Japan occupies an odd niche in the art world. Its own indigenous artistic traditions are balanced against an almost fanboy fascination with certain aspects of the canon of Western art, while there is an often half-hearted attempt to stay plugged into the global contemporary art scene with its various trends and attempts at relevance.
What this boils down to in practice is that many of the big museums put on shows of Western art and/or traditional Japanese art, attracting big audiences, while a few institutions also do their bit to support the more “experimental” side of art, which tends to receive only lukewarm support from the public and collectors.
This is the default setting of the Japanese art world. The only real disruption was caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. This heavily impacted the art world with an inundation of quake-related art and events, as Japan’s art establishment struggled to come to terms with the tragedy.
This year, finally saw the ebbing of this wave and a return to relative normalcy, although I suspect the quake and its aftermath continues to exert an influence by making it harder to borrow quality works from abroad.
This may have been a factor with the three exhibitions that focused on the three giants of the Renaissance — Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo. On paper, this should have been one of the year’s most memorable motifs. But instead it looked like a case of aiming hopelessly high, as the actual contents — hard to come by at the best of times — fell short of the expectations raised by the names. Of the three, only the Raphael exhibition at the National Museum of Western Art (NMWA) seemed to gather a reasonable selection of works.
Other old masters to turn up in Tokyo included Peter Paul Rubens, with a compact but effective show at the Bunkamura; El Greco, who impressed at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Art; and a wide, if not particularly brilliant, selection of Claude Monet and friends at the NMWA, which was unambitiously sourced from its own collection and that of the Pola Museum in Hakone.
The best of the big name shows were those of two British artists: J.M.W. Turner, whose exhibition at the Tokyo Metropolitan was well stocked with important works from Britain’s Tate Gallery, and Francis Bacon, with the first retrospective of his work in Asia since his death in 1992.
As I wrote at the time, this abounding show at the Museum of Modern Art Tokyo (MoMAT) was also a welcome antidote to the “teacakes and kittens set,” my shorthand for the largely middle-aged ladies of leisure and retired gents, who dominate museum audiences in Japan and disproportionately influence tastes.
Another exhibition that deserves mention was the excellently curated Gustave Caillebotte show at the Bridgestone Museum of Art. Along with some of the early Monets at the NMWA’s show, this reminded us that Impressionism was once a radical art movement that embraced the modern world, even though it now has something of a “biscuit tin” image thanks to the more saccharine works that have come to define the movement.
Also enjoyable was the American Pop Art exhibition at the National Art Center Tokyo (NACT). This featured works by Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol and others, although what was most memorable was the fact that the organizers demanded high fees for the use of images in publications; this, despite the fact that pop artists freely used images created by others, as in Warhol’s famous prints of Chairman Mao, which were included.
This demonstrated that even art forms initially inspired by an anarchic and iconoclastic spirit can become a new kind of establishment, and emphasized the need for art to be a living, breathing and creative process, rather than a totemic set of clichés.
So, what about Japan’s contemporary art scene? At the public level, this is channeled through the main group shows, such as the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo (MOT), “Annual” show, “Artist File” at the NACT, and “Roppongi Crossing” at the Mori Art Museum.
This year, the MOT “Annual” was particularly dire. Their concept seemed to be that the participants could do anything they wanted, even to the point of emptying the contents of their trash cans into a paid and ticketed public space.
On the bright side, I managed to pick up a free original art work by Hiroaki Morita — hidden in one of the museum’s trash cans with hints from the museum of where to find it. On the dark bright side, it was merely a cardboard toilet roll with a metal nut super-glued to the inside. I guess the point was that trash and art are not so far apart. Well, not if you are Morita or some of the lesser talents involved in “Roppongi Crossing,” which despite straining for a wider relevance was also a dull show.
The best of the group shows was “Artist File.” Although this also had its weak points, Hideaki Nakazawa’s paintings of children were mesmerizing, and Lieko Shiga’s mysterious flash photographs, set up in a chaotic maze-like arrangement, had a dreamlike quality.
Alongside the sometimes embarrassing worship of the Western canon and the patchiness of contemporary art, the main pleasures this year were the excellent exhibitions of traditional Japanese art. The Idemitsu Museum had excellent shows on the Zen artist Sengai and the Kano School in Edo; the Bunkamura had an equally fascinating show on another Zen artist Hakuin; MoMAT’s look at the art of the early 20th-century nihonga painter Takeuchi Seiho was an eye-opener; and the Tokyo University Art Museum provided an ideal temporary home to Buddhist artifacts from Kohfukuji Temple in Nara.
Japan might often fall behind when it comes to the Western canon and globally-relevant contemporary art, but it is always able to make up for this with its own traditional artistic treasures.