Noi Sawaragi: Notes on Art and Current Events 19

Kuninosuke Matsuo and the Yomiuri Indépendent Exhibitions (Part III)

In his previous two columns, Part I and Part II, Noi Sawaragi has been exploring the links between the intellectual and newspaper correspondent, Kuninosuke Matsuo, and the Yomiuri Indépendent series of exhibitions that provided a key platform for the expression of post-war Japanese art. At the conclusion of Part II, Sawaragi establishes that as deputy editor of the Yomiuri Shimbun, Matsuo would have been “in a position to exercise discretion with regard to the content and give the go ahead if a large-scale cultural program centered on the newspaper were to be initiated.”

Having said all that, unfortunately no evidence has yet been found showing that Matsuo was the actual organizer of the Yomiuri Indépendent Exhibitions (initially titled the Nihon Indépendent Exhibitions).

What we do know to be true, however, is that directly prior to the foundation immediately after the war of the Yomiuri Indépendent Exhibitions, the likes of which had never been seen before, Matsuo met publicly with active members of the Kaiho Seinen Domei (Liberation Youth League, youth wing of the Japan Anarchist Federation), organized study groups on anarchist and nihilist poets and philosophers including Han Ryner, Max Stirner and Jun Tsuji, and was otherwise actively involved in anarchist circles while serving as deputy editor of the Yomiuri Shimbun. In a similar vein, in 1948, on the eve of the launch of the Yomiuri Indépendent Exhibitions, the Jiyu Kurabu (Liberal Club) was launched with Matsuo among its principal members. In fact, the ideas touted by the Liberal Club have a lot in common with the philosophy behind the Yomiuri Indépendent Exhibitions, which championed the non-juried, open exhibition of artwork.

The rules of the Liberal Club were referred to as “non-rules.” According to these, “the Liberal Club is a totally free association of friends that are not bound by anyone, do not revere anyone, and strive to develop their own ideas.” As a set of ideas, not being bound by anyone and not revering anyone are consistent with the crux of the ideology behind the Yomiuri Indépendent Exhibitions, which dispensed with screening by established authorities and enabled anyone to exhibit works freely.

Incidentally, the anarchist ideology that existed in Japan before the war and found its way into the Yomiuri Indépendent Exhibitions also gave rise in the Taisho period to a series of exhibitions that could be regarded as prototypes of the Yomiuri Indépendent Exhibitions. I am referring to the exhibitions organized by the Kokuyokai, which was officially formed around 1919 and of which the Heimin Bijutsu Kyokai (Commoners’ Art Association), a pioneer of this country’s proletarian art movement, was the parent organization.(1) Towards the end of 1919, the artist Katsura Mochizuki, a graduate of the Tokyo School of Fine Arts who became the driving force behind this group, wrote the movement’s manifesto, “Minshu bijutsu sengen” (A proletarian art manifesto). The following is an excerpt:

“The art that exists in present-day society is the exclusive possession of certain special individuals, and is generally recognized by way of forms similar to playthings. Where in this kind of art lies the worth according to which we should excuse its existence? We must destroy this kind of thing without hesitation and replace it with that which we have produced ourselves. This is the very reason our organization was born.” (2)

In April 1920, the year following the publication of this manifesto, the first exhibition organized by the Kokuyokai was held over the two days of the third and the fourth at the Kottoya Dokokai (Antique Dealers’ Club). At well over 100, the number of artworks was large given the scale of the exhibition, the most likely explanation for which is that in accordance with Mochizuki’s creed, a policy of “exhibiting all the works submitted without screening” was strictly maintained. Apparently this included works by thinkers such as Sake Osugi and Kanson Arahata alongside those by workers who had scarcely ever held a paintbrush. The Kokuyokai also published a newsletter entitled Kokuyo, and while it folded immediately after, the inaugural issue included a translation by Sakae Osugi of Romain Rolland’s The People’s Theatre.

The Kokuyokai exhibitions were held four times, although during the final exhibition in 1922 the artworks were removed by the authorities, at which point the exhibitions were dissolved. However, in the sense that they were non-juried and open to everyone, the Kokuyokai exhibitions were without doubt a rare precedent for the format adopted by the Yomiuri Indépendent Exhibitions.

Until now, the Yomiuri Indépendent Exhibitions have been regarded as part of an attempt to carry on in the cultural sphere the spirit of independence seen in avant-garde French painting circles at a time when Japan was looking to be reinstated in the international community following a state of occupation after its defeat in the war. At the least, this is how it may have looked publicly. But one cannot discount the possibility that the internal motivation for these exhibitions went beyond mere independence, and that the ideas underpinning an art exhibition based on anarchism’s rejection of all forms of authority flowed through them, having been inherited from the Kokuyokai exhibitions. As a mater of fact, a glance at the initial organization of the Yomiuri Shimbun as reflected in the Paris bureau and the makeup of the company after the war shows that Sakae Osugi, Jun Tsuji, Kuninosuke Matsuo and other figures supporting such a hypothesis were all present. Perhaps the Yomiuri Indépendent Exhibitions were in fact a new realization after the war – in a sense a repeat performance – of the Kokuyokai exhibitions by those involved in the Liberal Club, which operated on the basis of “non-rules,” who gathered around Matsuo upon his return to Japan. In addition, it should also be clear that if one were to realize an art exhibition on the basis of “non-rules” (Liberal Club), then obviously it would have to be “non-juried and open to everyone” (Yomiuri Indépendent Exhibitions).

Here I would like you to recall the details of Matsuo’s speech onboard his return ship from Paris to Tokyo after the war (see Part II of this series). This is because the language used in the speech is identical to the tone of the writing printed at the front of the catalogue of the first Yomiuri Indépendent Exhibition (February 1949). Let us compare the two.

“In this sense, this tragic defeat was, I think, inevitable. To put it briefly, we were all led astray by a fraudulent, fabricated version of history. I, too, was taken in by the myth of the 2600th anniversary of the founding of Japan, celebrated with such a show of festivity by the government, mentioning it in my graduation paper at the University of Paris only to be laughed at by the famous Japanese literature scholar, Professor Michel Revon. With the exception of a handful of academics before the war, no one spoke up about the fact that the reign lengths in the Nihon shoki were exaggerated by as many as 600 years, and the fact that no member of the public knew about this is just one extreme example of how the public were deceived. In Japan, the kind of rationalism, positivism and scientific spirit that developed in the West since the Renaissance was completely absent.” (3)

“It is said that the current state of the art world in this country is one that appears variegated with an overabundance of various factions and groups and a plethora of exhibitions, while behind the scenes things continue to be dominated by feudalism, personal connections and favoritism, utility and policies, giving rise to a complex, subtle form of governance with no connection whatsoever to democratization. The only way to resolve this situation and imbue the art world with a new spirit of artistic creativity of the highest level is to put the past behind us and mount indépendent exhibitions, which represent the most democratic exhibition format based on completely open competition. These exhibitions open the door to art to everyone without restriction and without distinction between professional and nonprofessional, famous and nameless, thereby achieving for the first time the freedom of production and appreciation. Precisely for this reason, our company has endured all manner of difficulties and sacrifices in bringing to fruition the first exhibition of this kind in our country, and in so doing has carried out an art revolution, where the things that matter are not factions, connections, favoritism or barriers, but purely ability, creativity and the passion for art of the highest level demonstrated without restriction. We are convinced that this endeavor will obtain a favorable response from all those people who desire real democratization.” (4)

It should by now be clear that both extracts share the same passion that seems to derive from a particular ideological background and era. In reading the second extract, in particular, one realizes above all that it is redolent of the black aroma of anarchism, or what could be called “the philosophy of nihility.” “To put the past behind us,” “completely open competition,” “nonprofessionals,” “nameless,” “open…without restriction,” “not factions, connections, favoritism or barriers,” “demonstrated without restriction” – these are all the result of the application as is of the “non-rules” of the Kokuyokai to art exhibitions. It would seem, after all, that the Yomiuri Indépendent Exhibitions were not in fact substitutes resulting from the importation into Japan of the indépendent exhibitions inherited from French painting circles. At a deeper level they were imbued from the outset with a far more radical philosophy. This could perhaps best be described as “a state of anarchism in art,” and the Yomiuri Indépendent Exhibitions were no more than a necessary course of action for the purposes of realizing this “art revolution.”

Unfortunately, it is unknown at this stage whether or not Matsuo was really the person responsible for drafting the manifesto referred to earlier. However, in light of the historical circumstances and philosophical background we have considered so far, I have no doubt that Matsuo either wrote it himself or that it was written based on his ideas.

Accordingly, I do not accept the commonly accepted view that the Yomiuri Indépendent Exhibitions, despite having retained in their early days the outward appearance of so-called “indépendent exhibitions,” gradually lost their initial order due to the unforeseen entry of radical elements and ultimately were forced to cease operating after descending into an uncontrollable state of anarchy. The Yomiuri Indépendent Exhibitions were none other than “non-rules” exhibitions conceived from the outset with precisely this state of anarchy in mind. The “anti-art” movement of the 1960s was nothing more than the sudden release, in the feverish atmosphere of the times, of a program based on the genes that lay dormant within this manifesto.

It may well be that the Yomiuri Indépendent Exhibitions were not only the Kokuyokai exhibitions revived by Kuninosuke Matsuo, but also the final conspicuously “black” blaze sparked by the unseasonable flowering, on the post-war avant-garde stage, of the spirit of Taisho-period anarchism as exemplified by Sakae Osugi.



    1. For this series of events I referred to Ryuji Komatsu,

Taisho jiyujin monogatari Mochizuki Katsura to sono shuhen

    1. , (Tales of libertarians in the Taisho period: Katsura Mochizuki and his circle), Tokyo: Iwanami, 1988.

  1. Ibid, pp.119-120.
  2. Matsuo Kuninosuke, Burai kisha, sengo nihon wo utsu (A decadent reporter takes shots at post-war Japan) (Tokyo: Shakai hyoronsha, 2006) p.66.
  3. Genpei Akasegawa, Han-geijutsu anpan (Anti-Art Indépendent) (Tokyo: Chikuma Kobo) p51.

Noi Sawaragi: Notes on Art and Current Events 1-6

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