Mavo, the movement that rocked Japan’s art scene

by Matthew Larking

Special To The Japan Times

In an Aug. 31, 1923, edition of the Shin-aichi newspaper, a clipping shows a photo of artists milling around paintings propped up against a tree in Tokyo’s Ueno Park. Another image in the previous day’s Asahi Graph shows a girl looking over an apparently abstract painting, above which is a label that reads “Mavo.” These scenes sound tranquil, but in fact they depict the immediate aftermath of artistic anarchy.

Takamizawa Michinao, a member of the art group Mavo, had just sent rocks sailing through the glass ceiling of an exhibition hall displaying artworks chosen by Nika-kai (The Second Society), a Western-style painting organization established from 1914 in opposition to the conservatism of the governmental Bunten (Ministry of Education Exhibition) — and the jury members had hastened outside to ascertain the culprits.

The rocks and outdoor display of paintings were a protest by the Mavo artists, who had been rejected by the Nika-kai, a move that seemed to indicate a conservative turn for the art organization. Mavo, which began in 1923 as the re-institution of the Futurist Art Association (which had recently disbanded), was now in the press and in dispute with the police.

Tomoyoshi Murayama (1901-77), the leader of the radical group that caused all the fuss, is the current focus of the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, in the long-overdue retrospective of his work.

The title of the opening section of the exhibition, “1920,” contextualizes the year considered a turning point in Japanese art. That year witnessed the official birth of Japan’s Association of Futurist Artists, which became the local offshoot of the European Futurist phenomenon that began in Italy in 1909. Futurism took hold of the pictorial fragmentation of earlier Cubism and added a dynamic sense of rhythm and movement — the style tenets of which can be seen in Togo Seiji’s “All of the Woman” (1917).

It was also the year the Russian Futurists David Burliuk (1882-1967) and Victor Palmov (1888-1929) arrived in Japan to show their modern art in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. Those works were influential in Japan and an important precursor to the establishment of Mavo, though on exhibit here is Burliuk’s more Expressionist approach of swirling lines and quick application of paint — such as in “Japanese Woman (Mother and Child Portrait)” (1920) — rather than his Futurist/Constructivist style.

The next section of the show is also titled by year. “Berlin: 1922″ refers to Murayama’s time in Germany studying and immersing himself in the cultural milieu of the intellectually stimulating capital, where he sought out formative artistic influences. There were many works that provided inspiration, including Alexander Archipenko’s sculptures, the penetrating social satire paintings of Georg Grosz, Wassily Kandinsky’s abstract pieces and the geometric and reduced forms of constructivism, typography and design by El Lissitzky.

Theater and modern dance also became important stimuli for Murayama’s forays onto the stage — which he began in the early 1920s — where, sporting a distinctive bob-hairstyle and looking very much the androgyne, he would pose for photos in various states of undress.

Murayama’s other work at that time was rather conventional painting — attenuated forms of Cubism in landscape paintings or more thorough realism in self-portraits. The collage “Mystery” (1922), however, heralds inklings of Murayama’s drift toward avant-gardism, cobbling together newspaper headline clippings with portraits, sheet music and images of body parts and landscape.

Back in Japan in early 1923, and now the arbiter of the European avant-garde movements, Murayama set about establishing his own aesthetic through collage/assemblage work such as “Construction” (1925), a coagulation of oil paint on wood, paper, cloth and metal, the technique of which he had learned abroad. Other works include “Work Utilizing Flowers and a Shoe” (1923) in which a woman’s shoe and a glass casing enclosing synthetic flowers were placed inside a box. Such pieces escaped the two-dimensionality of painting to become sculptural still lifes.

The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1924 brought about a proletarian and socialist bent to Mavo activities, which included the design and construction of architectural facades for buildings. But it also in many ways influenced Mavo’s creative decline and Murayama’s growing penchant for the world of illustration, indicated by the number of magazine-cover designs he produced.

Ambitious paintings and sculptures were for the most part behind Murayama now and even though the exhibition’s “Seething” section is dated “1923-31,” all the really interesting work remains in the mid-’20s. The rising militarism of the early ’30s ruled out a great deal of experimentation in the arts, and those with earlier Communist associations were regarded with suspicion by the state.

What remains of the exhibition is the protracted career of Murayama as an illustrator and occasional writer of children’s stories — a skill he had developed since 1920 and which financially supported his early artistic and theatrical provocations. While he created his own original animation characters, he also illustrated Western tales such as “St. George and the Dragon” (1921) and “William Tell” (1923).

By the mid-’40′s Murayama had become thoroughly mediocre in his painting and typographic designs, and by the early ’60s he was painting staid portraits of family members. What genius Murayama held in the early 1920s was unfortunately lost in his longer career.

“Murayama Tomoyoshi: Get All of Me Seething” runs till May 13; open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. (Fri, till 8 p.m.). ¥850. Closed Mon. www.momak.go.jp.