From art history concepts to independents – On viewing
the Expressionist Movements in Japan exhibition
Installation view of Expressionist Movements in Japan 2009, Matsudo Museum
I finally got to see the much talked about Expressionist Movements in Japan exhibition. Given all the talk that’s surrounded it since last year, I couldn’t help feeling I was getting left behind. It was my first trip to the Matsudo Museum where the exhibition was being held, and not only was it far from easy to get to from the city center, but inevitably the venue itself compared unfavorably with an art museum. However, I was impressed at the incredible number and range of items on display, which included everything from painting and sculpture to craft, design, photography, architecture, and music, and I felt that I’d encountered one of those rare exhibitions that are truly worth reviewing. The catalogue, too, is wonderful, and while in Japan it’s not uncommon to see collections of plates with a perfunctory introductory article thrown in, this catalogue is in a class of its own. I can imagine it being a valuable resource for future generations as well.
The general thrust of the exhibition is based on the supposition that, while it was influenced by early 20th century European expressionism, expressionism in Japan existed as a tendency that crossed multiple genres and showed signs of evolving into something beyond just a Far Eastern imitation of the original. Although it is somewhat unfamiliar in art history circles, seimeishugi (vitalism) is a term that symbolizes this ‘brilliance’.
And yet, reading the voluminous catalogue, I was slightly surprised to find that despite the in-depth commentaries there was no clear explanation of this concept. As a broad outline, the catalogue posits that when, after successfully modernizing in the 1900s, Japan reached a major turning point, “it should be noted that they became strongly aware of the need to provide a psychological basis to their inner expression, and furthermore that they felt this was the logos that would establish a new era” (p31). However, this alone doesn’t explain why Japanese expressionism underwent a metamorphosis into a kind of spiritualism in the form of seimeishugi.
In fact, the thing that struck me on viewing the numerous works on display in this exhibition was the question of whether it is really appropriate to bundle them all together under the label ‘Japanese expressionism’. Certainly, when compared to the realism that was adopted at the beginning of the Meiji period, it could probably be said that in a broad sense these tendencies dealt with subjective expression originating within the individual. However, the impression I got from this exhibition as a whole was that this was of a quite different nature to what is referred to as expressionism in the West. In other words, what one should focus on at in this exhibition is this heterogeneity (that result from this severance), which is why the motivation to subsume these tendencies within the original concept of seimeishugi is also valid. But just what is seimei in the first place?
The concept of seimeishugi originally became known as a result of the Japanese modern literature scholar Suzuki Sadami’s adoption of the general term Taisho seimeishugi to refer to the currents of thought peculiar to the Taisho period that have their origins in Kitamura Tokoku’s Naibu seimeiron (Theory of Inner Life) and the like. At the same time, however, due to the sheer breadth of seimeishugi as a concept – a necessity on account of its having to subsume so many currents – it became closely associated with risky totalitarian tendencies, and in the 1930s was rapidly absorbed by ultranationalism. In this sense, despite there being a dimension to ‘Japanese expressionism’ that coincides with this exhibition’s account of it being “crushed, excluded, and shoved aside as the nation headed towards war in the Showa period”, as outlined in the epilogue, it is also conceivable that there were aspects of it that had an affinity with ultranationalism from the very beginning.
What is clear is that the word seimei itself is loaded from the start with great difficulties. Even from the standpoint of the very latest in biological knowledge it is not easy to define. For a start, opinion is seriously divided over whether seimei as an entity actually exists or not. Accordingly, regardless of the extent to which it appears that seimei has been vigorously portrayed in a work, we should resist the urge to regard it as ‘an expression of seimei‘. Rather, what we should be concerned with irrespective of the actual presence or not of seimei is the question of why is it that we feel that seimei has been vigorously portrayed, or in other words the question of écriture (writing).
If we interpret the question of Japanese expressionism not as a question of seimei or ‘vigor’ but of écriture, then we have several clues to help us shed light on this difficult problem. For example, noting that it was not until he quit his university post in 1907 that Natsume Soseki produced anything worthy of a genuine novelist, the novelist Mizumura Minae has argued (in The Fall of the Japanese Language in the Age of English) that in order to become a novelist (an artist) in this period one had to leave university, an institution of translation. But this was more than the age-old problem of independence. According to Mizumura it was a structural problem. In other words, amidst the maelstrom of modernization at the beginning of the Meiji period, because universities were of necessity institutions of ‘translation’ (for the purposes of transposing Western wisdom and skill into the Japanese language), as long as one remained in such a place any kind of individual expression was impossible. In order to become a true artist, the only option not only for Soseki but for everyone was to retire from government service into private life.
This reminds me that a similar thing was also happening in the art world at around the same time. The artists who made names for themselves at the beginning of the Meiji period, whether it be Kuroda Seiki or Asai Chu, undoubtedly introduced Western trends in painting to Japan, and in this sense they were nothing if not translators. The Ministry of Education and Culture National Exhibition of Art (Bunten) was an extension of this. In a manner of speaking it was a government-operated large-scale training facility for translators. This being the case, perhaps it is not unthinkable that, given that, like Soseki, its origins lie in an oppositional remoteness from the founding of Bunten in 1907 (the same year that Soseki gave up his university post), the Fusain Art Group, which is regarded as an important departure point in this exhibition and elsewhere, went in the direction of free subjective expression not only because it was the ‘trend of the times’ but also out of ‘necessity’. Needless to say, this was not the work of seimei. The tendency we call ‘Japanese expressionism’ signalled that for the first time Japanese artists were no longer government-appointed painting translators but artists worthy of the label ‘independents’ who looked not to the government but solely to themselves for support, which is surely what being an artist is all about. And perhaps this more than anything else explains why the écriture of these artists, who had freed themselves from translation and government policy, was able to (or had no alternative but to) become so freely ‘vigorous’. This is the reason for the spontaneity that ultimately makes their work resemble expressionism, although it is surely different from ‘Japanese expressionism’ according to Western criteria. That there is a resemblance is due to the fact that ultimately the artists concerned had nothing in which to have faith but themselves (or in other words their own inner world), and in this sense it is only natural that they weren’t necessarily ‘ists’.
With this in mind, it is understandable that in this period other ‘independents’ who similarly became ‘artists’ often had mystical experiences of the kind where heaven and earth intervened directly, were closely involved with ‘lone wolf’ anarchists (Osugi Sakae, Tsuji Jun, et al.), and in some cases even became terrorists (Nanba Daisuke, Furuta Daijiro, et al.). Furthermore, in the form of Inoue Nissho (who preached the doctrine of issatsu tasho, or ‘killing one in order that many may live’), a convert to the Nichiren sect who founded the Ketsumeidan (League of Blood), a group that engaged in a wave of assassinations of leading business and political figures culminating in the May 15 Incident, this independent=artist lineage clearly reversed course in the direction of Japanese nationalism. In fact, here ‘the state’ and ‘Japan’, ‘killing one’ and ‘enabling many to live’ are arranged in contrast to each other. Could not the reconstruction of the national entity through the ousting of the ‘one’ lurking in the center in the form of the state, thereby improving the lives of the ‘many’, be described as a kind of variation of seimei faith?
Bundling the various works in this exhibition together under the label ‘expressionism’ with its art history bias makes these major severances (discontinuities, course reversals) less noticeable. I would even venture to say that it would be better to consider the works that grace this exhibition not as ‘Japanese expressionism’ but as “the birth of ‘the artist’ in Japan”.
Expressionist Movements in Japan
26 April 2009 – 24 January 2010