The swinging trends of modern Japanese painting

by Matthew Larking

“Japanese Art 1950-2010” at the National Museum of Art, Osaka is a historical show by virtue of the span of time it covers.

Drawn from the museum’s collection, however, it is also historically disengaged, largely not placing works within the narrative contexts of art history and casually overlooking whole areas distinctive to contemporary Japanese art.

For example, the conceptual and occasionally anarchic Gutai Bijutsu Kyokai (Concrete Art Association), which held court with the public from the late 1950s to the early ’70s, gets a section given to its achievements, but Mono-ha (School of Things) — the avant-garde in the late ’60s and early ’70s — goes without mention, even though members Koji Enokura and Jiro Takamatsu have works featured in the section vaguely titled “Trends of the 1970s.” Rather than an assemblage of events that provide a plot or broader interpretative network, artworks are displayed as indexical markers of their kind: This was made at this time, and this at another.

Judging from the works, however, there still is a story to tell. The show is not an objective assessment of post-World War II Japanese art, nor does it capture the period’s essence. It does, however, seek to trace the pendulum swing in painting from figurativism to abstraction, and back again, which celebrates the museum’s most recent acquisitions following the museum’s “Garden of Painting: Japanese Art of the 00s” exhibition in early 2010.

The gist is as follows. The first section, “Pioneers in Contemporary Painting,” offers precursors to abstraction in various forms — the street-sign-like emblems of Kumi Sugai that sought a form of direct, speechless communication; the hard-edged geometric abstraction and optical illusions of Toshinobu Onosato; the abstract conventions relativized to Japanese traditions, such as Shiryu Morita’s “White Hot” (1955) in sumi ink; and painterly, expressionistic abstraction by Yasukazu Tabuchi. These works act as a kind of bracket of abstraction from which the show swings to figurativism.

The subsequent section “Art After World War II” draws together a mix of works that borrow eclectically from predominantly European trends — abstraction, figurativism, Surrealism — and are imbued, at least in the more figurative works, with the societal unease of the postwar years. Shigeo Ishii’s “Anxious City: Complicity” (c.1956), for example, recalls something of the dark side of early 20th century German Expressionism in the macabre realism of a naked man riding a bike over another, while a naked figure perched at the back gnaws on the leg of a fellow individual.

The section on Gutai shows how painting (and a few other arts) became predominantly abstract, and in what seems oddly essentialist, nearly all the works focus on elliptical forms. Here we find Atsuko Tanaka’s nodes; the swirling movements of Kazuo Shiraga’s feet, which he used as his primary tools to paint with; and the curvy lip of Takesada Matsutani’s “WAVE 84-1” (1984).

Figurativism re-enters incrementally in the section on “Trends of the ’70s,” seen in Jiro Takamatsu’s painting. Takamatsu’s figures are placed in works distorted by his conceptual play on perspective — the exacting measure of art for every competent painter from the Renaissance through to the late 19th century — which is ultimately unraveled in skewed proportions and out-sized juxtapositions. Abstraction remains preeminent, however, yet tinged with conceptual bents in the work of Shusaku Arakawa.

Figurativism is seen rehabilitated in the ’80s, though for the purpose of depicting ruins, in Ryuji Miyamoto’s exquisite photographs of urban decay. Yasumasa Morimura’s video work “Me Descending the Stairs: For Gerhard Richter” (1998), is a recursive homage to the German painter’s “Nude on Staircase,” which combined photographic and abstract elements and in turn referred to Marcel Duchamp’s famous 1912 “Nude Descending a Staircase #2,” which combined the figurative and abstract.

With figurativism almost in view again, its restitution comes about in the so-called “return to figuration” that is mentioned in the catalog of the museum’s previous “Garden of Painting” exhibition. This show culminates with artists of that era, those of first decade of the 21st century. This flourishing of the figurative, however, is largely dependent on the conventions of abstract painting. Takanobu Kobayashi, arguably the most figurative in this exhibition, creates pared down and flattened views of the rears of vehicles, and Izumi Kato’s depictions of warped childlike figures in acidic colors owe more to distortion and imagination. Although Futo Akiyoshi’s “Room/Room” (2009) is essentially an abstract monochrome painting in gold, its subtle and attractive divisions and its title suggest the schematics of a room. Yet without the accouterments of inhabitants or furniture, it becomes a further abstraction from life.

This, then, is a partial history of recent Japanese art. More specifically, it contrives a prehistory of painting for the museum’s recent acquisitions and it suggests that the much heralded “return of figuration” in the last decade is largely hyperbole, engaged as it is with the evident rapprochements between abstraction and figuration that have been taking place since at least the 1980s.

“Collection 3: Japanese Art 1950-2010” at The National Museum of Art, Osaka, runs till Feb. 20; admission ¥420; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (Fri. till 7 p.m.), closed Mon. and Dec, 28- Jan. 4. For more information, visit