This year saw a lot of anniversaries in Japan. It was 1868 when Crown Prince Mutsuhito became the Emperor Meiji, the official policy of national isolation ended and the country was set on a course to become a modern industrialized nation-state. This birthday seems like it could have been a great time to kick back and have a major celebration in commemoration of the end of feudalism and the advent of a new age of learning. However, as the prevailing narrative of Japan’s transition into modernity is one in which it was forced into opening to the West and had to lose something of its traditional identity in order to avoid becoming a colonial territory, the 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration went by without much festivity.

Though Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, speaking at a commemorative ceremony in October, acknowledged that the Meiji Era (1868-1912) was “the foundation for Japan’s modern-day political, economic and social systems,” the tone of his address was definitely veered toward “glass half-empty” than “glass half-full,” describing the birth of modern Japan as a “crisis.”

Probably the most widely-viewed visual spectacle that can be considered a de facto commemoration of the beginning of the Meiji Era and Japan’s ambivalent relationship with modernity, is the NHK drama “Segodon,” which tells the life and times of Saigo Takamori. The tale of Japan’s “last true samurai,” and how he opposed the new Imperial government’s disbandment of the country’s traditional warrior caste and the development of a conscript army, lends itself to a raft of reductionist dichotomies: East vs. West, honor vs. pragmatism, modernity vs. Japaneseness.

The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto’s spring exhibition focused on nihonga (“Japanese-style painting”), a genre developed in the Meiji Era in opposition to an influx of “Western-style painting,” and the elaborate, ornamental craftwork of objects created for export. Rather than a general review of art during that period, the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, concentrated on one major nihonga painter, Yokoyama Taikan (1868-1958) who was born in the year of the Emperor’s coronation. An ultra-nationalist whose paintings of Mount Fuji number in the hundreds, Taikan was a favored artist of the wartime Japanese Empire, receiving the Order of Culture in 1937.

Anniversaries of the establishment of diplomatic relations provided an opportunity to see works by Diego Velazquez from the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, to discover how Swedish botanist Carl Peter Thunberg’s study of Japanese plants contributed to the development of Linnaean taxonomy, and delight in the interior designs of Swedish artist Carl Larsson.

In Paris a year-long program of events, “Japonismes,” marking the 160th anniversary of Franco-Japanese relations, shows that the two countries are still crazy about each other after all these years.. Mixing up contemporary and outsider art, traditional crafts, theater, film and popular culture, “Japonismes,” besides being an anniversary bash, was nominally devised to challenge stereotypical ideas about Japan.

The range of events and voices at this festival, from the subtle and precise 87-year-old Living National Treasure kyōgen performer Mansaku Nomura to the rebellious, boundary-baiting theater of Kuro Tanino, provided a rare chance to experience and enjoy Japanese culture as being uneven, contradictory and creatively diverse. The rhetoric of the organizers is counterproductive though.

“We will introduce the sense of beauty unique to Japanese culture, in which beauty transcends right and wrong and exists in a higher place where different values coexist” is the claim made by the “Japonismes” promotional literature. They probably would have been better off just saying, “Enjoy!”

Back in Tokyo, there were more anniversaries; the Mori Art Museum’s 15th, which was marked with their exhibition “Catastrophe and the Power of Art,” and the Shiseido Gallery’s 100th, with photographs from its founder, Shinzo Fukuhara, and forward with the work of British architecture-trained collective, Assemble.

The Mori show was posited on the view that “recent decades have seen a stream of catastrophes around the world'” and that art can play a tangible role in helping us cope with the uncertainty of the future. This compared interestingly with the non-fine art, multidisciplinary vision of the Shiseido exhibition. Shinzo Fukuhara, inheritor of the Shiseido business, considered the pursuit of beauty as a matter of lifestyle, as much as the creation of work, and this gestalt view was updated in the anniversary exhibition to consider the future of art as a synthesis of networks, thought, data and praxis.

Another show that questioned the primacy of fine art as a distinct practice was “Decoration Never Dies, Anyway” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum, which ran from November 2017 to February this year. The exhibition defiantly explored modern and contemporary art’s eschewal of ornamentation as a matter of snobbery toward design and, though not specifically stated, gender issues seemed to also figure in the curatorial decision-making.

A serendipitous bookend to this show is “Les Mains Sans Sommeil” at the Ginza Maison Hermes le Forum, which started in September and will run until January of next year. In this cocktail of craftsmanship and artistic intent, as was the case with “Decoration Never Dies, Anyway,” the majority of the artists are women, and there is a lot of textile work.

Besides being engulfed by Bridget Riley’s chromatic psychedelia at the Kawamura Memorial DIC Museum of Art, rediscovering the artfulness in Duchamp’s everyday “ready-made” objects at the Tokyo National Museum, and being riveted to Takashi Homma’s 101-minute video “After 10 Years” at the exhibition on photography and architecture at Archi-Depot Museum, one of my most memorable moments of 2018 was at the Hermes show. The exhibition itself was complex and visually striking, but as intriguing as the work was hearing someone (who turned out to be the partner of one of the exhibiting artists) offer a postcard to one of the black-suited invigilators. “Here, take whichever one you want,” he said casually to the impeccably dressed and poised young woman, who was flabbergasted by the spontaneity of this simple act.

Another interaction I will never forget was the press interview with three generations of kyōgen performers, Mansaku Nomura, his son Mansai and his grandson Yuki. Mansai talked about the Japaneseness of preserving traditions by passing skills down through the family line, and as a follow-up question I asked through an interpreter, “Do you ever learn things from your son?” The translator was mortified, Mansai snorted in derision, but his father said, “I learn that I cannot jump as high or move as fast as I once did. But I also understand from watching my grandson that it’s not how high you can jump that matters, it’s how you land that counts.”

The top five exhibitions of 2018

By John L. Tran

‘Velazquez and the Celebration of Painting’ (The National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo)

Diplomatic relations between Japan and Spain provided Tokyo with one of the best art events of the year with the “Velazquez and The Celebration of Painting: The Golden Age in the Museo Del Prado” exhibition at the National Museum Of Western Art, Tokyo. It’s not for nothing that Diego Velazquez’s “Las Meninas” is one of the most written-about paintings in the history of art, and although that particular work never made it to Japan, the breaking down of space between the viewer and the subject came across in other works.

‘The Essential Duchamp’ (Tokyo National Museum)

Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” (1917), a urinal signed “R. Mutt,” is one of the acid tests of art appreciation; it either signals a great expansion of the possibilities of art or that it’s pretentious nonsense that opened the door to frauds. The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s touring retrospective gave audiences in Japan an opportunity to walk away in disgust at the lows to which the art world can sink, or marvel at the humor, ingenuity and daring of the chess-loving artist’s disregard for conventions.

‘Art Brut Japonais II’ (Halle Saint-Pierre)

The exhibition of art brut at Halle Saint Pierre in Paris, a venue that specializes in showing work by artists who have not been formally trained, and do not set out to show their work publicly, was a welcome reminder that art is a practice open to everyone. As part of the “Japonismes” program, the “Art Brut Japonais II” exhibition also functioned as a vital indicator that art in Japan doesn’t have to be informed by a unique “Japaneseness.”

‘Les Mains Sans Sommeil’ (Ginza Maison Hermes le Forum)

Exhibitions at the Hermes gallery, atop its store in Ginza, have never disappointed, and “Les Mains Sans Sommeil” (“The Sleepless Hands”) was no exception. The collision of luxury goods manufacturing and the thoughtfulness of the artists, who have all produced work as part of residencies at Hermes workshops, provided just the right amount of volatility to result in weird and captivating pieces. This collection of works revolves around materials and the actions of the hand.

‘Bertrand Lavier: Medley’ (Espace Louis Vuitton Tokyo)

Maybe I’m just a sucker for being on the top floor of beautifully designed buildings but the Bertrand Lavier “Medley” at Espace Louis Vuitton Tokyo in the twilight was gorgeous and clever. He came across as a self-important jerk in the Fondation Louis Vuitton-produced video interview when he talks about himself, but the work is what counts.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.