Painting the spirit that built great empires

by Marius Gombrich

As I write, the British pound is in sharp decline against a wide range of currencies, including even the Zimbabwean dollar! No, there hasn’t been an editorial mishap and this is not the financial section of The Japan Times. I just mention these facts of economic decline to add some perspective to the enigma of Frank Brangwyn, a British artist who was extremely popular and internationally celebrated during his lifetime but largely forgotten by the time he died in 1956, the very year in which the Suez Crisis saw the death of the British Empire as an effective world power.

The career of the artist, now showcased at an exhibition at the National Museum of Western Art, is fascinating for a number of reasons that shed light on the fate of Britain. But, this being Japan, the real reason behind the exhibition is the artist’s local connections, in particular with the Japanese industrialist Kojiro Matsukata (1865-1950), whose extensive collection formed the basis of the NMWA when it was founded in 1959.

The pair became friends in London during World War I, when Matsukata’s firm was making a mint mass-producing ships for the Allies at a time when German U-boats were taking an enormous toll. As an industrialist familiar with the milieu of the shipyards, Matsukata was attracted by Brangwyn’s impressive proletarian art, which showed industry and the nobility of labor in a gruff, unsentimental way.

A good example of this is “The Blacksmiths” (ca. 1904/05), where two muscular workers, stripped to the waist, wield sledge-hammers at a forge. Brangwyn’s composition skillfully highlights the camaraderie of labor by placing the two workers face to face, in a way that emphasizes their concentration on the job at hand and their lack of ego.

But despite the many proletarian- themed pieces on display, it would be wrong to think of Brangwyn as some cloth-capped preserver of the lives of the plebeian orders. His oeuvre also includes lush, decorative works with a hint of fantasy and luxury, and these are some of the most impressive works in the exhibition.

“The Rajah’s Birthday” (1905-08) uses a confident impressionistic technique to show the riot of color and spectacle of its subject; while sharp contrasts and an unusual color balance add drama to “The Buccaneers” (1892). Even “Cider Press” (1902), ostensibly a scene of everyday working folk, is given a rich, pagan, Bacchanalian feel by the abundance of fruit and the naked and semi-naked boys.

What unites these more opulent paintings with his paeans to the proletariat is a sense of vigor, vitality and expansiveness, qualities that were also expressive of late Victorian Britain, a society that, unlike its modern successor, had little to fear from Third World currencies. It is this potent spirit — so clearly reflected in Brangwyn’s work — that lies at the heart of all great empires and economies and that Brangwyn’s Britain and the then-rising power of Japan temporarily shared. It also helped foster the friendship between Brangwyn and Matsukata, two very different men.

The industrialist and the artist got on so well that Matsukata not only bought many of Brangwyn’s works — a large portion of which were unfortunately later destroyed by fire — but also employed him as a kind of art scout with the power to buy works on his behalf. But the very characteristics that attracted Matsukata to Brangwyn’s art were also responsible for its subsequent eclipse and neglect in a Britain that was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with its expansive and industrial past.

Although the country had to wait until the Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair years to see a full transition from a manufacturing economy to one largely based on financial derivatives, extreme Keynesian deficit spending and image spin, culturally the transformation took place a lot earlier and was perceptible in the reaction to Brangwyn’s bold, vigorous, outward-looking art.

While the pioneering Russian artist and theorist Wassily Kandinsky placed Brangwyn at the forefront of the modernist movement, elitist elements of the English intelligentsia already felt wearied with his brash, energetic art. In 1914, Wyndham Lewis snobbishly denounced Brangwyn as one of the “abysmal inexcusable middle class”; meanwhile, Clive Bell and Roger Fry, the two most influential critics of the 1920s and 1930s, turned artistic taste toward formalism, an inward-looking notion that translated class-dependent notions of “good form” and social conventions into an aesthetic creed that also rejected any symbolic or associational role for art.

In this intellectual climate, Brangwyn’s large, sprawling, vibrant works, replete with symbolism and the nobility of honest toil, were increasingly treated with disdain. But the degree to which they were neglected was nothing more than a measurement of the decline in the potency of a once great industrial empire.

“Exhibition of Frank Brangwyn” at the National Museum of Western Art runs till May 30; open 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. (till 8 p.m. on Fri.); closed Mon. (except for March 22 and May 3) and March 23; admission ¥1,500. For more information, visit www.nmwa.go.jp/en