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Exhibition evokes turbulent life of a man living in modern Japan

Musings by The Yomiuri ShimbunIn the middle of the Meiji era (1868-1912), he became the president of a shipbuilding company at the age of 30 and completed the difficult project of constructing a giant dockyard. Earning huge profits from his expanding business, he dreamed of establishing an art museum and purchased a total of about 3,000 Western paintings and sculptures in Europe.

The Matsukata Collection exhibition being held at the National Museum of Western Art in Ueno, Tokyo, can be described as an occasion to trace the turbulent life of a remarkable man, Kojiro Matsukata, through these masterpieces.

A number of anecdotes stir our imaginations. Matsukata visited Monet at his atelier and immediately decided to buy more than 10 artworks, and behind the scenes, he had a secret mission to obtain the blueprints of German submarines. Due to the Showa financial crisis, his company ran into financial difficulties, and Matsukata sold his collection as the private property of a company executive. Some of his collection left in Europe was lost to fire, and some was confiscated by the French government.

Recent investigation is revealing the whole picture of his dispersed collection. However, not a few artworks are still missing. That probably is why not only researchers, but also fans are interested in his collection.

Just 100 years have passed since his purchases were first shipped from London to Japan. Matsukata’s portrait, painted a few years before, is displayed at the exhibition. The canvas shows a man relaxing with a pipe in his hand, hiding the dreams and passions of modern Japan in his heart.

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