Japanese modernist art is often described as being derivative of its Western counterpart, but beneath the surface a real difference between them can be likened to that between religion in Japan and the West.

In the West, mainstream religion has often been overly serious and sanctimonious. In Japan, by contrast, there are “religious” events such as the spring “Big Iron Penis Festival” in Kawasaki in Kanagawa Prefecture, in which a 3-meter-high statue of a pink penis is paraded around the center of town while onlookers happily lick phallically shaped lollipops. In other words, religion and modernist art, which has often been seen as its substitute, can both be said to take themselves much less seriously in Japan than in the West.

Centenary retrospective

This is a view that is definitely reinforced by the centenary retrospective of Masao Tsuruoka at the Museum of Modern Art Kamakura, which brings together more than 150 works by the artist, who died in 1979. The show might easily be mistaken for a group show, because Tsuruoka was a stylistic chameleon who tried his hand at most of the imported fads of the times.

“Many Japanese artists at this time were heavily influenced by Western art from France and the United States,” Toshio Yamanashi, the museum’s director observes. “In the case of Tsuruoka, mainly until the 1950s, he changed his style very often with such experiments, but after the ’60s his characteristic style was fixed very solidly.”

That “characteristic style” to which Yamanashi refers — with its simple, disparate shapes and basic colors — also owes much to Western modernist art. But what Tsuruoka adds is an element of animism and a lot of low-brow humor that makes these paintings modernist equivalents of the saucy seaside postcards by British cartoonist Donald McGill.

In “Golf” (1966), for example, one of the small, blob-like creatures that inhabits his canvas is putting on a green whose shape has unmistakably erotic connotations. The obsession of golfers with getting the ball in the hole is, with great economy of form, exposed as a sublimation of the sex drive. The disparity in size between the male and female forms in this painting also evokes something of the sexual impotence that perhaps makes golf so much more enjoyable than sex after a certain age.

This is counterbalanced by “View Point B” (1966). Instead of equating a respectable open-air pastime with sex, it takes the act of defecating and makes it clean, according to Yamanashi. “At the top of this painting, there are black hips and thin legs,” he says. “Then there are very big balls of shit. But such shapes can also be read as the baths of the little creatures that we can see in between.”

Although it is also possible to see in these works an all-embracing philosophy of life, in which absolutes are relative and opposites complement, the undeniably brash and low-brow humor of Tsuruoka’s work limits his acceptance as an important artist outside Japan. Ultimately, his more satisfying works are the ones that use less humor, or use it more subtly. One such is an untitled work from 1965, where the sublime shape of Mount Fuji is skillfully equated with a bikinied crotch — but only if you look carefully.

Soft, smoky textures

Another drawback is that his preference for simple shapes and colors creates smooth and often visually uninteresting areas of paint. Luckily this is offset by the inclusion of several pastel works, where the soft, smoky textures of the medium better complement his formal approach. This gives the animist creatures he depicts a fuzzy warmth and cuteness that is sure to go down well.

Whatever other resonances this exhibition has, Yamanashi is also keen to stress Tsuruoka’s historical relevance as an artist who observed and expressed the social conditions of his time. In this sense, the humor and irony of much of his work, as well as his notoriously bohemian lifestyle, is said to reflect the moral amnesia and frivolity that characterized postwar Japanese society.

Having served in the Imperial Japanese Army in the war — and even having been present at the Nanking Massacre in 1937 — Tsuruoka initially found it difficult to adopt this attitude. This is clear in his most famous early work, “The Heavy Hand” (1949), an intense and somber Surrealist piece that would sit comfortably on the cover of any collection of Franz Kafka’s short stories.

“In this painting he wants to say that society has to be founded on a deep consideration of the meaning of the war,” Yamanashi says. “At that time there was a sense of liberation, but he thought that Japanese people, including him, had to have a heavy burden. But after this painting, he changed his principles. He said Japanese painting should be based on Japanese reality. With such words he began to observe Japanese society, and employ his humor.”

Humor has always had an important role in Japanese society. Having been at the cutting edge of a period of dour, nationalistic earnestness, Tsuruoka was in a good position to know this. Although it is difficult to venerate his art, it has a warmth and humanity that is endearing.

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