The politics behind Japan’s modern era of proletarian art

by Matthew Larking

Special To The Japan Times

“Art and Literature in Japan 1926-1936″ follows the close of the Taisho Era (1912-1926), which was characterized by democracy, artistic experimentation and widespread social self-absorptions by the citizenry in new fashions such as the “beach pajama” outfits of “modern” girls. The successive Showa Era (1926-1989) inherited this optimism, though seismic shifts for the arts and society in general were brought about as Japan embarked on its Fifteen Year War beginning in 1931. For the arts, these years saw a rocking back and forth between freedoms and restrictions, the latter winning out.

The exhibition actually begins with the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake as a stimulus for the arts, along with the rebuilding of Tokyo as a modern metropolis. This was also the year the avant-garde painter and sculptor Tomoyoshi Murayama returned from Berlin to inaugurate the abstract Russian Constructivism of his group Mavo. The group’s agenda took on a Socialist bent in the aftermath of the earthquake and this foretold the conservative shift toward Soviet-style Social Realism that widely inhered at the end of the 1920s.

Tokyo’s rapid urbanization occasioned an underclass of laborers, who became the subject of art, along with the city itself and Communist politics of the mid-’20s to early ’30s. Such works came under the banner of Proletarian art, which was spurred by Japan’s 1927 financial crisis and the world depression of 1929. An important early painting was Toki Okamoto’s “Attack at the Factory by the Strikers (Restored Painting)” (1924/79). The original was apparently bought by a member of the Soviet Embassy who subsequently took it home to Russia

Elsewhere, Teishi Terashima’s “Komsomolka” (1930) represents the distinctively dressed female participants of the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League. Seiji Hotta’s “Blacksmith” (1929), of which there are four subjects, portrays laborers hard at work and obviously not enjoying themselves. His “Hunger” (1931) has three figures seated around a table, their faces gaunt and with nasty expressions.

Against conservative Social Realism, however, 1930 witnessed what is called the first Surrealist painting proper to be painted by a Japanese. Ichiro Fukuzawa was living in Paris when he sent “Invincible Force” (1930) and around 30 other paintings to be shown at the First Independent Exhibition in Tokyo.

Another contemporaneous arrival was New Sensation modernism, which was essentially a literary movement that turned to describing the customs and concerns of the masses in Socialist-inspired works, here represented by cover designs for Rintaro Takeda’s “Violence” (1930) and “Blood Pounding” (1931). Painting, too, went in for collaging everyday life into the pictorial world, as in Harue Koga’s “Make-up Outside the Window” (1930) where the artist combines, in near Surrealistic form, parachutes, a steamboat and a dancer posing atop a skyscraper.

As Japan’s international conflicts intensified from the early 1930s and society shifted to a form of totalitarianism, Communism, proletariats and Surrealism were demonized as subversive of state aims, and their practitioners targeted. Ichiyu Nagata’s sitter in “Kurahara Korehito Holding Pravda” (1928) was a Communist literary critic imprisoned for his proletarian sympathies from 1932-1940. Other Socialist affiliates, including the graphic artist Masamu Yanase and writer Takiji Kobayashi were also imprisoned and tortured in 1932 and 1933, respectively, with Kobayashi dying from the state’s brutality.

An all too piercing realism was similarly to be censured. Tatsuzo Ishikawa wrote “Living Soldiers” in 1938, describing his experiences in Nanjing as a reporter. Focusing on the violence, torture and murder inflicted on the Chinese, the book was censored, then removed from publication and subsequently the author, his editor and the publishers were jailed.

With particular art practices off-limits, the vacuum was filled with a return to “things Japanese” and a so-called artistic renaissance, exemplified in oil paintings by Sotaro Yasui and Ryuzaburo Umehara. Yasui’s “Model Posing” (1931), for example, did not idealize the naked female figure with Western bodily proportions, preferring instead to depict her lumpy thighs and drooping shoulders as they were.

A postscript to the exhibition briefly engages war patriotism, though the much contested legacy of “war painting” goes without remark. Instead we get a single example of painting. Gosei Abe painted “Seeing People Off” (1938), in which he depicted screaming faces and ecstatic hands waving Hinomaru flags that send the supposed willing to war. Selected for exhibition in 1938 for the prestigious Nika-kai show, the painting featured a year later in a magazine that labeled the artist “anti-war,” forcing him to withdraw from the art circles where he had so recently been celebrated. Abe was drafted in 1942 and later interned in Siberia. Except for the “willing,” “subversives” were imperiled at home and abroad.

“Art and Literature in Japan 1926-1936″ at the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art runs till Dec. 29; open daily 10 a.m.- 6 p.m. (Fri., Sun. till 8 p.m.). ¥1,200. Closed Dec. 2, 9, 16, 24. www.artm.pref.hyogo.jp/exhibition/t_1311/index.html