Saving the individual in times of conflict

by Matthew Larking

The Japanese Western-style painter Saburo Aso (1913-2000) came of age as an artist during Japan’s crescendo of militarism that began with the Manchurian Incident of 1931 and came to an ignominious end in 1945. But he refused to be drawn into the officially promoted propaganda painting of the time. The compromised art of painting in the service of a nation at war — depicting heroic fighting and individual sacrifice for the nation — was something against which Aso’s body of work appeared to be a complicated, silent protest.

He did this by turning away from representations of the body politic, heavily emphasizing the self and immediate family; and then, in later works, dissolving figures into near abstraction that retained only vestiges of portraiture or body parts. As Aso put it, “Things lay heavily on the humans, crushed them, and, in the end, the humans disappeared.”

Aso’s early work in the 1930s was a composite of realism and Surrealism, the latter of which became subject to censure during heightened war activities because it was suspected to be related to Communism. His best works here are self-portraits directly addressing the viewer. In “Self-portrait” (1935), the figure is already beginning to dissolve and you can see at the top right of the head the background encroaching in, beginning to subsume it.

Aso’s Surrealism is of an attenuated kind, and the work he did on a trip to Europe in 1938 resulted in nothing of particular artistic significance. The European experience, however, impressed upon him the significance of realism, the definition of which took on highly personal nuances. A single painting by Aso’s close friend, Ai-Mitsu (1907-46), also had a distinctive influence on the artist.

Ai-Mitsu’s “Landscape with Eye” was painted in 1938 and stands as the representative painting of Japanese Surrealism. It was an offshoot of his earlier “Lion” paintings, with the creature represented by a single eye glaring out from the midst of glutinous forms and directly at the viewer. The work was part of Ai-Mitsu’s notion of “scrutiny and dismantlement,” and it seems that after the artist’s premature death in 1946, Aso took on the role of the standard bearer of these pictorial elements, which manifested in Aso’s work most prominently from the ’60s.

In 1943 Aso and Ai-Mistu formed the New Painters’ Group with six other artists. They held three exhibitions, all with an emphasis on portraiture. In 1944, however, the Army Information Office prohibited unauthorized exhibitions, preventing any further “New Painter’s Group” exhibitions. It was virtually impossible to be openly critical of the ongoing war and Aso felt the individual was under threat. He said of his chosen subjects, “I continued to do portraits of my child. And I continued doing portraits of the people living around me. I had to do so.”

Aso’s postwar paintings are dark and oppressive, and his figures came to symbolize a generalized humanity rather than the personalized ones of earlier works. In the ’50s series “Red Sky,” he created a amorphous human landscape where figures and background swallow each other. Since he was unable to overtly criticize his own country’s war efforts, he made comments about the Vietnam War. “Burning Man” (1963), for example, took its genesis from a priest who set himself alight to protest the Vietnam war, and was painted by Aso as “a denial of dehumanized war.”

With “Burning Man,” Aso’s dissolution of the human body, under pressure from psychological discord and dissension with the world around it, was almost complete. Eerie figurative traces continued to remain — such as the eyeballs piercing through the otherwise abstract painting “Clear” (1994) — but the body was no longer recognizable, retrievable only by a forensic eye and patience.

Some commentators have discerned a lightness re-entering Aso’s late work, and it appears that the decimated figure can be reconstituted. If so, however, that regenerated body carries all its past afflictions with it and, as his 1994 sculpture “Figure (three dimensional drawing)” suggests, its resurrection is in fact grotesque.

“Aso Saburo” at The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto runs till Feb. 20; admission ¥850; open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Mon. For more information, visit