Renoir, Monet, Gauguin: an east-west passion for European art

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French modern art acquired separately by a German and Japanese art lover is exhibited together to celebrate the Folkwang Museum’s centenary.

On February 6, 2022, the Folkwang Museum in the German city of Essen will be 100 years old. Founded at the beginning of the 20th century by Karl Ernst Osthaus, its website indicates that it was built with three ideas in mind: “dialogue between arts and cultures, the museum as a place of exchange and cultural education, and the unity of art and life.

For its centenary celebrations, the organizers of the Folkwang Museum were inspired by the international and humanist tradition of the institution and organized an exhibition entitled “Renoir, Monet, Gauguin – Images of a floating world”. The exhibition aims to illustrate how French modern art was not only appreciated in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century but also in Japan.

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For this, the curators have brought together two collections: one belonging to Osthaus and the other to a Japanese businessman, Kojiro Matsukata. Speaking to DW, Rebecca Herlemann of Museum Folkwang said: “The collections that these two people (Osthaus and Matsukata) have built are very similar in terms of their artistic positions and it is very interesting to compare and contrast these two. collection”.

A modern museum in Japan

At the turn of the 19th century, Europe – and especially Germany – was experiencing massive industrialization. But it was also the time when the arts flourished and inspired people like Osthaus to leave his traditional family profession – his father was a banker – and revive the industrial Ruhr area with art and culture.

In Matsukata’s case, the discovery of the art was more accidental. Born into a wealthy Japanese family, his father – Matsukata Masayoshi – served as Prime Minister during the Meiji period, when Japan underwent major social, political and economic changes and its rulers sought to create a nation state capable of resist the Western colonial powers.

In an essay on the art collector titled “A Basic Guide to the World’s Greatest Matsukata Collection”, Japanese author Maha Harada writes that Matsukata was a poor student, but the status of his father and wealthy friends secured her a doctorate from Yale University in Harada is an art historian and writer of historical fiction, specializing in classical painters of Europe.

According to Harada, Matsukata was chosen to lead the Kawasaki Shipbuilding Company when he was around 30 years old, and a worldwide shortage of ships after World War I ensured his business flourished. “It is said that what sparked his interest in artwork was that he found a painting of a shipyard by Frank Brangwyn in a gallery in London which he happened to walk into to pass the time. Matsukata, the president of a shipyard, felt a sense of connection with a painting of something familiar,” Harada writes.

Later Matsukata felt that poor Japanese artists needed an art museum in Japan, where they could directly commune with the paintings and so he stumbled upon the idea of ​​building a museum in his native Japan.

Japonism in European art

Brangwyn became his partner in finding and buying works of art by prominent European artists. Visiting Europe in 1921, Matsukata also met the painter Claude Monet and bought several of his canvases which hung in the painter’s house. Monet is also believed to have confessed to having a passion for Japanese ukiyo-e paintings, including woodblock prints and images of sumo wrestlers and beautiful women, Maha Harada writes in her essay.

Monet was not the only one to love all things Japanese: other painters of this period, including Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, were inspired by Japanese stylistic artifices and woodcuts from the period of “Japanism”. between 1860 and 1910 when Japan was in vogue among Monet’s “Water Lilies” series is also believed to be inspired by Japanese artistic styles.

Many works of art belonging to Matsukata were stored in Paris or London and after World War II the over 400 works in France were confiscated as enemy property. The financial crisis also ruined the businessman, whose nearly 1,000 works of art were sold at auction in Japan.

The paintings he previously owned, including Monet’s “Water Lilies” and Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker” and “The Gates of Hell”, were eventually acquired by Japan in the late 1950s on the condition that a museum dedicated to European art is created. As a result, the National Museum of Western Art was founded in Tokyo in 1959.

Combinations and contrasts

The Folkwang Museum’s centenary exhibition allows the painting collections of Matsukata and Osthaus to “enter into dialogue” with each other. The museum’s Rebecca Herlemann explains the concept, saying nearly 40 works of art from Matsukata were brought to Essen for the centenary exhibition, giving visitors the unique opportunity to compare her collection with that of Osthaus.

“What we see are many similarities in the case of artistic positions and special works that they purchased. For example, in the case of Paul Gauguin, you can see that Osthaus purchased more later works , whereas Matsukata purchased many early works by this artist,” she explains, adding that it helps the viewer see how the painter’s style as well as his subjects have changed over the years.

“For Paul Gauguin, for example, he was in France and lived in Brittany. He painted what he saw there, like seascapes and people from the coast. Then he went to the South Sea and very interested in culture and people. he met there, so his subjects changed, as well as his paints and colors,” says Herlemann.

In addition to prominent European masters, including Renoir, Gauguin, Rodin among others, the exhibition also features works by Oriental artists from the Osthaus collection and is complemented by works by contemporary Japanese artists, including Chiharu Shiota and Tabaimo .

The event is organized under the patronage of German President Frank Walter Steinmeier and starts on February 6 in Essen. The curators have also included films and lectures, which can be viewed online.

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