Friday 3rd August: Perugino in Fukuyama

Mrs H had a day off work today so we decided to hop onto the bullet train and head for the provincial city of Fukuyama to see the Perugino exhibition at the Fukuyama Museum of Art.

The first thing you see when you alight from the train and stop to gorp around is the imposing edifice of Fukuyama castle. Be not fooled, fellow pilgrim, Fukuyama castle is fake.

Fukuyama was bombed to buggery on 8th August 1945 and Fukuyama castle was destroyed along with eighty percent of the city, just two days after Hiroshima had been wiped out by the A-bomb. Then, on the ninth, Nagasaki was hit. The unprecedented horrors of the atom bombings were such that the destruction of Fukuyama and other cities were put firmly in the shade. You might say that although Hiroshima had been “nuked” Fukuyama had been “fu-ked”, for the A-bomb gave Hiroshima fame and a sense of purpose: to preach a new-found conviction for peace unto the nations. Many have heard of Hiroshima, few of Fukuyama. So Fukuyama competes by calling itself the rose city. It rose from the ashes and planted roses, although I have to admit that I did not see a single rose while in Fukuyama.

Fukuyama castle was rebuilt in 1966, of concrete, steel, wood, stone and plaster. As it is close to the station and en route to the museum we found it not too arduous to go and have a look.

Mrs H at the outer gate.
From the mound upon which the castle was erected, as one gazes to the west one is struck by the site of a large mock gothic church with towers rising from either side of the facade. The church is even more of a fake than the castle. It is one of Japan’s many pseudo churches built entirely for the purpose of holding psuedo wedding ceremonies presided over by pseudo priests. Your psuedo priest is usually an enterprising English language teacher who wishes to earn some extra lolly on the Lord’s Day.

Mrs H & the Fake Facade of Fukuyama
Fukuyama Museum of Art is just at the bottom of the road in the photo.

It is always a treat when anything from Europe earlier than and other than French Impressionism makes it to the galleries of the Chugoku region and this exhibition was no exception. Perugino was influenced by Verrocchio and Piero della Francesca. Raphael was his pupil. Perugino spans the transition in style and technique from early to high Renaissance.

Perugino was one of the earliest of the Italians to use oil, but many of the works on display in the exhibition, by Perugino and others, were painted on wood using tempera or tempera with oil, such as this charming painting of the annunciation.

The red tinge of Gabriel’s nose, not easily discernible in the photo, is suggestive of a fellow who has of late been too much on the sauce.

We had been looking at paintings mostly on religious themes, with Saint Jerome getting more than his fair share of the action, whether kneeling in devotion in the sombre Madonna della Pietà or out in the desert, pummelling his chest with a stone while a lion sits in placid attendance, as in this example of tempera on cloth.

This particular example is from the Galleria Nationale di Umbria in Perugia, Italy. It seems to have been painted to be viewed from the right as the extended arm becomes horribly distorted when viewed from any other angle.

Tempura, the base ingredient of which is egg yolk, coagulates swiftly and produces a thin translucent pastel effect if left unvarnished. It preserves its colour very well over time.

Oil, on the other hand, dries more slowly so it can be worked over again and again. It produces a greater depth of colour saturation and a richly sensuous solidity that reinforces the illusions of perspective and dimension such that the most common two words that Japanese gallery visitors (including Mrs H) utter when confronted by a work such as this are,

“Shashin mitai.” (“It looks like a photograph.”)

I don’t know that a work done in tempera on wood could ever effect such a response. The richness of colour can be achieved but not the texture.

Yet, despite having rehearsed all that, it was still a shock to turn from the tempera dipictions of the saints to an oil portrait of a boy with no religious overtones and a countenance full of fleshly presence that emerges with the plenitude of youth from the dark surrounding shades of the painting. Could this be by the same Perugino whose works we have been so assiduously perusing?

Ritratto di giovinetto, Perugino (Uffizi)
The Ritratto di giovinetto seems to belong to an altogether different world from the rest of the works in the exhibition and I left the gallery not convinced that it was by the same painter.

The painting that most nearly approached it in the exhibition was the tempera painting of Cristo in Pietà, if not in mood or posture, then at least in colour.

The portrait of Christ stands above a larger work in oil on cloth of the Virgin and Child flanked by saints. There is a lot of realism in the work, but little naturalism. Christ emerges from the coffin and reveals the wounds in his hands, apparently without having emerged from the sleep of death. The rhetorical appeal of the work is not to naturalism at all; it has none of the dynamics of the body and its vestments frozen in motion.

There is rather more formal resemblance, however, between Ritratto di giovinetto and Perugino’s painting of the Magdalene in the Pitti Palace, Florence, which was not part of the Fukuyama exhibition. The painting of the Magdalene seems to locate itself somewhere between the stillness of heavenly piety and the arrested motion of worldly flesh as would befit its subject.

However, when puzzling over these matters one should keep in mind the effects of current intrusive cleaning techniques which can so often startle an innocent sensibility. The Ritratto di giovinetto looked as if it has been cleaned. It looked all too new too; oil ages and loses its colour over time, but the painting looked as if it was in pristine condition. The photo on the right, however, was either taken in a different light from the larger photo, above, or it was taken before the picture was cleaned. Its flesh tones appear to me to be more restrained and modulated than the painting I viewed at Fukuyama.

Whatever the restoration histories of the Ritratto and the Magdalena may be, there are obvious similiarities between them; the angle of the head, the shape of the mouth, the central parting and the hang of the hair. If one was painted by Perugino then it would seem to be more than likely that the other was too.

The exhibition is called ‘Perugino Divin Pittore’ and continues at the Fukuyama Museum of Art until 2nd September 2007.

David Hurley