The current exhibition at the Tochigi Prefectural Museum of Fine Arts is an eclectic mix that includes the romanticism of John Constable (1776-1837), the postmodernism of Thomas Ruff and a number of yōga (Western-style painting) works depicting regions in Tochigi Prefecture. With the title “What Do You See When You Look at Pictures?,” the show presents itself as an exercise in visual literacy and is full of thoughtful provocations.

The first section, titled “What is a Face?,” features self-portraiture by Japanese artists active in the early to mid-20th century. A sequence of images on one wall starts with a representational self-portrait by Shinkyu Uchida (1901-58), in which the artist clearly identifies himself, and ends with a colorful, semiabstract composition by Fuki Sekiya (1903-69). This sequence can be considered a prompt to keep in mind that not only the artist, but also the viewer makes interpretive judgments in order for art to be art.

This set-up is followed by a small selection of self-portraits and other works by Leonard Tsuguharu Foujita (1886-1968), including the well-known 1929 painting of Foujita in his studio with his cat, which is on loan from The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. Compared to the introspective and exploratory moods in the previous selection of self-portraits, Foujita’s fine and careful outlining of his trademark pudding-bowl haircut, toothbrush moustache and round glasses come across as very self-consciously performative.

This may not be what everyone sees of course, but the next section of works is titled “Self-Portraits Performing.” Here the idea of self-portraiture as an act of constructing identity is introduced with a short series of claustrophobic paintings by Sumio Kawakami (1895-1972) that show the artist, more usually known for his charming and lively woodblock prints, doing his best to look miserable.

In the monochrome photographic series “President and Kwak,” the still-active, Kyoto-born artist Kwak Duck-Jun uses a mirror to combine his face with photos of various American presidents on Time magazine covers. From ennui through satire, the section touches on tongue-in-cheek ontology with Satoru Tamura’s “100kg Man,” a 2004 video piece in which the naked artist drinks tea while standing on a digital scale in order to make his weight exactly 100 kilograms. Next to this are three photographic images from early in Yasumasa Morimura’s career, in which he comically poses as sculptural objects.

In terms of curatorial flair, the penultimate section, which features a number of Tochigi landscape paintings, is perhaps the most interesting. The post-World War II era scenes of greenery, golf, thatched cottages and mountains would normally be about as interesting as watching paint dry, but in this exhibition they are displayed opposite etchings by American realist John Sloan (1871-1951) and Tochigi native Toshi Shimizu (1887-1945) who lived in the U.S. for several years and studied with Sloan in New York.

Sloan was a committed socialist, and his etchings of the hustle and bustle of New York street life are almost exactly opposite in temperament and intent to the placid scenes of Tochigi nature. Shimizu’s paintings of New Yorkers at play, in style and content, fit neatly in between Sloan and the Tochigi landscapes by Shintaro Yamashita (1881-1966), Junkichi Mukai (1901-1995) and Goro Tsuruta (1890-1969).

What is really interesting about this setup is the allusion to war. World War I American “Doughboys” incongruously appear in otherwise fairly lighthearted scenes by Shimizu, drawing attention to the exhibition’s notable absence of war paintings, which the Tochigi artists were obliged to produce as a condition of maintaining their professional careers. In this context, the inoffensiveness of their landscape work can be seen as a symptom of suppression and misdirection.

In other words, it feels like the curator is also asking us to consider what we don’t see in the pictures. Knowing there is a lot that is not being expressed makes them much more interesting.

“What Do You See When You Look at Pictures?” at the Tochigi Prefectural Museum of Fine Arts runs until Aug. 25; ¥800. For more information, visit www.art.pref.tochigi.lg.jp/en.

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.