Some artists from earlier generations like Tsuguharu Foujita (also known as Leonard Foujita) have been “outed” in the past decade or two and are now almost celebrated for producing incredibly complex propaganda paintings complicit with Japan’s World War II ideology. For others, however, such politics remain off-limits. Latter-day artist retrospectives can be full of blank spots between the late 1930s through to 1945.
Yasuka Goto, born in Hiroshima in 1982, grew up hearing stories of the war experiences of her grandfather and a great-uncle, who starved to death during WWII. Her current solo exhibition at Kyoto Seika University’s Gallery Fleur, “The Patch of Despair,” stitches together the personal, addressed initially through her family history, with the political, through her explorations of some of Japan’s prominent WWII painters.
Between 1943 and ’44, the Japanese military banned metal insignia, owing to material shortages, and shifted its production of military badges to Kyoto’s Nishijin textile industry, traditionally known for its luxury kimono. The new mass-produced embroidered insignia — which denoted rank, affiliation and schools of training or graduation — were dispatched nationwide with an output in the millions. Following preparatory research, interviews and surveys, on display at the exhibition Goto’s paintings use these insignia as a reference point of her paintings.
The exhibition’s titular “The Patch of Despair” (2016) is a vast manga-like black-and-white mural that acts as a military group portrait featuring various uniformed males. While all the figures are individualized by their facial expressions, some of the focus of her painting is directed to each of the soldiers’ insignia. In some related paintings, Goto’s own forebears are also indicated by name tags.
Her sensōga-like (war painting) work deals with portraits of artists active during WWII including Shunsuke Matsumoto, the subject of “Shunsuke” (2015). This is where Goto subtly weaves historical and personal connections of her subject, drawing the past into the present. Matsumoto was regarded as an emblem of anti-war artistic individuality during WWII, a contrast to the official war painter, Foujita, who represented the artist in the service of the nation. Matsumoto, however, was influenced by Foujita, and as a student he went through a phase of admiring the modernist Amedeo Modigliani, a friend of Foujita’s when the painter lived in Paris. Matsumoto perhaps knew that Modigliani had entrusted Foujita with an old nail as a lucky charm, something he discussed with his friend, the sculptor Yasutake Funakoshi, father to the contemporary enigmatic figure sculptor, Katsura Funakoshi. The relations between artists are given by Goto through manga-type explanatory diagrams and texts displayed on the walls.
Such connections can almost seem unlikely and another one is found in “Empty Revolver on Desk” (2013), which concerns Japan’s 1942 occupation of Singapore. While the countries of Goto’s three featured figures — Japanese botanist Kwan Koriba, Koriba’s Japanese-Singaporean assistant, Alfonso, and the British botanist E.J.H. Corner — were at war, the three men allied to protect the Shonan Botanical Gardens (present-day Singapore Botanical Gardens). Like the figures themselves and the relationships between them, the paintings become divulging nodes forming a matrix of cumulative, though uncertain, meaning.
“Yasuka Goto Exhibition: The Patch of Despair” at Kyoto Seika University, Gallery Fleur runs until Jan. 21; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Free. Closed Sun. www.kyoto-seika.ac.jp/fleur