Art rebel without a cause


Pulse waves from the art world of the early 20th Century may have been felt far and wide, but the movements, practitioners and individual works of art themselves were far from being globally coordinate.

IN PURSUIT OF UNIVERSALISM: Yorozu Tetsugoro and Japanese Modern Art, by Alicia Volk. University of California Press, 308 pp., $15 (paper)

In 1912, where this book first situates the reader, European giants such as Matisse, Kandinsky and Braque were exhibiting at major events and shows in Paris and Munich.

While these momentous events were taking place, Japanese artists were not idle. Among the most promising of the young modern artists was Tetsugoro Yorozu.

Europeans valued Japanese art for its exoticism and quaintness — not for its influences on the West. Volk attempts to deconstruct the rigid oppositions of Eastern versus Western, and the tendency to dismiss Japanese art that adapted European methods, as somehow diminished.

At an exhibition in Manhattan in 1988, one critic wrote of the Japanese oil paintings on show, including some by Yorozu, “One would not normally cross the street to see earnest Japanese pastiches of Renoir, looking like inflamed rubber dolls.”

Volk demonstrates how prewar Japanese painting faced entrenched barriers from a West that regarded modernism as its exclusive preserve, even as it was promulgating the notion of the universality of art. Western connoisseurs, critics and curators with an interest in Oriental art wanted to see evidence of a Japanese aesthetic in the works they viewed.

By looking in exacting detail at the life and work of her subject, Volk is able to construct a critical theory of artistic modernism in Japan, to illustrate how Japanese painters like Yorozu aimed to create a native modernism fortified by Western art techniques, but not derivative of it. Yorozu, like other enlightened artists of his day, worked toward a convergence of Western and Japanese art.

The artist was an early insurgent. After submitting his graduation work, the controversial “Nude Beauty,” he not only boycotted the ceremony, but refused to accept the teaching certificate that accompanied it, one of an aspiring artists’ only insurances against unemployment.

He would go on to avoid exhibiting in government salons, which he considered seriously compromised by state patronage. Volk expends a good deal of time analyzing the importance of “Nude Beauty,” and why the academy professors and most of the public who viewed the work were aghast at its blunt sexuality, coarseness and antinaturalistic style.

Besides working in the medium of oil painting, Yorozu employed non-Western forms, formats and materials, using black ink painting, creating hanging scrolls, sliding door panels, silk painting, poem cards, and folding screens.

To support himself, he even turned his versatile hand to painting advertising boards in the Asakusa entertainment district of Tokyo.

Reading about Yorozu’s inner struggles and self-doubts, we see art as a fiercely intellectual pursuit, a search for models, schools, defining principals, even creeds. For Yorozu, it was not enough to simply paint well; one had to contribute to the development of art. As an artist struggling to valorize his work, Yorozu requisitioned ideas wherever he found them. Volk touches, for example, on the role of Buddhist theories of nondualism and the means the tradition offered Yorozu in thinking beyond the East-West binaries.

Yorozu was highly critical of his own work, capable of destroying a painting if it fell short of his exacting standards. He experienced the anxiety common to any artist who realizes that his skills are not yet commensurate with his aims.

Volk passes judgment on individual works that fall short. One painting titled “Self-Portrait with Red Eyes” seems a striking image, a resounding triumph, but Volk finds the work flawed, commenting, “he waited for the unknown face of his self to appear. Yet the image’s plastic tension between figure and ground suggest that such an epiphany was out of his grasp.”

If Yorozu was a stern self-critic, he could also turn his venom against other artists and schools of painting. His reservations about nihonga led him to describe the works exhibited at a salon in 1922 as “garbage;” particular works were singled out as “vacant,” “laughable” or “flabby.”

Volk, an instinctive researcher, sources a wide range of material to support her ideas, add mass to the text, and develop a full and engrossing portrait of her subject. This is a demanding, but intellectually nourishing read, in which Volk’s voluminous knowledge of art movements and discourse creates a text of commanding erudition.