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A stroll through a forest of sculpture

photo
[Photo: JoAnn Greco]
Among the Open-Air Museum’s sculptures displayed across 171/2 acres are works by Henry Moore, Alexander Calder and Joan Miro.

By JOANN GRECO

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 25, 2001


At the Open-Air Museum in Hakone, Japan, art meets nature in the open air, as famous outdoor sculptures pose in landscaped alcoves.

HAKONE, Japan -- The journey to the Hakone Open-Air Museum, 60 miles southwest of Tokyo, does not begin auspiciously. Adrift deep in the bowels of the cavernous, cacophonous and altogether overwhelming Tokyo Station, I at last find the track for the correct Shinkansen, or bullet train.

Once onboard the sleek train, I realize a small sense of calmness. A white-gloved attendant appears, bowing deeply as if to apologize for the necessary act of ticket collection.

Behind him, a hostess of about 18 years, attired in a candy pink uniform, waits to enter. She rolls a trolley down the aisle and announces in a bored voice the sale of dubious snacks such as seaweed crisps and green tea ice cream. Outside, the skyscrapers and stacked highways of Tokyo flash by, until they disappear altogether.

A zippy half-hour later, riders bound for the museum and other points switch at Odawara Station to the Tozan Railway. It is now that true relaxation sets in. The happy, fuchsia-colored three-car train chug-a-lugs through mountain tunnels and above alpine woods. The air is cooler here, and the scent of pine and cedar wafts crisply into the train.

The only sign of commotion is two giggling elderly women struggling to place their bags on the rack high above them. Lazily, the train grunts past rope bridges, funiculars, lakes, waterfalls and streams, periodically switching back to retrace its route.

Once in awhile, a plume of smoke rises in the distance -- a hint that one of the area's famous hot springs resorts lies yonder.

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After about 45 minutes, the train pulls into a tiny station marked Chokoku-no-Mori, or Forest of Sculptures. Signs indicate the way to the Open-Air Museum, just a two-minute walk from the platform. In a compact 171/2 acres, the museum offers five galleries (including what is said to be the world's first privately installed Picasso museum) and as many restaurants and tea rooms.

But it is the part that gives the museum its name -- its forestlike "open-air" exhibition space -- that is most distinctive.

Spectacularly placed at the foothills of several mountain ranges, the museum's lush grounds cradle an extensive array of modern outdoor sculpture.

Sometimes these pieces are boldly announced, as in the Alexander Calder stabiles and other huge works that form a literal centerpiece in a manicured lawn-like oval.

Sometimes, though, the OAM chooses to more subtly unveil its holdings. Side paths meander to woods where understated, classically inspired, figurative sculpture by artists such as Alberto Giacometti and Aristide Maillol are tucked between trees and alongside bridges, carp ponds and waterfalls.

OAM came to fruition in the late 1960s. The Japanese media conglomerate Fujisankei Communications Group created the museum "to introduce the Japanese to the concept of modern and contemporary sculpture as an environmental art," according to Mariko Tomita, assistant curator.

Its initial items hailed from the collection of the museum's founder, former Fujisankei president Nobutaka Shikanai. Since then, OAM has expanded significantly through gifts and through the Fujisankei Biennial, an international sculpture contest.

Today the museum owns more than 1,000 sculptures (about 300 of which are on display at any given point), including 26 by Henry Moore, 14 by Medaldo Rosso (a Rodin rival) and 11 by Emilio Greco, a contemporary Italian sculptor prized for his sensual and elegant female forms.

In addition, the OAM features work by Constantin Brancusi, Barbara Hepworth, Carl Milles, Joan Miro, Louise Nevelson and Japanese masters such as Morie Ogiwara and Kotaro Takamura.

The artists' varying styles have been juxtaposed by a discerning eye and placed in diverse settings that play off of those styles:

In a verdant forest, a splash of Alexander Liberman red unexpectedly echoes the orange carp swimming nearby and the picturesque scarlet umbrellas of the Niji-n-chaya tearoom. Elsewhere, Maillol's classic statuary gracefully stands its ground between two giant abstract pieces. At a far end of the garden, several white marble casts of Michelangelo works -- the OAM's one nod to pre-Rodin sculpture's roots -- nestle on a formal, Italian terraced landscape.

Playfulness reigns. Twenty-six Moore pieces, including grand-scale abstracts as well as intimate works such as Family Group, recline among topiaries that pay homage to the British artist's rounded forms.

Underneath the topiary this day, a hidden maze teems with rowdy schoolboys in yellow plastic caps. Nearby, more kids scramble through the Curved Diamond Structure and Castle of Nets, two hands-on sculptural playgrounds.

In the distance, the 60-foot-high Symphonic Tower, alight in stained glass mosaics, shimmers brilliantly.

The Hakone Open-Air Museum exudes serenity and solemnity. Here, it seems to whisper, we gather to glory in nature and in art . . . and to better enjoy each in the presence of the other.

* * *

JoAnn Greco is a freelance writer who lives in Philadelphia.

If you go

GETTING THERE: The Hakone Open-Air Museum is located at Ninotaira, Hakone-machi, Kanagawa-ken 250-0493. It is open every day from 9 a.m. to 5p.m.; admission is 1,600 yen (about $14).

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Call, in Japan, 0460-2-1161 or visit the museum's Web site at http://www.hakone-oam.or.jp

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