The curse of early Western-style Japanese painters is the charge of derivativeness. Simply because they embraced foreign artistic idioms rather than their own indigenous artistic traditions, it is easy to dismiss them as mere copyists, “regurgitating” whatever it was they saw in the latest imported art photo books or magazines.
Harue Koga (1895-1933), whose art is now being celebrated with a major retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art, Hayama, is particularly susceptible to this accusation because his career shows sharp changes in artistic style that can be correlated to the changing fashions of Western art.
First wetting his brush with a lyrical watercolor style, he later switched to an oil style heavily influenced by cubism and primitivism. A few years after this, his works owe a clear debt to Paul Klee, and then toward the end of his short career there are textbook examples of Surrealism.
But such accusations of derivativeness are a little unfair for two reasons. First, Western artists going through the same learning curve are usually spared the criticism; and second, most of Koga’s paintings, even the ones that seem most imitative, lack the stiff, stilted feeling you often get when a certain style or look has obviously been aimed for by the artist.
Although Koga wore his influences on his sleeve, he also took them deep to heart and used them to create works imbued with an original spirit, even if the skin may often have been borrowed.
A good example is “The Moon and Flowers” (1926). Although it has the patchworklike composition and naive figurative elements favored by Klee, the work also has its own mood. This is even truer in the case of “Fireworks” (1927), a dreamlike canvas that has much more of an open feel than Klee’s often closely- woven works. The trajectory of these two paintings sees Koga still influenced by Klee but moving away and following his own inner muse. The next step is the astounding “Innocent Moonlight Night” (1929), which poetically juxtaposes a random selection of objects in a way that also prefigures the more overtly Surrealist works that came next.
But what drove Koga along this path?
The thesis of the exhibition is that he was seeking a separate world, “existing somewhere where realistic modes are overcome or severed.” Psychologically, this casts the painter in the role of an escapist, and the biographical record suggests he had much to escape from. Like other early Western-style artists in Japan — Narashige Koide and Ryusei Kishida spring to mind — Koga had a relatively hard and short life.
Born and based in Kurume, Fukuoka Prefecture, Koga was unfortunate to experience several tragic events. In 1914, during a stay in Tokyo, his roommate committed suicide. In 1920, the stillbirth of his only child led to the painting of two of Koga’s earliest masterpieces, “Entombment” (1922), which won the 1922 Nika art prize, and “Buddhist Service” (1923). In 1923 he was also in Ueno during the Great Kanto Earthquake and the next year, with his marriage in decline, he rented a house with a mistress, only to see her die of a disease the year after.
Such experiences may have predisposed Koga toward escapism, but another key element in his outlook was an interest in avant-garde poetry. Through Kongo Abe, an artist who had just returned from Europe, and the poets Kyushichi Takenake and Junzaburo Nishiwaki, he was exposed to French Surrealism. In response he quickly adopted a montage style, juxtaposing images copied from graphic magazines and scientific journals in offbeat combinations.
In “Sea” (1931), visual snippets from science magazines — an airship, some stylized machinery, and a submarine cut open to reveal its workings — are juxtaposed with a fashionable bathing beauty from a postcard. She seems to stand like the Marianne of the French Revolution, ushering in the new and bewildering age of technology to which Surrealism was a partial response.
The exhibition tries to present this final section as the culmination of his career and vision, but it doesn’t quite work. The technical demands the new style placed on him often caused him problems; while, compared with earlier works, there is a loss of warmth and lyricism that can be also be read as symptoms of his declining health. Koga died of a mysterious illness in 1933 at the young age of 38.
“The Beginning of a New Myth — Harue Koga: A Retrospective” at The Museum of Modern Art, Hayama, Kanagawa Prefecture, runs till Nov. 23; admission ¥1,100, open daily 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. (last admission), closed Mon. For more information, visit www.moma.pref.kanagawa.jp/en/index.html.