Friday, November 16, 2012

history: a short story of 1950s.

On the occasion of the exhibition Tokyo 1955-1970: A new Avant-Garde, which has just opened in MoMA, I enrolled for the Japanese Post-war Art course, bits and pieces of which I'll share in the following posts.

Kojima Nobuaki, Untitled, 1964/66, lacquer on polyester
Japan surrendered unconditionally to the Allied Powers on August 15, 1945 after atomic booms were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However in anticipation of the Cold War, United States, hoping to have Japan as an ally, supported its recovery from the post-war chaos, which resulted in the remarkably swift reconstruction. In 1951, after signing San Francisco Peace Treaty and Security Treaty with U.S. (ANPO), Japan reappeared on the international scene, as well as in global art community participating for the first time in Venice Biennale. This participation however revealed that the pre-war system of art, which had been restablished after the war was anachronistic. The pre-war system consisted of the two co-existing genres: nihon-ga (Japanese style painting) and yoga (Western style painting) and each was represented by the selected artist based on seniority. In contrast other countries were promoting new promising talents with the clear-cut and creative ideas.

The art circles in Japan that succeeded the pre-war one were isolated not only from the global scene but also from reality of their own war devastated country except few artists who belonged to little-know genre called reportage painting represented in the exhibition by Ikeda Tatuso, Ishii Shigeo, Nakamura Hiroshii and Yamashita Kikuji. Reportage painting was an extension of Surrealism which thrived in Japan in 1930s.

Yamashita Kikuji, Totems, 1951, oil on canvas, courtesy MoMA

By mid-1950s. though paintings has shifted towards more abstract forms. As in Ay-O's Pastoral which shows torsos and limbs in yellow, as if giving form to the homogenization, dehumanizing force of standardization that turns individuals into army of workers, toiling for prosperity in the postwar brave new world.

AY-O, Pastoral, 1956, oil on panel, courtesy MoMA
Also in mid-1950s, the Japanese art world witnessed significant shift in generation.

The most notable phenomenon of those time was Jikken Kobo (Experimental Workshop), which consist of 14 young artists, musicians, writers as well as engineers who came together around an influential critic Takiguchi Shuzo. The group was highly interested in combining art and technology, in reflection of the increasing industrialization and modernization of post-war Japan. Works on view includes Matusmoto Toshio's short film Ginrin (Bicycle in the Dream), which I have already covered on this blog.
Murakami Saburo, Paper breaking, 1956
Another group of 17 young enterprising artists, mostly painters gather around Yoshihara Jiro, formed in 1954 Gutai Art Asscostiantion. Their first exhibition as a group was called Experimental Outdoor Modern Art Exhibition to Challenge the Midsummer Sun, was held in the pine forest in July of 1955. Although based in Western Kansai, the group self-organized its exhibitions and stage performances also in Tokyo. Gutai is best known for it's members actions, such as Shiraga Kazuo's Challanging Mud, Tanaka Atsuko Electric Dress or Murakami Saburo's Paper Breaking. The sporadically published Gutai journal - tightly edited and designed and generously filled with reproductions and writings by group members were distributed both in Japan and outside securing them much desired recognition in the international scene.

Thursday, November 1, 2012


Yokai are monstrous creatures prevalent in Japanese folklore, mythology, and indigenous animism. They appear in many shaps, forms and identities, typically portrayed as grotesque ghouls. At times, some invisible phenomenon, which could be perhaps a fabrication of the awe-struck mind, encountering Nature. These enigmatic beings are unique and strange iconographic figures that span several epochs of Japanese history. They have been depicted in the picture scrolls as early as 12c. and seem to resurface during important periods in Japan's history.

However for many people, word yokai calls up images of the rampaging creatures in scroll paintings and woodblock prints of the Edo Period, this fantastic realm is not merely a relict of the past. Even now they continue to be extremely popular characters in Japanese pop culture, showing up in literature, manga and animation. My first encounter with yokai was through the collection of Yumoto Koichi, a yokai researcher who over a period of 30 years mount a collection of 3,000 items, which a small portion was presented at Yokohama Triennale last year and ever since have been haunting my imagination.

All the images are coming from the Yokai Manga published by Seigensha. Happy Halloween!