Last fall, Tokyo’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOT) quietly launched a series of exhibitions seeking new interpretive approaches to the institution’s permanent collection of modern and contemporary art. Tucked away in a modest group of second-floor galleries, the first exhibition in the series, “Chronicle 1945, 1951, 1957: A Revision of Post-War Japanese Art,” investigates three momentous dates in Japanese art history as well as the history of the museum’s collection.

At a time when severe budget cuts have made permanent collections an afterthought in many museum programs, “Chronicle” suggests that MOT, which experienced a temporary freeze on its acquisitions budget at the start of the past decade, is seeking to reinvigorate this core aspect of its mission.

While recent collection exhibitions at MOT have tended to gather a broad range of works from different periods grouped around a loose theme, “Chronicle” differs in its focus on a specific trajectory of art activity, showcasing the depth of the museum collection. Although MOT was established in 1995, close to 3,000 of its 4,000 works were inherited from Ueno’s Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, itself a reincarnation of the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Gallery, which was founded in 1926. That connection allowed the curator behind “Chronicle,” Aki Fujii, an opportunity to present a selection of works rarely seen in a contemporary context.

Indeed, the 1945 section of “Chronicle” features works made under the World War II-era censorship regime such as Yaoji Hashimoto’s “New Guinea Campaign” (1944), an example of the propagandistic “War Pictures” genre. Painted in blue undertones with loose, almost watery applications of oil color, Hashimoto’s canvas depicts a nighttime battle scene with a field of twisted, charred trees extending to the horizon. In the foreground, soldiers crouch with their rifles, while a group of prone bodies hangs over the edge of what appears to be a deep pit just visible in the bottom left corner of the composition.

Wall texts placed beside this and other works provide fascinating details about provenance as well as the artists’ biographies. In the case of “New Guinea Campaign,” the painting was requisitioned by occupying Allied Powers following the war and scheduled to be shipped to the United States, but Hashimoto told authorities that it had been destroyed in a fire and was thus able to spirit it away to his home in Iwate Prefecture.

Other works respond to the aftermath of the war. Masao Tsuruoka’s striking “Heavy Hand” (1949) uses a subdued palette to imagine a crouching figure with distended features and a giant hand draped over his back. In the background, a patchwork of rectilinear forms suggests both architectural detail and cubist experimentation. Expressing the emotional burdens of the postwar period, the painting also marked a departure point for Tsuruoka, who went on to make colorful, satirical works camouflaging ribald humor in Modernist abstraction.

The tone shifts in the 1951 section of the show, which revolves around the year that Gallery Takemiya, dedicated to a new generation of artists, was founded in Tokyo’s Kanda ward and a Pablo Picasso retrospective organized by the Yomiuri Shimbun provided the impetus for the formation of the pioneering multimedia group Jikken Kobo (Experimental Workshop).

Works representing Gallery Takemiya, which continued operating until 1957, include Taizo Yoshinaka’s “Terrestrial” (1956), which explores Pop figuration through its hyper-saturated depiction of a comical, red octopus on a kitchen chopping block in the lower right-hand corner of the painting with a disembodied tangle of oversize tentacles taking over the rest of the composition. The canvas has been cut in a long jagged line extending across its middle and down its center, and then crudely stitched back together with thread, adding to it a textural element.

Yet the star of “Chronicle” is the space dedicated to the group Jikken Kobo, who got their start with a commission from the Yomiuri Shimbun to design a ballet coinciding with the newspaper’s Picasso retrospective and, coincidentally, were active during the same 1951-57 time-span as Gallery Takemiya. Comprising artists, musicians, a photographer, a lighting designer and an engineer, Jikken Kobo’s combination of art, stagecraft, performance and new media technology serves as an important precedent for current contemporary art practices.

Because many of their projects had an ephemeral aspect, Jikken Kobo are represented by the works of individual members at MOT (several of which are in fact on loan from the Chiba City Museum of Art), as well as by archival documentation. On one wall, Kiyoji Otsuji’s stark black-and-white photographs of models tied up in intricate wire and rope arrangements prefigure the contemporary photographer Nobuyoshi Araki, who also explores themes of bondage.

On another wall are photographs made in 1953-54 for Asahi gurafu: Asahi Picture News. The artists made sculptural environments incorporating the letters of the magazine’s English-language acronym, APN, which were then documented and used as lead illustrations for its featured columns section. These presage two multimedia works made in 1953 using prototype Sony automated slide projectors with synchronized sound, displayed at MOT on a single monitor. Entitled “Adventure of the Eyes of Mr. W.S., a Test Pilot” and “Form is Created,” respectively, the works combine monochrome images of staged sculptural arrangements with darkly poetic narrative voiceovers and could easily justify being shown in their own room with large-scale projections.

“Chronicle” concludes with a sampling of paintings by members of the Gutai Art Association, which, thanks partly to the 1957 visit to Japan by the French critic and curator Michel Tapie and the artist Georges Mathieu, went on to gain international acclaim. Hanging side by side, paintings by Mathieu and Gutai-member Kazuo Shiraga illustrate the affinities between the artists, both of whom used thick applications of paint to make gestural abstractions. This last section brings the exhibition back firmly into line with the canon of Japanese postwar art, in which Gutai plays a major role.

Speaking with the Japan Times, exhibition curator Fujii acknowledged the difficulty inherent in reassessing history. Regarding the inclusion of wartime era works, Fujii said, “It’s important to recognize the fact that such art existed, if we are to appreciate what followed.”

Fujii said that she hoped “Chronicle” could address issues of postwar Japanese art reflected in the museum collection. “We wanted to do something that is only possible at a museum,” she said.

“In the past 20 years, contemporary art has become phenomenally popular, but how does that connect or not connect with the past? In Tokyo there are very few platforms for discussions or dialogue addressing those issues, so I hope ‘Chronicle’ can spur such exchange.”

MOT’s chief curator Yuko Hasegawa added that she saw the exhibition as establishing new critical criteria for the museum, with a focus on open-ended interpretation. “By shifting the focus from movements to periods, we can enable visitors to observe and consider works that have been omitted from mainstream history,” she explained. “It’s a kind of index presentation that allows the public to make their own decisions about values.”

Suggesting that the museum has high hopes for what will likely be an annual series, Fujii has organized a symposium on April 10, subtitled “Chronicle/Achronicle,” with artist Kenjiro Okazaki, art historian and critic Michio Hayashi and art critic Yuri Mitsuda addressing the exhibition and historiography.

“Chronicle 1945, 1951, 1957: A Revision of Postwar Japanese Art” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo continues till April 11; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. closed Mon.; admission ¥500. For more information visit www.mot-art-museum.jp/eng/collection.html

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.