If ever an artist was in a constant state of reinvention, it was Masamu Yanase (1900-1945), now the subject of a full-scale exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, Hayama. “Yanase Masamu: A Retrospective 1900-1945” brings together more than 500 of the artist’s works, large and small, for a comprehensive overview of his career.

His first reincarnation came as a teenager when, disliking his given name of Shoroku, he changed it to Masamu, incorporating the kanji character for “dream” into his new name. Leaving his parents in Kyushu, he arrived in Tokyo at age 14, but had to flit between there and home for lack of funds. He had no art-school training, but his precocious talent secured him patrons, enabling him to continue painting.

In a number of his landscapes in oils, painted when he was just 15 years old, he builds up both the sky and greenery with overlaid short, vertical brush strokes that harmonize the entire picture plane. A view of a coastal village seems to echo the smooth color planes and dramatically high viewpoint of a Japanese woodblock print, showing a range of interests indicative of an inquisitive mind. Even at this age, his talent was recognized and one of his paintings was included in an exhibition where it was singled out for praise by a leading art critic.

He also had a pair of busy hands: The following year he not only painted his parents working in the fields but also his own masterful self-portrait. The next year he produced a series of mountain scenes recalling, but not beholden to, Cezanne’s renditions of Mont Sainte Victoire.

It was not long before Yanase was swept up in Japan’s burgeoning Futurist movement. In one energetic work from the early 1920s you can just make out a bridge, but in another, any solid forms dissolve into an abstract flurry of swirling color. Having become politicized quite early, Yanase engaged with Constructivism, although often still with a Futurist tinge, as part of the Mavo group. His “A Morning in May and Me Before Breakfast” (1923) is a vertigo-inducing riot of movement and skyscraper-like shapes, although it could also be read as a totally abstract work. Nothing else from this period quite encapsulates the chaos of the modern city.

Yanase’s next rebirth was after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Arrested during the crackdown on radicals in the aftermath of the quake, his work became even more political. Turning his back on painting — which he now considered a bourgeois pursuit — he concentrated on forms of mass communication such as posters and graphics. Much of this proletarian art is vivid and striking, and often utilizes the strong graphic potential of kanji characters. He also worked as a cartoonist, providing the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper with comical commentary on people and society.

In a bitter irony for an anarchist in favor of abolishing the nation state entirely, Yanase was pressed into fighting for Japan during World War II, a “duty” that ended up costing him his life.

“Yanase Masamu: A Retrospective 1900-1945” at The Museum of Modern Art, Hayama runs till March 23; open 9.30 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥1,000. Closed Mon. www.moma.pref.kanagawa.jp

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