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‘Saburo Miyamoto: 1940-1945′

by C.B. Liddell

Setagaya Art Museum

Closes Nov. 28

One of the most astounding and, indeed, slightly unnerving pictures in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art Tokyo is Saburo Miyamoto’s “The Meeting of General Yamashita and General Percival” (1942). In a masterly, realist Western style, it depicts the conference between the Japanese and British military leaders that led to the surrender of Singapore and over 100,000 British and Empire troops.

Apart from its painful associations — many of the troops who surrendered later died in POW camps — and the irony of a Western art style at a time of Japanese nationalist hysteria, the artwork is also notable for its composition: The plane of the conference room is tilted to symbolically elevate the line of Japanese officers high above their British counterparts, who appear to cower on the other side of the conference table.

Unfortunately, this painting, which established the reputation of Miyamoto, at least in Japan, is not part of the “Saburo Miyamoto: 1940-1945″ exhibition at the Miyamoto Saburo Annex of the Setagaya Art Museum. But there is much else of interest at this show, which focuses on the war art of the famous Japanese painter.

In place of the triumphalism of “The Meeting of General Yamashita and General Percival,” which invariably gives the impression that Miyamoto was some kind of insensitive propagandist, there are more morally pleasing works that show a better-rounded view of the war. These include “Standing Nurse” (1941), a slightly Renoir-esque treatment of a compact and efficient-looking nurse, “Hunger and Thirst” (1943), where wounded men scramble in the mud apparently after being blown off their bicycles, and Miyamoto’s true war masterpiece, “The House of Death” (ca. 1945-46). Showing figures huddled over a naked corpse, this seems to partially take its inspiration from Michelangelo’s famous “La Pieta” sculpture, although the somber tones and war-ravaged landscape in the background also bring to mind Francisco Goya’s war paintings.

Setagaya Art Museum is open daily 10 a.m.-6 p.m., closed Mon.; admission ¥200. For more information, visit www.miyamotosaburo-annex.jp (Japanese only).