‘Japanese Modernism’

By Miriam Cosic

The NGV’s virtual show is a playful celebration of Japan’s moga (modern girls) and mobo (modern boys), full of optimism for the future

Hisui Sugiura, The first subway in the East, 1927; colour lithograph, offset; 91 cm x 62 cm. National Gallery of Victoria, purchased NGV Foundation, 2018. © Estate of Hisui Sugiura

Japanese aesthetics are delicate. Even the most power-laden art (think of Hokusai’s famous Great Wave off Kanagawa) and the most complex narratives of samurai, geishas and the supernatural (the latter was seen at last year’s intriguing exhibition Japan Supernatural, at the Art Gallery of NSW) have a calm delivered by a recognisably Japanese balance of clean lines and empty space. Even French and Italian restaurants in Tokyo serve a fresher, less fat-laden version of their cuisine.

Modernism was sweeping the European art world in the early 20th century, just as Japan was opening up and looking Westward. The influences of surrealism, dadaism, futurism, suprematism and more can be seen in the small but perfectly formed Japanese Modernism exhibition that opened in late February at the National Gallery of Victoria before being prematurely closed down by the coronavirus. It recently resurfaced as a virtual show. Encompassing advertising, fashion, decorative arts and other aspects of popular culture, the exhibition features objects that are on show for the first time and represents the culmination of five years of the institution’s collecting in the field.

An alluring simplicity and clarity in line and colour characterise the pieces on display, and themes of social emancipation, scientific progress and optimism for the future are abundant. We see the “new woman” with bobbed hair, bright kimonos and Western dress, while publicity posters offer examples of clothing, accessories and even portable make-up compacts for the woman on the go. The men’s more sober grey and brown kimonos feature wild linings – all trains and planes and phonograph records – designed to be seen as they loosened up and undid fastenings among friends. The wall texts are as upbeat as the imagery: no mention is made of the political era in which all this gaiety is set.

The show encompasses the period between the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 (which created a tsunami, killed some 140,000 people and ushered in a frenzy of rebuilding) and the horrors of World War Two, which culminated in the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – president Truman’s “rain of ruin from the air”. These sobering cut-off points are not reflected in the exhibits.

Nor is the fact that Japan is still coming to grips with modernisation, more than a century and a half after the Meiji Restoration ushered it in. Since the Japanese economy collapsed in the 1990s, after two decades of bullish growth that made it the second-largest economy in the world, questions have re-emerged there about the feasibility of capitalism and of individualism replacing traditional values.

In the 1980s, Japanese museums went on a spending spree acquiring valuable Western art, and Japanese tourism boomed the way it did for the Chinese, before the coronavirus closed borders.  

It was a second turn to Europe and away from Asia in search of developmental values. The first had resulted in the brutal occupation of Korea and Manchuria, and was the beginning of a competitive colonial expansion that only ended with defeat by the Allies in 1945.

American occupation after the war ensured some policies that you’d assume from the exhibition were already in place, such as universal education for girls as well as boys. Women are still struggling to gain economic parity today. The cute, independent girls of the 1920s depicted in modernist Japanese paintings were only working as shop assistants. The girls ignoring their mamas’ admonishments against cutting their hair and wearing lurid kimonos or Western clothing were only able to do so from the comfort of the middle class.

Despite these reservations about divorcing art from its wider historical context, the exhibition would be a visual delight to stroll through. Online, one can stroll virtually and click on exhibits to examine them up close. It is a playful celebration of moga (modern girls) with passing reference to mobo (modern boys), and what it lacks in explanatory art theory and historical context it makes up for with loads of intriguing anecdotes.

The famous Mitsukoshi department store in Tokyo, for example, which rivals Harrods and Galeries Lafayette, was founded in 1904 by the entrepreneurial family of the same name who had been manufacturing kimonos since the 17th century. The store had to be rebuilt after the Kanto earthquake, and its reopening is celebrated in a 1927 lithograph, Tokyo Mitsukoshi Clothing Store by Koike Iwao.

Another colour lithograph from the same year called The first subway in Asia, Ueno to Asakusa is by Hisui Sugiura, a leading graphic designer who studied in Europe in the 1920s after graduating from the Tokyo School of Art. His picture has both a dramatic diminishing perspective and a history lesson in the contrast between old and new, which is seen in the clothing of the waiting passengers.

A colour woodblock called By the Sea (c. 1930) by Shabano Kiyosaku depicts actress and swimming champion Mikoshiba Hatsuko in red swimsuit and cap, wearing bright red lipstick, about to dive from a starting block. Another woodblock, Kobayakawa Kiyoshi’s Jazz Dancer (1934), depicts a wildly dancing woman in a short, off-the-shoulder dress.

Also in the exhibition is a collection of 100 cut-glass tumblers of various colours from around 1930, sourced from the collector Mitsushige Horiuchi (half of the tumblers he donated and the other half the NGV has bought). And a whole wall and cabinets below show pictorial maps that guided the rise in affordable travel for pleasure.

Female artists were rare in Japan in that era, but one example of women’s art, Taniguchi Fumie’s Preparing to go out, stands at the entry to the show: a six-panel screen showing women in various stages of dressing up Western-style. “This transformation of Japan’s social norms led to the first generation of financially independent women and female artists being recognised in Japan’s male-dominated art world,” the NGV’s wall text explains. “The self-assured, highly fashionable women of the modern era were captured in many artworks of the time.” 

Sadly, Fumie’s independence, awards and art-world success were short-lived, though we don’t find out about that in the show. She ended her life in Los Angeles, scraping together a living as a seamstress, a waitress and a maid. As with the glamorous artworks on show, only the most upbeat aspect of her life is on display.

Japanese Modernism is a free exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, accessible via virtual tour until October 4.

Miriam Cosic

Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist and author.

Hisui Sugiura, The first subway in the East, 1927; colour lithograph, offset; 91 cm x 62 cm. National Gallery of Victoria, purchased NGV Foundation, 2018. © Estate of Hisui Sugiura

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