown of the personnel for the eponymous automobile factory, its museum houses a very nice collection of modern art, with works by Ensor, Schiele, Brancusi, Foujita, Bacon and Boltanski amongst others. As a teenager, Toshi loved Oasis and The Beatles, Hollywood productions, Jean-Luc Goddard and Western fashion. When he also took an interest in contemporary Japanese art, he initially found it to be a poor imitation of Western examples. At the University of Tokyo, Toshi wrote his first art historical work on Gerhard Richter. Gradually he became fascinated by the relationship between art and society and thus during a vacation with his parents in Paris, he discovered the late-19th-century monumental Symbolist art of painting of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, the author of the well-known, very religiously tinted Poor Fisherman (1881). Because of the centuries-old reservations of many Japanese for Christianity, I asked Toshi about his own opinions of religion. As a child, he repeatedly visited the Buddhist temples on the top of the sacred mountain Koyasan. They did this in the hopes that repeated visits to Koyasan would contribute to the healing of the eye disease that young Toshi suffered from. Toshi still believes that a visit to a holy place can be healing but he does not view himself as a believing Buddhist by any means. Like many Japanese, he often visits a Shinto shrine, but is no converted Shintoist. Toshi told me that like us, the Japanese museum visitor appreciates the artistic qualities and the cultural importance of Christian or Buddhist images. "We naturally accept the existence and power of figures and images, so that we don't hesitate much to worship images in a museum. Even when we are strongly and spiritually moved, it is not usual for us, either, to put our hands together in front of a sculpture or an image in a museum, I guess. (...) I rather wonder whether western art lovers don't feel any holiness in front of, for example, a painting of Fra Angelico or Jan van Eyck."
Many Japanese art lovers are definitely just like Toshi Suzuki: curious, open, accessible and at the same time opinionated and elusive. The time has come, I believe, to prepare the next Ensor exhibition along with intriguing conservators such as Toshi Suzuki.