Nationalism — especially in the Japanese context — routinely gets a bad press.

Just the word seems to call forth visions of braying sound trucks, surly permed fellows in jump suits, and seedy revisionist historians with axes to grind or ungrind. But nationalism can be a force for good, according to Tohru Matsumoto, one of the curators of the exhibition “Modern Age in Japanese Sculpture: From its Beginnings through the 1960s” at the Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo till Dec. 24.

“The notion of sculpture as art (and separate from religion) in the Western sense started with the notion of nationhood,” Matsumoto explains. “Not only in Japan, but in most countries, sculpture was connected to nationalism. In Japan, there was only the National Museum in Tokyo, then in Kyoto and Nara. There weren’t any private or prefectural museums in that period.”

In contrast to earlier retrospectives on modern Japanese sculpture, the exhibition ranges back further in time — to the early Meiji Period (1868-1912) — allowing visitors to take in the transition from a predominantly wood-based craft art to a system equipped to produce the impressive bronze public monuments that any self-respecting nation needed in the late late 19th or early 20th century.

Works such as Kozan Miyagawa’s “Footed Bowl with Crabs in Brown Glaze” (1881) and Koun Takamura’s lyrical wood carving “Aged Monkey” (1893), show the starting point for modern 3-D works. Early religious influences are also hinted at in works such as Hisakazu Takenouchi’s “Portrait of Bodhidharma” (1911), which is halfway between a modern work and a traditional Buddhist icon.

“There have been many exhibitions about the history of Japanese sculpture, but most begin with Morie Ogiwara (1879-1910) or Kotaro Takamura (1883-1956),” Matsumoto states. “To organize this one with wooden works from the Meiji Period was difficult as they’re more delicate.”

The significance of Takamura and Ogiwara is that they exemplify the generation that traveled abroad and either studied with or were inspired by the great French sculptors, learning the techniques that allowed Japan, at least superficially, to catch up with the West. It is ironic then that the humbler traditional wooden works, included to show the pre-existing state of Japanese sculpture, have survived better than the Rodin- and Bourdelle- inspired bronzes that came afterward.

“There were 400 bronze public monuments in Japan,” Matsumoto says. “During World War II most of them were melted down in order to make weapons.”

As many of the bronze public works produced by the artists featured in the exhibition no longer exist or, if they do, are currently on public duty, the exhibition makes do with studies, private works or other materials. Taketaro Shinkai, whose equestrian statue of Prince Toshinaka Nambu in Iwate Prefecture was melted down in 1944, leaving an empty plinth that can be seen to this day, is represented by his demure nude “Bathing” (1907), a work that applies Western art’s Venus template to Japanese womanhood.

Koun Takamura, famous for the pugnacious statue of Saigo Takamori in Ueno Park, is represented by five wood works, including “Aged Monkey.” Ujihiro Okuma is represented by a small bronze scale model of the equestrian statue of Prince Arisugawa Taruhito in Arisugawa Memorial Park in Tokyo’s Minami-Azabu. Okuma created the first monumental bronze cast in Japan in 1893 for his statue of Masajiro Omura, the founder of the modern Japanese army, that still sits atop a column in the grounds of Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine.

The examples of prewar sculpture, tied to realistic depictions of great men cast in durable materials, reveal the fact that artistic freedom usually bears an inverse relationship to the overall costs involved in a project. Just as writers typically have more freedom than filmmakers, in the art world, painters have traditionally been granted much greater artistic license than sculptors.

Nationalism may have helped finance and support the acquisition of foreign technology, techniques and aesthetic ideals, but it also circumscribed what could be created. The ending of the war, however, created radically different conditions. While public commissions continued — postwar peace monuments, the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo and the 1970 Osaka Expo were all important sources of sculptural commissions — artists were given much greater freedom in interpreting their briefs.

The sharp division between prewar figurative and postwar abstract sculpture, shows that Japanese sculptors, liberated from producing statues of heroes and tin hats, were now looking to the apolitical international style, with its affinities to modernist architecture. While it enabled them to turn their back on overt expressions of nationalism, the style also allowed them to rediscover some of the traditional strands of Japanese art.

Kakuzo Tatehata’s “Organ” (1962), Tomonori Toyofuku’s “Structure ’67 I” (1967), and Katsuhiro Yamaguchi’s “Work (Heart)”(1963), show the love of texture and materials and the playful use of nonfigurative shapes that has always been discernible in Japanese art.

The emotional trajectory the show follows is of heavy materials gradually escaping the gravity of politics and pompous ostentation, becoming instead expressions of artistic thought.

“Modern Age in Japanese Sculpture” runs till Dec. 24 at Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo; open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Fri. closes 8 p.m.; closed on Mon.) For more information call (03) 5777-8600 or visit www.momat.go.jp

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