Visions that leave little to the imagination

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

Art can sometimes be surprisingly serious and po-faced, almost as if it were seen as a kind of substitute religion. Luckily, none of this pomposity attaches itself to the work of Sasae Ono, one of Japan’s most talented artists in the 20th-century, and the subject of the exhibition “Ono Sasae: Modern Girls on Parade” at the Taro Okamoto Museum of Art in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture.

The show’s title comes from Ono’s most persistent subject: the flighty and fashionable young Japanese urban woman; an object of fascination and censure in the past as she still is today. Ono’s art reflects both of these passions in ample measure, with images that celebrate as much as they criticize, and vice versa.

It is surprising that Ono is not more widely known, as his work is a pure delight and shows tremendous skill. But part of the appeal of art is a certain inaccessibility that plays to a snobbish desire to appear more sophisticated. In these terms, Ono’s art is a complete failure because it is immediately accessible to everyone, in the same way that the “saucy” seaside postcards of Donald McGill are.

This is a fitting reference point, as Ono developed his art through caricatures and illustrations for popular magazines, such as the prewar Tokyo Puck and the postwar Shin Manga rather than the path of high art. Although it seems he also harbored a desire to be taken seriously as a painter — which finally led him to oil painting.

As a student at the Tokyo Fine Arts School (now Tokyo University of the Arts) in the 1920s, he was drawn to the work of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec depicting the demimonde of 19th-century Paris. Other references are the acerbic and surreal caricatures of the German New Objectivity painters, including Otto Dix and George Grosz.

Dix and Grosz used collage, caricature, juxtaposition and an X-ray effect that looked beneath the surface to lay bare the ugliness of Weimar Republic Germany (1919-33). These are the same methods that Ono uses, especially in “X-rayed Woman” (1949), one of his more scathing images. This shows the inner workings of a “good-time girl,” including her mercenary motive, alcohol consumption, contraception and sexual diseases. But while the work of Dix and Grosz is ultimately infused with a German puritanism, Ono’s work seldom feels preachy and even this work is tinged with a little affection.

Another aspect of this fascinating exhibition is the work that Ono did during World War II. This includes sketches he made in wartime Indonesia and caricatures mocking the eclipse of British power. One of the most enjoyable of these, despite its questionable political message, is “New World Moral Cleaning” (1941), showing Britain’s then leader, Winston Churchill, as a rat being chased out of Europe and Asia by two Axis beauties.

“Ono Sasae: Modern Girls on Parade” at the Taro Okamoto Museum of Art runs till Jan. 14; open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥900. Closed Mon. www.taromuseum.jp.