Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on June 2010

Cock and Hare Living Together. Francheska Yarbusova, 2003, tempera, watercolor and titanium white paint on paper, 36.9 x 25.5cm

There is a subtle pattern to exhibitions in the Greater Tokyo area. While the large central museums tend to handle shows that have a wide and shallow appeal (Impressionist art, Buddhist artifacts, etc.), the more difficult-to-access museums often go for exhibits that have a narrower but deeper focus. This was the case last year with the Mark Rothko exhibition at the Kawamura Memorial Museum of Art, and there is a similar feeling about “Tale of Tales: Yury Norshtein & Francheska Yarbusova” at the Museum of Modern Art Hayama.

Like the Kawamura, which is located in deepest, darkest Chiba Prefecture, a visit to MoMA Hayama is a daytrip in itself. The town is located on a picturesque but rather cramped stretch of the Kanagawa coastline, and museum-goers need to catch a bus or walk for about an hour along the shoreline (recommended if you have the time). Because of the relative inaccessibility of such venues, visitors need to be more strongly motivated, hence the tendency towards shows with a certain cult appeal.

Horned Owl Following the Hedgehog. Yury Norshtein & Francheska Yarbusova, 1975, animation maquette, 58.5 x 84 x 61cm

For anyone interested in animation, the work of Yury Norshtein and his wife and collaborator Francheska Yarbusova is a must-see. Indeed, Norshtein has the burden of being considered by many to be “the greatest living animator.” Whether or not such hyperbole is justified, there can be no doubt that he is a unique talent. Since making his directorial debut in the ’60s under the old Soviet system, the artist has been evolving a style that combines old-fashioned hand drawing with a technique that involves shooting through multiple panes of glass.

This gives classic cartoons like Hedgehog in the Fog (1975) and Tale of Tales (1979) not only texture and warmth, but also depth, imparting a sense of enchanted reality. The exhibition includes several of his glass pane set-ups, presented in cases that show the full complexity of the images captured on film.

Wolf Cub Walks to the Corridor. Francheska Yarbusova, 1985, watercolor and titanium white paint on paper, 64.5 x 79.5cm, Images Courtesy of Museum of Modern Art, Hayama

There are also countless examples of the pair’s artwork. While much of this consists of sketches, doodles and other preparatory drawings, there are also more finished pieces, like a delightful series of tempera and watercolor paintings by Yarbusova for the picture book version of the cartoon The Fox and the Hare (1973). In this story, which has the kind of message the Soviet censors of the day would have approved, a proletarian hare is evicted from his house by an aristocratic fox. After some larger animals ineffectually try to help the unlucky rodent, a pugnacious, chain-smoking cockerel manages to defeat the fox and win back the house. The tendency of characters to smoke in this cartoon would no doubt make it “politically incorrect” to screen to children nowadays, but such eccentric touches abound in Norshtein and Yarbusova’s work.

The pair’s painstaking approach to animation is highlighted by another movie included in the exhibition, a work-in-progress begun in 1981 that’s based on Russian writer Nikolai Gogol’s classic short story “The Overcoat.” In addition to sketches and an impressive model of St. Petersburg’s Nevsky Prospekt, visitors can also see short clips from the unfinished movie, which already has a timeless quality and will perhaps be the animators’ greatest masterpiece (if it is ever finished).

Even if you’re not an animation nerd, this is still an interesting and enjoyable exhibition, but one major criticism is that more could have been done to show the cartoons. Rather than screening them on a continuous loop all day long like the short clips from “The Overcoat,” the films have been organized into two short programs that are shown only twice a day at 11am and 3pm. Get your timing wrong and you’ll be in for a long wait—as well as a long walk to the station.

The Museum of Modern Art, Hayama
Tale of Tales: Yury Norshtein and Francheska Yarbusova. Drawing, animation. Until June 27, free (MS and under)/¥100 (HS)/¥550 (65 and over)/¥850 (univ, under 20)/¥1,100 (general). 2208-1 Isshiki, Hayama, Kanagawa. Tel: 046-875-2800. Open Tue-Sun 9:30am-5pm, closed Mon. Nearest stn: Zushi. www.moma.pref.kanagawa.jp