Art

Japan's postwar aesthetics: compelling if not confusing

by Matthew Larking

Contributing Writer

While painting is preeminent in the 90-odd works shown in “Collection: The Aesthetics of Contemporary Japan” at the National Museum of Art, Osaka (NMAO), it is mostly peripheral to the better-known Japanese aesthetic concepts.

There is none of the rustic simplicity of wabi-sabi, the court elegance of miyabi, the Edo city chic of iki or the more restrained sui of Kyoto comportment. Nor are there fathomless yūgen depths to plumb, or even the limited-use kawaii. Most Japanese aesthetic concepts are historical and art form-specific. Postwar Japanese painting, it seems, exists in an aesthetic concept vacuum.

All the better then that the NMAO’s exhibition nominally attempts to discern the “underlying presence of Japanese aesthetics in contemporary art.” But rather than probing analysis, some of what results is merely cultural nationalism. The exhibition overview, for example, touts: “All of the paintings share a uniquely Japanese sensibility that is unlike anything from the West.” And this despite the raucously insistent European-American parallels evident.

“Cultural Styles and Undercurrents,” “People and Society: Gazing into the Depths,” and “Images as Worldviews” are the partitioned sections. The first features some of the better-known names of Japanized abstraction. Isamu Noguchi’s “Black Sun” (1967-69) is a doughnut-like geometrical sculpture conflating the artist’s conceptions of life, land and universe. A similar circular form, though one less-than-perfect, also entranced painter Jiro Yoshihara in “Untitled” (1971). His conception of the expressiveness of form was in part inherited from calligrapher-painters who favored the expressive and abstracted formal power of kanji scripts over conventional lexical roles, like Yuichi Inoue, whose “Gutetsu (Throughgoing Folly)” (1956) is on display, and Morita Shiryu.

Society-related section two is the more compelling. Tatsuo Ikeda’s surrealist “Genealogy of Monsters” series (1955-56) broke away from the discredited social realism of wartime reportage painting. Sachiko Kazama is represented by one of her irresistible large-scale prints, “Brink! 60 floor building, beat up by prison Su Gamo” (2007), which references the Ikebukuro skyscraper that stands close to where war criminals were once housed. Also on show, is the work of photographer Ryuji Miyamoto, who elegantly documented the ruins of contemporary culture, including the upmarket “Hibiya Movie Theater, Tokyo” (1984/2006) that became dilapidated when the TV age was inaugurated and moviegoers chose to stay home.

The final section introduces recent abstract and figurative painting blends, with works such as Koji Sagawa’s ostensibly abstract minimalism of “A Semi-Plane Mass of Trees No.7,” which turns into a kind of reflective natural landscape. Takanobu Kobayashi, whose early career was spent painting submarines as his alter ego, later produced the massively scaled and seeming emotional relief animal of “House Dog” (1995), while whimsical fantasy inspires the pictorial world of Kyoko Murase’s “Yukinoue” (2009).

This exhibition is ultimately a truncated reprise of the museum’s more extensive 2010 “Garden of Japanese Painting — Japanese Art of the 00s” and its concurrent “Collection 3: Japanese Art 1950-2010.” The same painters are there, as are many of the same works. The selection is at moments, however, compelling.

What aesthetic currents are being outed here, though, is anyone’s guess. If art can function as the mirror of an age, then this one is broken and its fragments kaleidoscopic.

“Collection: The Aesthetics of Contemporary Japan” at The National Museum of Art, Osaka runs through March 15; ¥430. For more information, visit www.nmao.go.jp/en/.

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