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Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2002

Revamped MOMAT opens with unfinished business

Special to The Japan Times

With "The Unfinished Century," its first exhibition since its renovation, the Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, offers a comprehensive selection of works spanning the entire 20th century. The museum, and not only its exhibits, has become more comprehensive, too -- its improved facilities including a digital library, greatly enlarged storage space and a well-stocked shop. Clearly, MOMAT is getting serious about its responsibilities to display, explain and promote that most chameleonlike of beasts, Japanese modern art.

News photo
Giorgio de Chirico's 1918 "Parting of Hector and Andromaque" (above) provided inspiration for "Work" (below), painted by Toki Okamoto in 1924.
News photo

Despite a selection that covers all bases, including nihonga (Japanese art that eschews Western influences), this still manages to be a daring exhibition, lining up Japanese art alongside its Western influences and challenging the viewer to make comparisons. This becomes clear in the pairing of Toki Okamoto's "Work" (1924) with "The Parting of Hector and Andromaque" (1918) by Giorgio de Chirico. Though executed in a more naive style, the painting by the young Japanese artist pointedly features many of the same dreamlike elements as the great Italian surrealist's work, including de Chirico's trademark faceless mannequin.

Similarly, Tetsugoro Yorozu's large, red, imposing "Leaning Woman" (1917) is set near daintier but more skillful examples of Cubism by Pablo Picasso and Juan Gris. The systemic abstraction and minimalism of Tadaaki Kuwayama's three bands of color in "Brown, White and Blue" (1968) look less imaginative next to precursors such as Frank Stella's enigmatic "Marquis de Portago" (1960).

Doesn't this juxtaposition raise the danger of Japan's indigenous output being seen as derivative?

"It's a fact that there was a lot of copying, especially in the early years of the century," admits Mika Kuraya, one of the curators. "But much more interesting is the quick coming and going of art. These artists were looking at poor-quality reproductions in art magazines and imagining the color themselves. Gradually they started to use more of their own style, making something new."

Kuraya also points out that it was a two-way process. "During the early years of the 20th century, Japonism was still a potent force in Western art, then in the '50s, Zen became fashionable."

A key event in the evolution of the Japanese artistic consciousness was World War II, a period well-represented here. Despite being at war with the West, Japanese artists clung to Western forms. Saburo Miyamoto's realistic depiction of the surrender of Singapore, "The Meeting of Gen. Yamashita and Gen. Percival" (1942), has the somber tones and subtle technique of an old Dutch painting, with the plane of the conference room tilted to symbolically elevate the victorious Japanese above the defeated British.

As the tide of war turned, however, a shriller tone became evident. Tsuguharu Fujita's incredible oil painting "Compatriots on Saipan Island Remain Faithful to the End" (1945) captures the hysteria and misplaced heroism of the time in an epic canvas that echoes the mood of Delacroix's "Massacre at Chios," as men and women, the living and the dying, crowd together to face the end in a brutalized landscape.

While prewar paintings often had a swottish quality -- as if the artists were trying desperately to show what they'd learned -- postwar art has a rawer, more emotional feel. These often jarring works emit greater sincerity and so pack more of a punch. Included in this category is "The Hiroshima Panels (I) Ghosts" (1950) by Toshi and Iri Maruki, a vast sumi-e (ink work) on panel-mounted paper depicting a crowd of demonized and tortured figures. Kikuji Yamashita 's comically gruesome "The Tale of Akebono Village" (1953) and a couple of nightmarish oil landscapes on sackcloth from 1950 by the 21-year-old Yayoi Kusama have a similar dark intensity.

Such passion is noticeably lacking in the playful postmodernist and nonexpressive art works from the latter stages of the 20th century, like Saburo Muraoka's "Bent Oxygen" (1985), which is exactly that, a bent cylindrical bag of oxygen.

In today's deconstructed art world, the long legacy that Japanese artists struggled for so long to build up, and which is safely stored away in museums like MOMAT, no longer seems quite so important.

"The Unfinished Century: Legacies of 20th-Century Art" runs till March 10 at the Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo (03) 5237-9999. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (till 8 p.m. on Thursday and Friday). Closed Monday. 830 yen, students 450 yen, children 250 yen.

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