Ghosts, devils, hell, monsters, murders, and execution. These dark, challenging themes are at the heart of the recently opened Fear in Painting exhibition, housed in the sublimely elegant, Tadao Ando-designed Hyogo Prefecture Museum of Art in Kobe.
Based on the popular Kowai-e books series first published 10 years ago, the exhibition encourages visitors to read and understand the assembled array of exotic and unusual works.
“My fervent desire is to convey the idea that paintings become more interesting after we understand the historic events, people and stories that they depict,” the author of the books, Kyoko Nakano, explained.
The exhibition itself has taken years of preparation and is the result of the passion of the author, Kyoko Nakano, the Hyogo curator, Koki Okamoto, and the leading organizer, Satoru Fujimoto. They have gathered works from major international arts institutions to make this one of the most unusual, unique, and interesting exhibitions seen in Japan in recent years.
International curators and lenders recognize the value of the plan for the exhibition. “Fear in Painting is one of the more fascinating concepts for an exhibition that I’ve seen in Japan over the past 20 years,” said James Mundy, the director of the famous Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center in America’s Vassar College.
“I applaud the intellectual and literary basis for this show which captured our attention from the beginning of the process and made us very enthusiastic about lending to it,” he added.
Certainly, it is very different from the usual popular diet of Impressionism—it has serious and sensational content. The exhibition presents over 80 major oil paintings and 50 lithographs and prints, many of which have never travelled to Japan before.
Largely from the 19th Century, the theme that unifies the images is that of fear in its many different forms. In some paintings, the fear is easily identifiable: a ghost, a devil, a corpse. But in others, it is the story behind the painting that needs to be understood before being able to identify the fear.
Nakano has rightly identified the fact that we are losing the ability to understand these important pictures. Modern education, both in Japan and in the West, now rarely covers the myths, legends, and biblical stories that so entranced the painters of these works. Yet when they were created, these paintings provided the public with a visual representation of stories that were common currency—they were the films and television dramas of their time.
Interestingly, the high ceilings, white walls, pale grey concrete staircases, and corridors of the venue all help to breathe new life into these old paintings, lithographs, and prints. Taken out of their familiar surroundings, they take on a new vibrancy and an unexpected beauty.
The exhibition itself snakes through six different chapters: Mythology and the Bible; Devils, Hell and Monsters; Other Worlds and Visions; The Real World, The Sublime Landscapes; and, finally, History. Each section explores different aspects of its theme and is wonderfully illustrated in masterpieces by artists, such as Redon, Fuseli, Munch, and Turner.
So many of the images merit mention and further exploration, but perhaps the most overwhelmingly powerful painting is Paul Delaroche’s The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, the final painting of the exhibition. This magnificent canvas—enormous at over three meters wide—features the moment before the tragic Lady Jane Grey was executed. Known as the Nine Days Queen, this historic figure is vividly brought to life by one of France’s most important 19th Century painters, one who captures the moment in all its intensity and its fear.
“Nakano’s Eye”—guidance notes from Ms Nakano—features throughout the exhibition, pointing the visitor to what there is to understand about the painting or print.
In the case of The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, she analyzes the tricks employed by the artist to heighten the mood. Lady Jane Grey herself is presented as a slightly smaller figure, in all white, to emphasize her youth and vulnerability. The scene is set as if it were on stage, bringing drama directly to the viewer. The painting caused a sensation when it was first shown in Paris. Maybe memories of the execution of their own Queen, Marie Antoinette, gave the image extra poignancy, but Parisians were fully caught up in the emotions evoked by the picture.
Donated years later to London’s National Gallery, the painting remains one of the most popular in a crowded field of masterpieces, with the floor in the National Gallery in front of the painting worn down by the shoes of so many visitors who stop, transfixed by the tragic and dramatic scene. It is the first time that the painting has traveled to the East and it is fittingly the central image of a richly visual exhibition.
The exhibition will open your eyes, reset your thinking, and expand your understanding of art that has been unjustifiably neglected for far too long been. Catch it while you can!
The exhibition will be on show at the Hyogo Prefecture Museum of Art in Kobe until September 18th (tickets at 1,400 yen), and will open in Tokyo at the Royal Ueno Museum from October 7th through December 17th (tickets at 1,600 yen).
Sue Hudson works in the London office of Fujisankei Communications International, dealing with projects aimed at improving understanding and relationships between Britain and Japan, and also between Europe and Japan.