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Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2001

From mimicry to homegrown art

Japanese modern art is often discounted as a mere echo of its Western counterpart. This is not so much because styles and forms have been imported per se, but because in their new environment they have failed to take on a life of their own. In this, the real test, modern Japanese art has often been found wanting.

News photo
"Hunger" (1949) by Nobuya Abe

However, with the opening of the second part of its exhibition "The History of Japanese Modern Art, Reconsidered," Kamakura's Museum of Modern Art makes the case that Japanese modern art did successfully move out of the Western shadow to create many unique and vivid masterpieces.

That shadow was all too evident in Part One of the exhibition (till Nov. 25), in which many works possessed an ersatz quality. Sadao Tsubaki's "Portrait of Seiji Murayama" (1925), while excellent, is nonetheless a clear tip of the hat to the meticulous realism of the northern Renaissance. Similarly, Tomoo Wadachi's constructivist collage, "Riddle" (1921), bears all the hallmarks of state-sponsored Soviet art.

The dominant impression given by the prewar paintings in the first show was of an artistic community engaged in a crash course to desperately try to cram in the previous 500 years of Western art.

Part Two of the show has a quite different character. "We decided to divide the show at the point of the war," says curator Tsutomu Mizusawa. "This is the important point, because the artistic community was destroyed, and everything had to start again from scratch."

Japan's total defeat created a tabula rasa on which Western ways of thinking could mix more freely with Japanese culture. So it was that Japanese proficiency in Western technique married with a more instinctive understanding of the forces behind it. The result is art of greater integrity and directness.

This is evident in Nobuya Abe's compelling vision of wartime suffering. Having experienced warfare at firsthand, Abe attempted to purify his memories of the front in a way that seems both natural and comforting. For example, in "Hunger" (1948), emaciated figures of the dying and the dead are highlighted against a pale-blue background of clearly spiritual dimensions. This work, albeit a modern one, uses the flattening and clear delineation of shape found in traditional Japanese art -- proof of the deeper synthesis then taking place between Occidental and Oriental elements in postwar Japanese art.

Perhaps the most interesting story at this exhibition concerns the two large but radically different works by Misao Yokoyama. The older of these, "Railroad Crossing" (1957), was only discovered last year underneath a later painting, "Waves" (1960). By peeling that off and mounting it on new panels, the museum now has two equal-size works showing Yokoyama's evolution.

The earlier work shows a group of people waiting patiently behind the striped yellow barriers of a rail crossing. Looking at the flat, grainy faces, it is almost possible to sense the dejected spirit of the country in that drab period between the end of the Occupation in 1952 and the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. But later, dissatisfied with such mundane Formalism, Yokoyama turned to Abstract Expressionism. Not wishing to buy more panels, he merely papered over the older painting and set to work. Borrowing from the highly decorative techniques of nihonga, he applied squares of silver foil directly onto the surface and used slashing brushstrokes reminiscent of Japanese calligraphy.

This explosive work has a strongly Japanese character. However, the most satisfying Japanese modern art is that which transcends its national origin without losing touch with it, like Jiro Takamatsu's "Wall of the World" (1967). Here, the artist has positioned people and objects on or near a series of white panels and then painted the resultant shadows to the exact shade of the viewer's own shadow falling on the work. Assembled in a fascinating installation, this work plays out like a game as you try to guess what the original objects were.

A work like this could have been created by an artist from anywhere. Nevertheless, I couldn't help sensing a hint of Japanese sensibility in the delicate fetishism and voyeurism with which these objects and people have been depicted.

"The History of Japanese Modern Art, Reconsidered: Part Two" runs till Jan. 27 at the Museum of Modern Art, Kamakura, (0467) 22-5000, in front of Tsurugaoka Shrine, Kamakura City. Open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Closed Monday. Admission 500 yen for adults, 350 yen for under-20s.

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