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Let’s forget for a minute whether or not the Mori’s new show “Tokyo-Berlin/Berlin-Tokyo” succeeds in its mission to show the links — strong or tenuous — between these two major cities. Instead let’s discuss what is good about the works the Mori is presenting to a mainstream audience.
While the exhibition includes architecture, photography, printmaking, and documentation of Dada and its Japanese equivalent, Mavo, most of the real estate is given to painting. By concentrating on two cities that weren’t at the forefront of late 19th-century and early 20th-century Modernism, the exhibition allows you to reassess your commitment to your favorite isms.
Besides German Expressionism, major movements — Naturalism, Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, Surrealism and their attendant abstract forms — are more closely associated with Paris, London and Italy. Thus at the Mori, viewing relatively unknown art from the peripheries of well-known art periods provides an opportunity to break free of accepted tastes. You will find no Cezannes, Picassos or Dalis here. Instead it’s Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Viktor Palmov and Hans Grundig; Tai Kambara, Hitoshi Ikebe and Iwami Furusawa.
It’s a mixed bag to be sure, displaying sometimes both the best and the worst tendencies of a style. Naturally, the German Expressionist selections are the strongest. Kirchner’s “Japanese Theater” (1909) is a bold exploration in yellow, and Jacob Steinhardt’s “The City” (1913) is a riot of darkness that suggests Sartre’s dictum that “hell is other people.” Viktor Palmov’s “Japanese Woman” (1920) avoids the cheap exoticism of Japonisme and stands out for its smart and subtle use of dark and unexpected primary colors.
The Japanese contributions to Expressionism appear in Gyo Fumon’s “Deer with Sunbeams” (1919) and Tai Kambara’s “Flowing Life Energy (Symphony No. 35)” (1919). Although Kambara is best known for his Futurism and Cubism, this work could easily be described as Abstract Expressionism. Worthy of its title, it’s a muscular painting that bulges off the canvas with reds, yellows and lighter blues that forcefully carve out tangible curves on a midnight blue and black background.
Similarly, Gyo’s “Deer, Youth, Sunbeams, Crossing” (1920) transcends its Futuristic leanings and even feels contemporary today. In contrast, Seiji Togo’s Cubist “All About Her” (1917) shows Cubism as a stylistic cul-de-sac, good for opening new doors but not at indicating new directions.
The examples of Naturalism and Impressionism look much like, well, any Naturalist or Impressionist painting. They are mostly interesting for their subject matter — Germans painting Japanese subjects and Japanese painting Japanese subjects in a European way. That said, Adolph von Menzel’s “Japanese Painter” (1885) and Ikunosuke Shirataki’s “A Lesson” (1897) are excellently executed and David Burliuk’s “Portrait of a Family” (1921) rewards multiple viewings.
From the Japanese side, the mood of Mango Kobayashi’s “Lost in Thought” (1907) is effectively weighty, and Mori Director David Elliot cites it as an early example of a European narrative sensibility in Japanese art.
The Surrealism contingent is hit or miss, which is actually a compliment. Nowadays the movement feels too glib, the fault of Dali’s proficiency and prolificacy. Kakuzo Namba’s “Chiang Kai Shek, Where Are You Going?” (1939) is worth mentioning, and surprisingly it is for its inclusion of politics into an art form built on non-sequiturs and detached from daily realities. The painting is of a tattered Nationalist Chinese flag draped in pieces over a typical Dali-esque landscape, making it a curiosity as it uses Surrealism to convey a contemporary message.
Several paintings are strong simply because they defy easy categorization. Shunko Saeki’s “Tea Room” (1930) has a Taisho Era feel, combining a Japanese-style flatness with Art Deco details. Its life-size subjects alone, two waitresses against a wall, make it hard to ignore. In “Battle of the Bears and the Wolves” (1938), Hans Grundig uses strong reds and greens to portray the violent and unstoppable animals in a dynamic but murky allegory. Grundig was a commercial painter, and a Communist, and though “Battle” tends toward Expressionism, it feels like something else entirely.
The last two rooms are dedicated to “Contemporary Art After the Wall,” and show only German artists. Franz Ackermann has done a whole wall in his trademark style, as has Katherina Grosse in the final corner of the show. The overall graphic presentation of the exhibition — many rooms have elaborate decorative schemes — detracts from Ackermann and Grosse’s impact, but the paintings are fine additions. And Daniel Richter’s more traditional works powerfully evoke a world of violence. It is perhaps odd, though, that the Mori has chosen not to include any Japanese artists whose connection to Germany is quite clear, such as the popular Yoshitomo Nara, who went to school in Germany and has exhibited in Berlin.
But that’s a quibble, and really the Mori brings some excellent art to attention. By looking outside the centers of Modernism, we see it afresh, and in the end, Elliot’s conclusion about the exhibition is perhaps the best: “Really it’s emblematic of the history of Modernism, as well as the history of the world.”