AS A MAJOR international art centre on a par with London and New York, Tokyo and nearby Yokohama experience a wide range of museum exhibitions every year. With many periods, locales and styles on display throughout the year, it's sometimes difficult to pick obvious trends. Last year, a clear trend started to emerge in the late summer, with an unusually large number of Chinese historical exhibitions. This year, however, the trend is already clear, with several major exhibitions that showcase the canon of European art and the treasures of European museums, giving the calendar a distinctly classical European feel. Already, there's been the opening of Mucha: From Prague to Paris at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum and Marcel Duchamp and the 20th Century at the Yokohama Museum of Art. Later in the year, there'll be exhibitions from Moscow's Pushkin Museum and Germany's Dresden State Art Collections. Spring is usually the signal in Japan for major art events and this year is no different, with several impressive exhibitions scheduled. In early March, the National Museum of Western Art will host Georges de La Tour: A World of Light and Shadow, with about 30 works by the 17th-century French baroque painter, whose style was heavily influenced by the deep shadows and light effects of Caravaggio. Neglected until recently, de la Tour's works are mostly held by French provincial museums that have been happy to lend their works to Japan, so that most of the known paintings of this great artist will be gathered in one place. It remains to be seen whether Japanese audiences will fully appreciate this fact, as de La Tour is still a comparative unknown in the country. The relative obscurity of the artist won't be a problem at another exhibition that will open in March: Van Gogh in Context at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. The problem with Van Gogh is the opposite. He's so well known by Japanese audiences that he's overshadowed by his legend - something assistant curator Kenjiro Hosaka bemoans. 'Van Gogh is thought of as a genius or a madman,' Hosaka says. 'That's just a story, a legend. It makes it difficult to get to the real information on him. It gets in the way of his social and historical background. Most audiences like legends. They need legends to get a grip on the art, but we want to look around the legend. We want to break the legend.' The exhibition will include works such as the painfully introspective Self-Portrait as an Artist (1888) that plays to the legend, but it aims to focus on Van Gogh's cultural background and the development of his technique. 'He was heavily influenced by Dutch religious culture,' Hosaka says. 'His ancestors were priests. This religious influence is seen in the many churches in his early paintings. Later, in Arles, this feeling was expressed by painting nature.' This deistic interpretation of nature is evident in paintings such as The Sower (1888), which will be on display. This emphasis on nature in Van Gogh's work, combined with his popularity in Japan, also helps explains why, after closing in Tokyo, the exhibition will move to the Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art, Nagoya, as part of the cultural events connected with Expo 2005 Aichi Japan, the theme of which is Nature's Wisdom. It's widely said that the Japanese love brand names in almost everything, including art. This extends not only to individual artists, but also to the names of museums, such as Paris' Louvre. In which case, the biggest name in the business is due to arrive in April, supplying most of the art for Masterworks of 19th-Century French Painting: From Neoclassicism to Romanticism. This exhibition (which opens at the Yokohama Museum of Art, before travelling to the Kyoto City Museum of Fine Arts) highlights several of the main dichotomies of European art - neoclassical vs romantic, rational vs emotional, linear vs painterly - and explores a period that's almost totally eclipsed in the Japanese public's mind by the hugely popular Impressionist movement that followed it. Part of the reason for this is narcissistic because the Japanese are well versed in the theory that the French Impressionists were deeply influenced by Japanese woodblock prints. Although the Louvre is the star name at the exhibition, paintings from other museums are included, most notably Jacques-Louis David's emotionally wrought The Death of Marat (1793) from the Belgian Royal Museum of Fine Arts. This neoclassical masterpiece depicts the French revolutionary leader and friend of David, bleeding to death in his bath after being stabbed by a female assassin. The exhibition also boasts the round-panelled The Turkish Bath (1863) by David's student, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, a voluptuous work that reveals much of the decadence in taste of the French Second Empire. These neoclassical works are complemented by pieces showing the wilder, freer brush strokes of the Romantic painters Eugene Delacroix and Theodore Gericault. Curator Yasuhide Shimbata is justifiably proud of bringing these works to Japan. 'The Louvre's 19th-century collection is so important,' he says. 'In the case of The Turkish Bath, it's the first time to leave Paris, and the first time to come to Asia. The Louvre would like to present itself to Asia. They believe it's important to present their name all over Asia.' In their different ways, the big exhibitions opening this spring reveal the growing sophistication of Japanese curators and audiences. Although artistic brand names remain important, more attempts are being made to explore less familiar aspects of western art. The National Museum of Western Art is doing it by focusing a whole exhibition on an artist still largely unknown in Japan; the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, is doing it by refusing to revel in the populist myth of Van Gogh; and the Yokohama Museum of Art is doing it by taking the Japanese art public away from its favourite period of western art to the equally interesting period that preceded it. 2005 EXHIBITIONS IN JAPAN Marcel Duchamp and the 20th Century, the Yokohama Museum of Art, Yokohama City. More information at www.yma.city.yokohama.jp . Ends Mar 21. Mucha: From Prague to Paris, the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum, Ueno Park, Tokyo. More information at www.tobikan.jp . Ends Mar 27. Georges de La Tour: A World of Light and Shadow, the National Museum of Western Art, Ueno Park, Tokyo. More information at www.nmwa.go.jp . Mar 8-May 29. Van Gogh in Context, National Museum of Modern Art, 3-1 Kitanoman Koen, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo. More information at www.momat.go.jp . Mar 23-May 22; Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art, Nagoya City. More information at www-art.aac.pref.aichi.jp. Dates to be announced. Masterworks of 19th-Century French Painting: From Neoclassicism to Romanticism, the Yokohama Museum of Art, Yokohama City. More information www.yma.city.yokohama.jp . Apr 9- July 18. Masterworks of the 19th-Century French Painting: From Neoclassicism to Romanticism, the Kyoto City Museum of Fine Arts, Kyoto. July 30-Oct 16.