Paintings draw eager admirers from all over Japan

April 02, 1994|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

TOKYO -- At dawn, the line begins in Tokyo's Ueno Park, where thousands of people stand patiently to see 83 paintings that for decades were housed in relative anonymity in Merion, Pa., near Philadelphia.

They shuffle from foot to foot, sip drinks from thermoses or paper containers, and ever so gradually, move as a vast mass to the goal: paintings from the Barnes Collection.

The Cezannes, Matisses, Picassos, Rousseaus and Seurats comprise one of the world's most remarkable assemblages. They were purchased early in the century by Albert Barnes, a millionaire pharmacist, who left them all to a foundation with strict instructions that they never be lent.

The art held up better than his will. With time came scandals and economic problems. This, in turn, prompted an unprecedented world tour. First stop was the National Gallery in Washington, second the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. Though enthusiastically received, nothing could match the reception in Japan.

In recent weeks, 25,000 people a day have been squeezing through the exhibit, while thousands of others have reluctantly turned away. More than a hundred waited patiently outside a back entrance Thursday just to buy the catalog. Ambulances have hauled away the weary who fainted inside the museum.

The 60-day exhibition closes tomorrow after having been seen by about 1 million viewers, and as the end approaches, the crowds continue to expand, goaded on by a publicity campaign that emphasizes the one-time nature of the exhibit.

That may, in part, be a result of the way the show is financed. The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest newspaper, was said to have paid $4.5 million for the exhibit and handled all the business arrangements. In return, it gets most of the money the exhibit generates, and that increases with every $15 ticket and $20 catalog.

The newspaper company, no surprise, has been adept at publicity. The Barnes Collection is now known from one end of Japan to another. Having a ticket -- which cuts about one hour out of the four-hour wait -- is not a bad way to get a date with any person, at any age.

"We left home at 6 a.m., arrived at 9:40 a.m. and waited about four hours to get in and look at the paintings for 45 minutes," says Yaeko Sato, 62, who came with a longtime friend. "We are old, and we thought this would be our only chance."

To provide visibility to the increasingly swollen crowd, curators have raised the level of the pictures five times, from under 5 feet normally to almost 7 feet now. But with the crowd before each picture extending 20 to 30 people deep, it can still be difficult to see.

"I've been working for this museum for 18 years and to me, this is amazing, says chief curator Koki Yukiyama. Though the exhibit was expected to be popular, attendance has been almost double the forecast.

"There are too many people," says Mr. Yukiyama. "This has become more than an exhibition, it is a cultural event."

He said he looks forward to an exhibit of Dutch and German art, scheduled to begin at the end of April, that is expected to draw only a fraction of the crowd, and thus provide opportunities for less hectic viewing.

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