Hiroshi Senju is an internationally renowned painter, President of Kyoto University of Art and Design, who has created large-scale paintings for locations including the Grand Hyatt Tokyo and Haneda Airport. Ryue Nishizawa is an innovative young architect whose projects have ranged from a glass-fronted 'Garden House' in Tokyo to the Rolex Learning Center in Lausanne, Switzerland. Put them together and what do you get? A home in Karuizawa for Senju's paintings, in a building which is itself a work of art.
As I walked in I was struck straight away by the space and light. (For fans of Doctor Who, it was like stepping into the Tardis.) There are hardly any separating walls inside the museum; it's just one large space, but with abundant light from within and around. It's as if large holes were punched in the building with a giant cookie-cutter, then walled off with glass and planted with shrubs and grasses to create verdant 'inner gardens'. It makes for a very restful environment in which to enjoy the art; Senju's nature-themed paintings are well complemented by the real nature on display 'outside'. It also makes every visit a different experience, since the light changes with the weather and throughout the day, and the plants change with the seasons.
There is the one enclosed space though, a circular room for Senju`s paintings 'Iguacu' and 'Dayfall/Nightfall'. Part of his 'waterfalls' series, these were painted with fluorescent pigments, and displayed under black light they take on a beguiling otherworldly quality, enhanced by the dimness of the room. There are more of his waterfall paintings on display in the main space, including 'Falling Colors', cascades painted in bright hues which are vibrant rather than gaudy. These and his other paintings are uncomplicated, exerting a quiet charm which is brought out nicely by the building.
The nature theme extends outside the building to the 'Color Leaf Garden', densely planted with over 60,000 plants of 150 different species. It's pleasant to rest here for a few minutes before heading on to the gallery, a separate space which holds rotating themed exhibitions; when I was there I saw some exquisite close-up insect photography. After enjoying the art in the museum and gallery, you can buy prints, glassware and other souvenirs from the funky souvenir shop, then admire them at the neighboring café over a drink and a pastry from a local bakery.
In all, it's a very relaxing way to spend a morning or afternoon. I wasn't allowed to take pictures inside the building, and though you can see some on the museum website, the best way to experience this extraordinary place is to come and see it for yourself.