Japan’s conflicted art of World War II

by Matthew Larking

Special To The Japan Times

The Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art’s current exhibition, “1945±5: The Works that Survived through the Turbulent and Reconstruction Era,” showcases modern Japanese art five years either side of the pivotal end of World War II. It addresses oil painting and mostly follows a conventional tale of Japan becoming increasingly culturally conservative as its military conflicts deepened with the artistic freedoms that returned after the war. There is enough artistic diversity, however, to suggest that complexities remain uncharted.

Beginning with the “modern style” of the early 1940s, we get portraits of women, usually in Western dress, in an impressionistic style or with an attenuated expressionism. Cityscapes depict factories, while landscapes and pastoral scenes are in abundance. On the surface, all looks untroubled. When Japan’s acquired territories and people are represented, they are done in bright colors and often appear romantically exotic, as in Toshiro Maeda’s 1944 sketch of a Manchurian in local costume.

The year of the Asia-Pacific War, 1941, is frequently seen as synonymous with Japan’s suppression of subversive cultural elements, including surrealism and abstraction, and the ensuing demise of the avant-garde. Surrealism was yoked with Communism, leading to the poet and critic Shuzo Takiguchi and painter Ichiro Fukuzawa being imprisoned. Taken as a warning to the ideologically like-minded, painters are said to have moderated in the interest of self-preservation. But a number of options remained available.

Early surrealist Tadashi Sugimata created publicly celebrated realist “war paintings” of soldiers, military equipment and conflict by the early 1940s that were vilified as complicit with Japan’s militarism in the postwar years. The bulk of criticism, however, was perhaps unfairly leveled at the expat painter and printmaker Tsuguharu “Leonard” Foujita, who, though among the highest military ranked official war painters, created works that were not necessarily aligned with wartime ideology.

Ai-Mitsu mostly abandoned surrealism for his roughly painted still lifes with birds, butterflies and plants, subject matter that tied into long-held traditional concerns in classical Eastern art. Kikuji Yamashita repurposed the fantastic collage-type deformations of surrealism for propaganda. In 1943, he amalgamated motifs from paintings by Japan’s first surrealist, Fukuzawa, with images of American actress Bette Davis, a tattered American flag, stormy skies enveloping ruined buildings and a desolate landscape into an image whose title translates to “America, Japan’s enemy, in ruins.”

The early to mid-’40s witnessed a plethora of abstract expressions in painting, but is only represented at the exhibition by a small number of works that includes Jiro Yoshihara’s minimal “Sky” (1943). The penultimate section titled “The Revival of the Avant-Garde,” therefore, seems slight, including only eight paintings. The early postwar avant-garde was largely the continuation of interwar ideals, while the avant-garde proper is better seen in the traditions of Japanese painting (nihonga), ceramics and calligraphy.

The last section of the exhibition concerns postwar reflections on Japan’s wartime experiences: deaths, famine and, above all, Hiroshima. In one instance that city is refashioned by Keisuke Yamamoto as Picasso’s “Guernica,” while the horrors are more palpably experienced in Iri and Toshi Maruki’s “Hiroshima Panels” (1950).

“1945±5: The Works that Survived through the Turbulent and Reconstruction Era” at Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art runs until July 3; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri., Sat. until 8 p.m.). ¥1,300. Closed Mon. www.artm.pref.hyogo.jp. The exhibition then moves to Hiroshima City Museum Of Contemporary Art from July 13-Oct. 10.