Hubert Robert: Les jardins du Temps & The Prisons by Giovanni Battista Piranesi Back

Unfortunately, we still have little opportunity to view western art from the eighteenth century in Japan. Nonetheless, 2012 was a memorable year for the Japanese art scene, as three fascinating exhibitions of eighteenth-century art were held: Hubert Robert: Les jardins du Temps and The Prisons by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, both of which will be discussed below, and Jean Siméon Chardin (1699-1779) (Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum, Tokyo) .

The first exhibition devoted exclusively to Hubert Robert (1733-1808) ever to be held in Japan, Hubert Robert: Les jardins du Temps, took place consecutively at the National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo, the Fukuoka Art Museum, and the Shizuoka Prefectural Museum of Art, from 6 March to 30 September. A French painter, Robert enjoyed an esteemed reputation in Europe during the second half of the eighteenth century for his imaginary landscapes with ruins. Robert is still relatively unknown to the Japanese public; this exhibition aimed to present a comprehensive picture of the painter’s career, and to explore his aesthetic project by reconsidering his interpretation of Arcadia as it revealed itself in his paintings and garden designs. The exhibition mainly consisted of the marvellous sanguine drawing collection of the Musée de Valance, which has been closed for renovation since 2009, and it presented approximately 130 works, including paintings, drawings, prints and furniture.

The exhibition consisted of six sections. The first four sections outlined the painter’s career chronologically. As an introduction to his stay in Rome (1754-1765), the first section focussed on the French and Italian traditions of landscape painting in the seventeenth century, which greatly influenced contemporary landscape painters, including Robert. In recent years, the National Museum of Western Art and the Shizuoka Prefectural Museum of Art have managed to enrich their collections of seventeenth century ideal landscape paintings, and works from these collections by painters such as Claude Lorrain, Gaspard Dughet and Salvator Rosa were on display. These works convey a sense of the importance of nature and landscape in the aesthetic standard of this period. Eighteenth-century landscape painters like Robert were drawn to Rome to study the numerous landscape paintings held in private collections there, as well as to sketch various locations in the city and its suburbs in the open air.

The second section of the exhibition contained drawings of places of both scenic beauty and historical interest in Rome, while the third section focussed on drawings of suburban villa gardens. These works demonstrate that Robert had no interest in depicting scenes precisely, and that already in his early years he was engaging in a variety of experiments, such as close-up views of architectural structures, strong contrasts between light and dark, and bold compositions. These works supplied important motifs for his capriccios and garden designs later in his life.

The fourth section was centred on Robert’s career in France, especially the views of Paris which he chose as a new subject following his return from Rome. In this section, there were many works featuring a mother and child group in the foreground, a motif that came to characterise the works that he produced in Paris. The accompanying exhibition catalogue suggests a relation between the works from this period and his stable family life. His religious painting, The Adoration of the Shepherds, was placed alongside a series of works featuring the motif of the mother and child, underlining the link between this recurrent motif and the Virgin and Child. Moreover, this painting proposes an idea about the approach that eighteenth-century landscape painters took to history painting. Robert collected many religious paintings in his home, and it is interesting to note that in his later years he depicted himself as a painter copying Raphael’s Holy Family. History painting, which ranked the highest in the academy’s hierarchy, could function as an important source of imagery for landscape painters such as Robert.

The last two sections of this exhibition reconsidered the characteristics of Robert’s capriccios and gardens as clues for illuminating his artistic interpretation. The fifth section examined Robert’s creative process, displaying his works completed in Paris that were adapted from the numerous drawings he executed in Rome. The works connected with the painting The Discoverers of Antiques are particularly noteworthy. The drawings executed in Rome that later provided the motifs for this work, and the preparatory drawing executed in Paris were on display together with the final oil painting. Viewers could appreciate how Robert’s creative work shifted from reality to fantasy as he adjusted the composition, reconstructing the architecture and adding a narrative element to the scene with figures. While many of Robert’s contemporaries specialized in the genre of the capriccio, Robert stood out in his original approach to the genre, which the curators attribute to his particular figural expression: Robert’s figures depicted before the ancient ruins are mostly ‘people living in the present’. Therefore they serve to represent the expanse of time between past and present in his works.

The sixth section focussed on the gardens produced by Robert and demonstrated through a comparison between Robert’s drawings of existing gardens and his capriccios how his garden design was inspired by his own imaginary landscapes. However, this section represented the characteristics of English picturesque gardens of the eighteenth century which became popular in France at the beginning of 1770s, not Robert’s particular creative features. While his imaginative reinterpretation of his own gardens in his paintings and drawings would have made an interesting subject for exploration, the exhibition regrettably does not venture into it. Of particular importance in this section is View of Cascade with the Shepherds of Arcadia, which the curators clearly regard as pictorial evidence of Robert’s interpretation of Arcadia, an indispensable topos for gardens of this period. The catalogue naturally suggests the influence of Nicolas Poussin’s famous painting Et in Arcadia ego on Robert’s creative work, yet it does not refer to the important point of his deliberate revision of the Latin inscription (‘Et ego pastor in Arcadia’). This sentence, in which the shepherd is explicitly described as the subject, is quite distinct from the message of memento mori that the related works of the preceding century had included. Robert’s revised sentence therefore locates his inclination much more in an indulgence in the pastoral Arcadia – a distinction which could have been better clarified in the exhibition.

The exhibition was remarkable for its enterprising attempt to comprehensively present the art of Hubert Robert to Japanese viewers for the first time. There are unfortunately no works related to the project for the renovation of the Grand Gallery of the Louvre, in which Robert played an important role. The curators might well have been aware of this absence, hence the essay in the catalogue, ‘Hubert Robert and the Louvre’, which provides supplementary information on his career as a curator of the museum. Nonetheless, this essay does not mention the historical significance of his famous Imaginary View of the Ruins of the Grand Gallery of the Louvre. In learning of this exceptional work, which visualised architectural structures that did not yet exist as ruins, the viewers could have discerned Robert’s complex artistic personality, which the curators managed to summarise in the subtitle of the exhibition, Les jardins du Temps (‘The Gardens of Time’). On this point, further investigation of the characteristics of his ruins, and some explanation of their relation to a new aesthetic theory of the sublime would not have gone amiss. However, the curators instead chose to focus on the theme of the pastoral Arcadia, which admittedly is not necessarily consistent with the sublime in terms of pictorial language. The exhibition undoubtedly promotes a better understanding of the genre of capriccio in the eighteenth century, however viewers may not have received an entirely comprehensive reflection of Robert’s position in western art of this period beyond this aspect of his work.

That said, the exhibition was successful in offering insight into Robert’s intellect, which clearly played a significant role in his artistic production. More than the catalogue or the wall texts, it is the works on display that communicate his intellectual capability: his broad knowledge of ancient history and literature, his interest in history paintings and his relationship with contemporary intellectuals. Robert’s occupation as garden designer and museum curator, which he undertook in his later years, naturally required such a background in high culture. Moreover, through its close attention to Robert’s art, the exhibition also shed light on the common creative process of the eighteenth-century landscape painters who travelled to Rome. Despite the unique characteristics of each painter’s oeuvre, viewers could appreciate the similar artistic interests of painters such as Honoré Fragonard, Claude Joseph Vernet and Richard Wilson, who are compared with Robert in the exhibition, and who often returned to their work produced in Italy in the course of developing their individual style. The exhibition allowed viewers to understand the great impact that a stay in Rome had on eighteenth-century painters, and to visually experience the Grand Tour, an important cultural phenomenon of eighteenth-century Europe.

The National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo , which organised the Hubert Robert exhibition, staged another exhibition, The Prisons by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, in its Prints and Drawing Gallery at the same time (5 March to 20 May). The exhibition of Robert’s work emphasised the painter’s close friendship and artistic exchange with Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778) , who was working as a printmaker in Rome at the time. The direct comparison between Robert’s ruin landscapes and Piranesi’s most imaginative work, the Prisonsserved to communicate the significance of the capriccio as a cultural inclination of the eighteenth century, and the exhibition was surely planned with such an educational purpose in mind. For several decades, the Museum has attempted to accumulate a comprehensive collection of Piranesi’s works, and some of the Museum’s plates from Piranesi’s Views of Rome, Roman Antiquities and Antiquities of Cori were also included in the exhibition of Robert.

This exhibition of the Prisons presented 14 plates from the first state (1749-50) and 16 plates from the second state (1761), and arranged the plates of each of the two states side by side. As is well known, Piranesi published the second state by revising the first state according to his style at the time. It was wonderful for viewers to have the opportunity to see the detailed renderings, the strong contrast between light and dark and the bold composition in the second state and to appreciate the drastic change in Piranesi’s creative vision, by means of comparing the two states. A catalogue was not prepared for the exhibition, and it is therefore difficult to guess the curator’s scholarly perspective on it. Judging from a few wall texts which explain Piranesi’s technique of printmaking, the image sources of this work and his creative intent for the second-state prints, this exhibition was primarily concerned with Piranesi’s artistic personality, as distinct from the Robert exhibition, which by comparison was more focussed on an aesthetic interpretation.

These parallel exhibitions, Hubert Robert: Les jardins du Temps and The Prisons by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, presented a valuable opportunity for Japanese viewers to appreciate the art of two eighteenth-century painters, and to consider them as contemporaries.

‘Hubert Robert: Les jardins du Temps’ was at the National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo, from 6 March to 20 May 2012; at Fukuoka Art Museum from 19 June to 29 July 2012; and at Shizuoka Prefectural Museum of Art from 9 August to 30 September 2012.

‘The Prisons by Giovanni Battista Piranesi’ was at the National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo, from 6 March to 20 May 2012.