Portrait painting has been a recurring practice throughout history, from prehistoric drawings on cliffs and rocks to iconic works like the Mona Lisa, which captures the timeless charm of a subject’s smile. This art form has long been used by people to explore their identity and place in a vast and complex world.
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the character marvels at the complexity and wonder of humanity, stating, “What a piece of work is a man. How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in appreciation how like a god!”
The Tokyo Fuji Art Museum in Japan houses a substantial collection of Western art spanning from the 16th to 20th centuries, with a particular focus on portrait paintings. Now, select works from this collection are touring China, with exhibitions in Shenyang and Shanghai.
The Vision and Gaze exhibition at the Liaoning Provincial Museum drew over 300,000 visitors in three months before concluding on April 5th. The works will now be shown at the Power-long Museum in Shanghai from Wednesday until July 23rd.
The Tokyo Fuji Art Museum was opened to the public in 1983 and has amassed a collection of over 30,000 works from various genres and time periods. In 2018, selected Western paintings from the collection were loaned to the Tsinghua University Art Museum in Beijing, allowing local audiences to experience the museum’s artistic assets. Some of the pieces showcased then, such as Jupiter and Thetis by French painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Bonaparte Crossing the Great St. Bernard, attributed to the studio of French artist Jacques-Louis David, are now making a return visit to China as part of this touring exhibition.
According to Zhang Huiwen, a curator at Art Exhibitions China, the institution responsible for organizing the tour of the Tokyo Fuji Art Museum’s collection, this exhibition is different from the one held at the Tsinghua University Art Museum five years ago. The works in this exhibition are arranged progressively, illustrating the evolving roles of figure painting in history and the diverse ways to present portrait figures.
Zhang explains that the exhibition showcases changes in the central figures in Western painting, moving from gods to royalty, elites, and eventually to ordinary people. She also notes that the exhibition gathers motifs depicted in different social backgrounds and by different artists, offering the audience a diverse history of images.
Zhang commends the Tokyo Fuji Art Museum for its global vision, which has led to the inclusion of works by signature artists in Western art history throughout the centuries. The collection encompasses styles as diverse as Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassicism, Romanticism, Impressionism, and Modernism.
Through the act of gazing at these works, people will discover their own answers about history and beauty, says Zhang. She adds, “Facing a piece of art, people may see themselves or others; they may find something familiar or entirely strange. Most of the time, they will feel that art is thought-provoking and challenges their fixed values.”