Just like Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation, while my other half went off to do his Tokyo thing during a month-long stay earlier this year, I was left to wander the streets with a vague yet curious look on my face. What to do but to take myself to the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum.
The museum is one of a number of cultural institutions in Ueno Park, on the side furthest away from the train station. It’s an imposing, modern red-brick building, boxy by nature, so much so that its logo is a stylised red cube. You enter by going down the escalators to the lower ground floor. The floor guide shows layer upon layer of galleries, with four ‘Citizen’s Galleries’ hired out by art groups and schools to show members’ and students’ work. The main gallery shows special touring exhibitions and is spread over three floors.
While I was there I saw Neo-Impressionism, from Light to Color, an in-depth look at the progression of the impressionist style of painting (most recognisable in the works of Monet) towards a new and bolder style using more distinct and contrasting combinations of colour.
The large size of the galleries meant that the style’s development could be explored in detail, with multiple works from the same artist showing how they explored the new use of colour and how they experimented with different techniques and subjects. English audio guides were not available but the wall text introducing the theme of each room was in both Japanese and English.
The gallery was busy, with around two to three people at a time pausing to look at each painting. Given the size of the rooms, however, it never felt crowded. Galleries are usually quiet places, but this one was deathly silent – it took one chatty group of tourists only a few seconds to realise the etiquette as they entered, it was so starkly obvious.
The dim silence of the gallery seemed somewhat out of sync with the child-friendly magna doodles that were available at the entrance, clearly part of an education program and attempt to engage youngsters in art. The only other ‘engaging’ thing (for children) was a short video, playing on a TV out in the passageway between galleries. It showed smiley-faced cartoon blobs of paint happily settling themselves next to each other in selected works from the exhibition. I don’t know how much a child would have got out of it, but that 30 second video pretty much summarised the half-year I spent learning about colour theory in Art History, such is the genius of Japanese animation.
Instead of visiting the museum’s coffee shop for the obligatory cup of tea and piece of cake after viewing the exhibition, I ventured outside into Ueno Park. I walked past the Starbucks, overrun with both tourists and locals, towards the Parkside Café. As I entered, a kind waitress showed me out again and explained the proper system for being seated: a sheet of paper on a stand where you fill out your name, number of people and preference for table location (inside/outside). A couple of rows of seats were provided for waiting, and as I was first in queue it wasn’t long before I was shown to a table.
As I sipped my Darjeeling tea and ate my large yet light-as-air slice of honey chiffon cake I couldn’t help but look out over the park and try to see in it neo-impressionist colours, especially with the cherry blossoms set to bloom at any moment. Red. White. Blue. Purple. Orange.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum is open from 9.30am to 5.30pm every day except the first and third Mondays of the month. ‘Neo-impressionism, from light to color’ is no longer showing but there is always something interesting on – check the website for more information. Entry fees vary.