Given Japan’s continual seismic activity, what happened at 5:46 a.m. on Jan. 17, 1995, was unavoidable. The devastation and loss of life that occurred with the magnitude 7.3 quake in Kansai became a yardstick only now surpassed by the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. While the aftereffects of the latter are ongoing, what took place in and around the city of Kobe is now in large part memory and memorial.

This year marks the 20th anniversary, and Kobe’s Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art recalls and reminds visitors of the disaster. The prologue to the exhibition, which concerns a number of paintings from the museum’s collection, addresses both the beauties of nature that are a part of traditional Japanese aesthetic proclivity and nature’s tremendous destructive power. It is a nod to 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant’s distinction between the beautiful and the sublime, the latter concerning the mesmerizing incomprehensibility of nature’s power.

The focus is the museum’s story; though, with enough historical distance, the personal tales are never too far away, being bound to a second section devoted to the development of the museum between 1995-2005. This features Waichi Tsutaka’s “Mother and Child” (1951), in which the figures are reduced to lines that course embodiment to abstraction. The work was purchased by the museum not long before the quake, which killed the artist and destoyed his home.

The present Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art opened in 2002 — it was previously located on a nearby hill, where the Harada no Mori Gallery and the Yokoo Tadanori Museum of Contemporary Art now stand. Before the quake, the Hyogo museum was scheduled to host an exhibition from Jan. 28 on the French surrealist painter Rene Magritte, but plans were scuttled due to gallery damage, and the show moved to the Umeda Daimaru department store in Osaka. In place of the museum, Hyogo Bank (now Minato Bank) also provided three of its branches to host exhibitions from April 1995, though the museum’s main exhibition hall was up and running by November of the same year with a show featuring Western masters Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Jean Francois Millet.

Considerable attention at the current Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art show is paid to conservation and repair. Around 38 sculptures were severely damaged or in need of attention and the show documents their rehabilitation. Yoshitaka Yanagihara’s “Milestone, Crow” (1979) now stands erect, but a photograph beside it shows the sculpture sideways, having fallen off its outdoor plinth and into a pool of water. Elsewhere, Shikai Kitamura’s “Work in Spring” (1930) is resurrected — the marble nude is now intact, though sporting injuries and wounds, all too visible in the piecing together of the fragments of the left arm from the shoulder down. Thirty pictures needed repair after falling from the walls, among them 18 had frames damaged.

The narrative then turns to the museum’s five-year memorial exhibition in 2000 and its 10-year one, themed Renascence, in 2005. Notable here is Masato Nishida’s “Rubble — Covered City” (1995), which pictures a scene of all too visceral destruction. From the latter exhibition we witness blooming optimism in Miran Fukuda’s “Yulan in Koudan-cho, Awajishima” (2004). At bottom is a photo quotation from the Asahi Shimbun showing seismic suburban ruination with a tree trunk in the foreground, rising out of the top of the frame. Painted in above is the continuation of the tree, formerly barren but now flowering, its petals scattering in the wind as a symbol of transience, death and cyclical rebirth.

The third section deals exclusively with the black-and-white photography of Iwata Nakayama, who returned to Japan in 1927 after having set up a studio in New York followed by working in Paris. Representative pieces of his early years include avant-garde abstract montages and portraits of the famous such as the oil painter “Portrait of Fujita Tsuguharu” (1926-27).

Following the quake, Nakayama’s cameras and negatives were retrieved from the debris of the artist’s studio and exhibited in what the museum calls a “rescue of cultural assets.” The images were later printed in 1996. “Scene of Kobe (Motomachi Street)” (ca. 1939) is a kind of nostalgic olden-day scene, while the “Scene of Kobe (Ashes of Defeat)” (1945) shows the city flattened by World War II air raids. Nakayama died in 1949 and had not printed these images himself, leaving us to question whether the photographer would have given his permission to do so.

The exhibition rounds out with the widely exhibited photography of London-based Hyogo native Tomoko Yoneda. Taking photographs 10 years on, history and the passage of time have eroded the meanings and memories that once suffused Yoneda’s earthquake related sites. Themes often allude to blank spaces with seemingly neutral meanings, such as an empty room with curtains drawn or an earthen suburban lot flanked by modern housing. Yoneda then injects the photography with haunting significance via titles such as “Classroom I — Used as a Temporary Mortuary Immediately After The Quake” (2004). Here memory and imagination constitute the disaster’s ongoing significance.

“The 20th Anniversary of the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake” runs till March 8 at Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. ¥510. Closed Mon. www.artm.pref.hyogo.jp/eng/home.html

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