Modernism goes East

by Donald Richie

MODERNISM IN THE RUSSIAN FAR EAST AND JAPAN: 1918-1928, edited by Toshiharu Omuka, Kyoji Takizawa, Yoshiko Tachibana and Tsutomu Mizusawa. The Tokyo Shimbun, 2002, 254 pp., trilingual (Japanese/English/Russian), profusely illustrated, 2,500 yen (paper)

In the autumn of 1920, two Russian artists arrived in Japan. They were David Burliuk and Viktor Palmov, carrying with them some 400 pieces of modernist art. Calling themselves “Fathers of Russian Futurism,” they had escaped the various confusions of war and revolution and, encouraged by the Tokyo Nichinichi Shimbun, arrived for a series of exhibitions in Japan.

The Japanese, then as now, were interested in all things new, even something as initially baffling as “Futurism.” As early as 1909, the novelist and critic Ogai Mori had translated Italian poet Filippo Marinetti’s “Declaration of the Futurists,” and a modest degree of interest now greeted these further Russian developments.

That no one knew what Futurism consisted of was just one of its attractions. And ignorance assisted, since viewing through innocent eyes was one of the tenets of Modernism, the new aesthetic movement of which the Futurists were just a part. Modernism is a loose label indeed, but it may be at least provisionally defined.

According to British academic Malcolm Bradbury, modernist texts are experimental, formally complex and elliptical. The language is often awry, cultural cohesion is lost, perception is pluralized. It “tends to associate notions of the artist’s freedom from realism, materialism, traditional genre and form, with notions of cultural change.”

A body of writers illustrate the concept. Among them: Joseph Conrad, Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann, Andre Gide, Franz Kafka, James Joyce in fiction; August Strindberg, Luigi Pirandello, Frank Wedekind and Bertolt Brecht in drama: and Stephane Mallarme, William Yeats, T.S. Eliot and Rainer Rilke in poetry. Their works are often aesthetically radical, technically innovative, emphasize spatial as opposed to chronological forms, tend toward irony and involve what Spanish essayist and philosopher Ortega y Gasset (who did not like Modernism) called a certain “dehumanization of art.”

In painting, Russian Modernism was exemplified by Wassili Kandinsky, the early Marc Chagall, Kazimir Malevich, Vladimir Mayakovsky and many others. The aim was often toward the collective, and it was assumed that a social purpose could be accommodated — that is, until politics triumphed and the Communist Party took over. In the heady and innocent days of 1920, however, Modernism was sheer novelty.

Its influence on Japan was immediate. In literature, Modernism much affected such writers as Riichi Yokomitsu and Yasunari Kawabata — so much so that they formed their New Perception School (Shin Kanakaku Ha) and wrote such modernist novels as “Shanghai” and “The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa.” In painting, the work of Gyo Fumon, Masamu Yanase, Sueo Kasaki, Kaiteki Toda and others was seen as Japan’s answer to modernist leanings.

The newly formed Japanese group even created their own manifesto: “Come, young and vigorous painters! Come to create a new era. Wake up, friends!” In looking back over the era, one critic wrote: “It was a wonderful miracle for the general Japanese. All sorts of works of what we now call the fantastic, narrative, Realism, Dada, Futurism, Cubism, were disorderly (sic) exhibited.”

The Fathers of Russian Futurism continued showing their exhibition all over Japan — from Fukui all the way to Oshima. But then, like so many later, they had trouble with their visas. Palmov went back to Russia in the autumn of 1921 and Burliuk left for America in the summer of 1922. Neither was to return, but they had had a strong influence and Modernism was now a part of Japanese artists’ vocabulary.

During the following decades, this early visitation of Russian Modernism was largely forgotten in Japan. With the end of the Soviet era, however, interest reawakened, not only in the Vladivostok school but also in the art colonies of Khabarovsk and Chita. Japanese scholars began visiting these cities and found that large collections of the period still existed. They discovered a large, unknown Kandinsky oil, watercolors painted by Chagall when he lived in Vitebsk, and a whole collection of the works of Aristarkh Lenturov and Alexei Grishchenko.

Eventually enough was discovered both in Russia and in Japan that a large exhibition chronicling Modernism in the Russian Far East and Japan seemed possible. Putting it together, however, took four years and required the closest cooperation between museum curators in Russia and Japan.

Completed, it opened this April at the Machida City Museum of Graphic Arts, then moved to the Utsunomiya Museum of Art, and has just finished its two-month showing at the Hakodate Museum of Art. It is at present being disassembled and its various parts returned to donors in Russia and Japan. This catalog is now all that remains of this extraordinary exhibition. One can no longer wander through room after exhilarating room, enjoying a vision that is even now fresh and original. One can, however, wander through the pages of the catalog. It is still available from the Hakodate Museum of Art, which can be contacted at (0138) 56 6311, or see the Web site at

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