Straddling East and West in art

by

Special To The Japan Times

Hybridity and eclecticism may be key concepts in much contemporary art, yet they are not new phenomena. In the Taisho Era (1912-1926), Tetsugoro Yorozu virtually personified the idea of hybrid art: As Japan rushed toward modernization, he not only experimented with the very latest forms of Western art then flooding in, but re-examined aspects of Asian art being neglected.

A comprehensive new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Hayama reviews Yorozu’s career, bringing together more than 400 of his artworks in various media, with 100 of them being displayed in rotation during the exhibition run. “Yorozu Tetsugoro 1885-1927” took over two years to plan and opens to coincide with the 90th anniversary of the artist’s untimely death.

In the first room, an early interest in impressionism is evident in the soft, pale tones of a view of a shrine from 1909. By this time, Yorozu was studying in the Department of Western Art at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts (present-day Tokyo University of the Arts). There, he threw himself into mastering figure painting, which was at the core of the curriculum. Heading the department was Kuroda Seiki (1866-1924), one of the foremost champions of 19th- century Western-style painting in Japan at that time.

In “Nude Beauty,” one of Yorozu’s 1912 graduation pieces, he experiments with the saturated colors of Van Gogh and Matisse to produce a sly parody of a typical Kuroda scene of a nude reclining on the grass.

The exhibition’s head curator is Hiroshi Hirasawa of the Yorozu Tetsugoro Memorial Museum, located in Hanamaki, the artist’s hometown in rural Iwate Prefecture. The museum, along with the Iwate Prefectural Museum, provides the lion’s share of the exhibition’s works. Many of these are rarely-displayed nanga (literati painting) scrolls, as one aim of the exhibition is to shine a new light on Yorozu’s prolific, but hitherto under-researched and under-evaluated, output in this field. Deriving from China, this centuries-old ink-painting style prioritizes artistic expression and energy over photographic realism, and often incorporates distortion of the picture space.

One nanga work from 1917, when Yorozu was living back in his hometown, shows a frontal view of a man fishing in a river. Yet the river itself is depicted from a bird’s-eye view. This commingling of perspectives is not uncommon in nanga, yet Yorozu could also have been “inspired by what he was discovering of cubist techniques during that time,” says Hirasawa.

Likewise, “Leaning Woman,” a landmark oil painting from the same year, shows some resemblances to cubism, yet its distortions — and compression of space — are equally likely to have been reinforced by Yorozu’s study of nanga. Hirasawa notes a cubist-like interest in “fragmentation and recombination of forms,” but stresses, “It is not simply a copy. It’s more a kind of cubism not seen in Europe.”

Yorozu was not in a position to faithfully imitate the latest trends anyway. Far removed from the European culture that birthed these art movements, Yorozu was working in the very different context of modern Japan.

“Through reading journals, Yorozu gained knowledge of the latest developments in European art, to a certain extent,” says Hirasawa. “But he struggled with the ideas so he could use them as part of his own expression.”

There are also many works on display here from when Yorozu later moved to Chigasaki on the coast of Kanagawa Prefecture. The move, similar to his earlier sojourn home, was partly designed to distance himself from the artistic stimulations available in Tokyo so he could fully integrate his ideas. The resulting artworks exist in a new space, neither exclusively Asian or European, suggesting that, with Yorozu, the sum is far more than its parts.

“Yorozu Tetsugoro 1885-1927” at The Museum of Modern Art, Hayama runs until Sept. 3; 9:30a.m.-5 p.m. ¥1,000. Closed Mon. www.moma.pref.kanagawa.jp/en