Fake or Facsimile: Part 6: “A Substitute Sistine Chapel”

Very nearly twenty years ago (March, 1998), “the largest exhibition space nn Japan”[i] was opened to the public in Naruto (Tokushima Prefecture) around 100km SW of Osaka.  At a cost of $400 Million USD,[ii] “The Otsuka Museum of Art” is the ultimate shrine to the art of the “knock-off”.  In case this is thought a snobbish slight towards a picture gallery that displays more 1,000 world-famous examples of Occidental visual art, the Otsuka Museum actually designates itself as a “Ceramic Board Masterpiece Art Museum”.

A quick perusal of “Trip Advisor” commentary on visits to the Otsuka Museum indicates that this way of doing things is not to everyone’s taste.  First there is repeated moaning about the entrance fee (3,240 Yen for adults, which is nearly $30 USD; this is allegedly the highest museum admission charge in all of Japan[vi]).  These complaints are, of course, compounded by observations that all one finds are “copies”; why spend all that cash when “you can just put a similar poster on the wall” & “This museum is to great artworks what McDonalds is to find dining!”[vii]  There are also repeated suggestions that the fundamental motive is the Museum founder’s vision of an Otsuka Corporation industrial “homage”.  All of this may be true, but as I have argued before, it is also massively “off-point”.

Here are some facts before you make up your mind:

The ceramic replicas: 

  • Draw from “more than 190 museums in 25 countries”.[viii]

  • Reproduce visual art too fragile ever to travel; Picasso’s Guernica is a much discussed example;[ix] some less robust paintings will never be put on display in any travelling exhibition.

  • Reproduce priceless masterpieces which have been damaged in situ; the 1997 earthquake in Assisi[x] severely damaged Giotto frescos—of which the Otsuka Museum had already manufactured reproductions.

  • Make it possible for visitors to see “before and after” efforts of restoration; not every example of the restorer’s art has received universal praise; the so-called restoration of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper in Milan has been dubbed a “recreation” rather than a restoration;[xi] at the Otsuka Museum the “pre and post” restoration copies are displayed opposite one another: an absolutely one-off encounter.[xii] 

  • ​​Are “waterproof and fireproof”,[xiii] and therefore visitors and patrons have the unique privilege, if they want, of actually touching the masterpieces[xiv] of which they have heard all their lives; this includes the Mona Lisa, which in Paris is displayed behind bullet-proof, “triple-laminated” glass[xv]—a slightly less intimate experience.

  • Are placed in full-size faithful reconstructions of both the so-called Arena Chapel (properly Scrovegni Chapel) with its priceless Giotto frescoes, completed between 1303 and 1305[xvi]); and a full-scale “substitute” Sistine Chapel.

  • Enable us both to appreciate this amazing ceramic technology, and to recognize its limitations; as to the latter, the technology used at the time of production was limited to ceramic boards with measurements of 90×300×2cm;[xvii] the three metre restriction meant that, in the largest works, “the joins between the ceramic sheets are clearly visible”.[xviii]

  • Are, therefore, not “fakes”: in the precise sense that “they are created on a unique medium (ceramic boards), which ensures that they will not be mistaken for the originals”;[xix] they are not “fakes” or “counterfeits” because they could never—because of their ceramic manufacture—be passed off as originals.  They are fabricated for posterity and are not simply copies.

  • Are engaged in a rapidly advancing technology.  The 1998 “Sistine Chapel” was not, in fact, a fully faithful representation, for the simple reason that there was no capacity, at that time, to produce “curved” ceramic boards.  Therefore, it was not possible to recreate the Sistine Chapel’s “ceiling spandrels that transition from the walls to the ceiling and their intricate three-dimensional curves”.[xx]  For the Museum’s 10th Anniversary, a resolution was undertaken to find a way.  Somehow the technicians at Otsuka Ohmi Ceramics Company achieved the impossible; despite the constant danger of fracture, they were able to imitate (in ceramic panels) the same techniques that “produce curved glass”,[xxi] and thus managed to install these curved panels in the “Sistine Chapel”, so as to perfect the “virtual” reconstruction of Michelangelo’s ceiling, complete with curvature.

  • Are able to reproduce masterpieces from dispersed locations.  The crowning glory here has to be the reassembly of El Greco’s 40-foot high altarpiece (circa 1600), consisting of “six painted panels”,[xxii] which were “dispersed in the Napoleonic wars”,[xxiii] and are resident in the Prado (Madrid) and the National Gallery in Bucharest.  This is a service that the “Ceramic Board Museum” has done for all of us, and is no lesser gift than being allowed to see the “pre and post” versions of Leonarda da Vinci’s Last Supper face-to-face.  The Otsuka Museum has thus exploited some of the superb possibilities that its technology has enabled.

As I very much hope this makes clear the Otsuka ceramics are “a hedge” undertaken on behalf of all us against the endangered and crumbling fragments of our ever so precious heritage.

Chauvet and KV62 are both examples of how a “sterile environment” can be “compromised” as soon as we discover it;[xxiv] when we first explore a (millennially) undisturbed space, the work of conserving it must begin immediately.  The frescoes from Pompeii’s Villa of the Mysteries (stunningly recreated by Otsuka) were put “at risk” from the moment that the excavations began in 1909.[xxv]

The Assisi earthquake (1997), the deliberate detonation of the Palmyra’s Temple of Bel ruins in Syria (2015), the acid thrown at the Mona Lisa in the Louvre (1956), the dozen hammer blows suffered by Michelangelo’s Pietà (dated 1499) in St Peter’s, Rome (1972)[xxvi]—perhaps this extremely partial list is still quite long enough to impress upon us the endless fragility of these masterpieces from our past, and thus to encourage us to salute these various initiatives that aim bothat preservation and display.  Apparently, Leonardo’s Last Supper—as if it did not have enough problems with an ineffective “mixture of oil and tempura paints” prone to flaking[xxvii]—was also subject to vandalism “by bored [Napoleonic] soldiers pelting it with stones and dung.”[xxviii]

The issue that “Ceramic Board Masterpieces” ask us to address more deeply: are we able, in some fashion, to preserve the crumbling fragments of a bygone era… while acknowledging that are crumbling just because we are filled with awe by them, and for that reason, we want to have a closer look at them?

I want to close this part of our discussion with three supplemental points:

  • The first is to acknowledge that, obviously, the Otsuka Museum founder’s approach (guided by six art historians)[xxix] is not going to be to everyone’s taste; and most of us are going to be irritated, if not enraged, that some famous (or unfairly neglected) masterpiece has not made its way into the top 1,000.  But even that it itself is something to celebrate, because it gives us an opportunity to compile our own lists, to take a “fresh” look at the paintings that have been chosen from an Otsuka perspective.  And having done that, we can begin actively to petition the Museum to enlarge its collection of “Ceramic Board Masterpieces”, even perhaps encouraging the Museum to begin a “rotating” collection of exhibits.

  • However inadequate we may find the Otsuka list of masterpieces,[xxx] the Museum and its founder must be commended for not limiting their ceramic replicas to the faithful appropriation of “the grateful dead”, but have included in their collection the works of living artists, at least two of whom actually attended the formal opening of the Museum.[xxxi]

  • There is one last perspective I would like to accord Masahito Otsuka as the Museum’s founder.  The cost of opening the Museum with its 1,000 exhibits has been put at $400 Million (USD in 1998), and one of those replica masterpieces is Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers (the 1889 version resident in the  eponymous Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam).  It seems, to me, extraordinary that, in 1987, an earlier version of the Sunflowers (traditionally dated 1888) was sold for a sum of $39.9 Million USD, which was, at the time, the highest price ever paid for a painting at auction, effectively tripling any previous auction price.  So, the Yasuda Fire & Marine Insurance Company of Tokyo, in essence, paid 10% of the cost of building the entire Otsuka Museum for a single van Gogh painting.  If the 1987 auction price were converted to 1998 American dollars (according to the “US Inflation Calculator”), the cost of van Gogh’s 1888 Sunflowers (now exhibited on the 42nd floor of the Headquarters of the Sompo Japan Nipponkoa insurance conglomerate), would be working its way towards 15% of the cost of the entire Otsuka museum facility. 

In March of this year, Sompo Holdings announced that it would be creating a six-story structure adjacent to the same Headquarters property for the specific purpose of exhibiting van Gogh’s Sunflowers to its best advantage, and providing an appropriate purpose-built environment for their prize Sunflowers by displaying it alongside other examples of “Western paintings from the same period”. It is impossible not to be impressed by this generous and fantastic devotion to the preservation and display of world-famous art.  

However, in the context of this series of “Fake or Facsimile” musings, it would be irresponsible to suppress a pertinent (and passionate) art-world kerfuffle: viz. the authenticity of this Toyko Sunflowers had been called into question.[xxxii]  There had been determined suggestions that this version of van Gogh’s “Sunflower” series is, in fact, a copy.[xxxiii]  This is getting us into rather murky territory, since  the van Gogh “Sunflower” series paintings are themselves described as “repetitions” (or variations) on a theme.  As long as “the duplication” occurred by van Gogh’s own hand, everything is in order.  Should the duplication have been the work of another, specifically, from the hand of an artist and art collector, Émile Schuffenecker, who was also a friend of Paul Gauguin, well then we have real problem to contend with.

The outlook here might have been very bleak indeed, but the controversy settled down after the Toyko Sunflowers was exhibited at the Van Gogh Museum alongside the Sunflowers from London’s National Gallery and the Amsterdam Museum’s own version.  There was an allowance that Schuffenecker might have been involved in some restoration which involved “minor additions”, whatever that might mean.[xxxiv]

Along the way there were also suggestions that the Tokyo Sunflowers (assessed as a “copy”, and not as a repetition) could have come from the hand Vincent’s ally, Paul Gauguin.[xxxv]  That might have proved to be very cheering news.  First, because the Sompo Art Gallery also boasts a Gauguin (and a Cézanne) among their prized suggestions.  But also because a Gauguin as of February 2015 may be the most expensive painting ever sold (possibly for somewhere close to $300 Million USD).  Imagine what it would mean then to own a Paul Gauguin copy of a series of paintings by Vincent van Gogh which are among the most famous the world has ever produced?  Unique and priceless would not be an adequate summary of this greatest possible treasure. 

Next Time: Fake Philanthropy

[i] Otsuka Museum of Art Website: “Concept”

[ii] The Sunday Telegraph, November 29th, 1998 (Martin Thompson), Review p. 7: “The biggest repro job in the world”.  It is necessary to acknowledge that the Thompson Telegraph article inspired this entire series.

[iii] Artscape Japan website: (Lucy Birmingham): “1,000 Reproductions for 2,000 Years”

[iv] Otsuka Group CSR Report 2012: Highlight 3; p. 17: “Community and Global Initiatives: A New Way to Preserve Artistic Works”; the Martin Thompson article suggests “up to 30,000 colours”, but this is not confirmed by Otsuka Group Report.

[v] The Otsuka Volume 21, October 25th, 2013: “Otsuka Museum of Art Celebrates 15 Years in Tokushima”

[vi] Quartz Daily Brief, November 24th, 2014 (Lily Kuo): The title says it all: “Japan’s most expensive museum is full of fake art”

[vii] In the 2009 film State of Play, the Russell Crowe journalist character rightly refers to this kind of commentary: as a decision to “upchuck online”.

[viii] Otsuka Museum of Art Website: “Concept”

[ix] The Telegraph, July 20th, 2008 (Fiona Govan): “Pablo Picasso’s Guernica ‘too fragile to move’”

[x] The Independent, September 26th, 1997 (Andrew Gumbel): “Earthquake: Assisi in mourning as quake shatters Basilica of St Francis”

[xi] The Telegraph, August 26th, 2012 (Alasdair Palmer): “Restoration Tragedies”; see also the provocative Wall Street Journal title for May 21st, 1999 (Frederika Randall): “‘The Last Supper’: Restoration or Devastation?”; also The Independent, March 14th, 2012: “Have art restorers ruined Leonardo’s masterpiece?”

[xii] There are some marvelous photographs of how things are laid out in the Otsuka Museum on the Goin’ Japanesque! Website; you can see the “pre and post” versions of da Vinci’s mural, which have been hung to awesome effect in the 2nd Basement Level; cf. goinjapanesque.com/09533/

[xiii] Lucy Birmingham, op. cit.

[xiv] Martin Thompson, op. cit.; japantravel.com, May 16th, 2014 (Takako Sakamoto) : “Replicas in Otsuka Museum of Art”

[xv] huffingtonpost.com, August 5th, 2014 (Dianne Hales): “The 10 Worst Things that Happened to Mona Lisa

[xvi] Cappella degli Scrovegni website, “History of the Chapel”

[xvii] Otsuka Report 2012: Highlight 3; p. 17: “A New Way to Preserve Artistic Works”

[xviii] Martin Thompson cites this clarification provided by Fuado Otsuka, who spent four years receiving permission from all the institutions in which the originals are hung.

[xix] Otsuka Report 2012: Highlight 3; p. 16: “Ceramic Board Masterpiece Art Museum”

[xx] Otsuka Report 2012: Highlight 3; p. 18: “Full-Size Reproduction of the Sistine Chapel”

[xxi] The Otsuka Volume 21

[xxii] Martin Thompson & Lucy Birmingham, op. cit.

[xxiii] Otsuka Report 2012: Highlight 3; p. 16: “Ceramic Board Masterpiece Art Museum”

[xxiv] The Guardian, January 17th, 2011 (Mike Pitts): “Your last chance to see Tutankhamun’s Tomb”

[xxv] Archaeology, February 10th, 2014 (Jarrett A. Lobell): “Saving the Villa of the Mysteries”

[xxvi] Reuters.com: “Lifestyle”, May 21st, 2013 (Philip Pullella): “Vatican marks anniversary of 1972 attack on Michelangelo’s Pieta”

[xxvii] The Washington Post, January 18th, 2013 (Michael S. Roth): Review of Leonardo and the Last Supper by Ross King (Walker)

[xxviii] dailymail.co.uk, March 14th, 2012: “Outraged art expert claims restorer…”

[xxix] Otsuka Museum of Art Website: “Concept”: cf. Advisory Committee on Paintings (as of June 2017)

[xxx] The Otsuka Museum Website helpfully provides a complete catalogue of the exhibits online: http://o-museum.or.jp/english/files/lib/2/5/201503211851191150.pdf

[xxxi] Martin Thompson: “… the British artists Richard Hamilton and Peter Blake”; the opening event at the Otsuka Museum is acknowledged in The Telegraph: “Travel: Celebrity Interviews”, January 17th, 2017 (Nick Trend): “Sir Peter Blake… Most memorable meal abroad?”

[xxxii] Geraldine Norman published an unsettling discussion of the van Gogh “Sunflower” series  entitled “Fakes?” for The New York Review of Books less than a year after the sensational purchase of the Tokyo Sunflowers: February 5th, 1998; pp. 4-7.  According to this account the London Sunflowers is the original, and the Amsterdam Sunflowers is a later version produced by van Gogh’s own hand.  Ms Norman reports that she had produced a television programme “presenting the evidence that the painting Sunflowers sold by Christie’s in 1987 to the Yasuda Fire… was a copy made around 1900…  The original, the program concluded, is the painting Sunflowers now in the London National Gallery.  Van Gogh made a copy of it himself which he intended to give to Gauguin… and hangs today in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam…”

[xxxiii] Specifically by an artist and art collector, Émile Schuffenecker, who was also a friend of Paul Gauguin.  A very detailed discussion of the controversy has been provided by the Van Gogh Museum Journal 2001 (“Van Gogh and Gauguin”): “The Tokyo Sunflowers: a genuine repetition by Van Gogh or a Schuffenecker forgery?”

[xxxiv] BBC News, March 27th, 2002: “Van Gogh ‘fake” declared genuine”. The language of “minor additions” may have to do with the “odd size” of the Toyko Sunflowers; in her article “Fakes?” Ms Norman reports that this Tokyo “picture has an inch or so extra height and width. At some point, extra strips of canvas were added around all four sides of a standard size-30 canvas, according to Christie’s…”

[xxxv] The Telegraph, September 26th, 2001 (Bruce Johnston): “Van Gogh’s £25m Sunflowers is ‘a copy by Gauguin’”

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