Allow me to introduce the biggest museum in Japan – the Otsuka Museum of Art in the small town of Naruto. It is a museum dedicated purely to reproductions of Western masterpieces. It doesn`t sound very appealing, after all, why would you come all the way to Japan to look at reproductions? It was built in the mid-nineties to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Otsuka Pharmaceutical Company. It cost $4 million, contains over 1,000 works from Antiquity to the present day and is the largest exhibition space in Japan. The aim was to allow Japanese people who couldn`t go all the way to Europe to experience the art of the West, and their method of reproduction is quite amazing. High-quality photographic images have been baked onto ceramic plates that can even mimic the texture of the original paintings. The works don`t pretend to be original, as in the larger works you can see the lines where the ceramic tiles are joined.
The first work you see when you enter is Michaelangelo`s Sistine Chapel. You have to sit down for a few minutes to take it in because it`s so bizarre to be in a reproduction Sistine Chapel in Japan. It`s not a replica of the chapel itself as it`s missing the side wall frescoes by artists such as Botticelli and Filippo Lippi, but it`s better than the original for the fact that you can sit in this uncrowded space and really look at the clear images and appreciate the scale. In the real Sistine Chapel, you only have a few minutes to look before you`re moved on by the waves of other visitors pouring through. The Otsuka space is a popular place for weddings. It`s not consecretated, but that doesn`t matter to Japanese couples who want a western-style (i.e. Christian) wedding and will even hire fake priests to officiate as long as they look the part.
Because the museum has works that in real life are split in different museums around the world, this has allowed them to assemble series of paintings as they originally were. For example this altarpiece by El Greco has been reconstructed with paintings from the Prado Museum in Spain and the National Museum of Art in Romania. You couldn`t do that with the originals, even if you could have them all in the same museum, because it would be controversial to put them inside a reconstructed framework, but with reproductions, you have more leeway. Below you can see the museum`s resident tour guide – the robot Art. A few times a day, he glides through the rooms and introduces some of the works to whoever is following and listening to him.
It took us until we arrived at the Mona Lisa to realise that there were no hawk-eyed gallery attendants or any kind of security measures to prevent us from touching the works. After all, these reproductions are impervious to decay and can be wiped clean. They will probably out-last the originals. It was quite a thrill to touch the Mona Lisa seen as the original is behind bullet-proof glass and can only be seen over the heads of other visitors from several feet back. My favourite part was the studiolo from the Palazzo Ducale in Urbino. I had been to the original in Italy, but you are only able to peek your head through a window and take a quick look as you`re walking through a corridor. Although in the reproduction it looks like it`s painted, the original is actually made of wood inlay. Different types are used to create shading and contour, and it`s inlaid in such a way to create a trompe-l`oeil effect of objects on shelves and cabinets. It was really cool to be able to stand inside the studiolo and look at the details.
The National Gallery of Ireland was also represented with its Caravaggio The Taking of Christ. Jenny works at the gallery and every week she gives tours which always include this painting, so she was able to reel off her whole speech to us.
It is a very surreal experience. The amount of works in the museum is incredible and by the end of the 4km walk around the museum, you are physically and mentally fatigued. It was great to be able to understand the scale of all these famous works, especially in relation to each other. I didn`t realise Picasso`s Guernica was so big.
“For culture-vultures, this is what Disneyland ought to be” Richard Hamilton (British artist)