2007 Annual Meeting


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The Power of History: Re-packaging Japan’s Modernity in the Visual Arts, 1920-1945

Organizer and Chair: Mikiko Hirayama, University of Cincinnati

Discussant: J. Thomas Rimer, UCLA

Re-examinations of Japan’s modernity arose in various segments of society between the 1920s and the 1940s.  Particularly eminent was the attempt to reassess the impact of “history” in reviewing and reconfiguring the paths to modernity.

This panel examines how artists and art critics of the time evoked, altered, and/or reaffirmed both immediate and distant past in their own work.  By doing so, they created images of the present that would validate or challenge the adequacy of Japan’s modernity. 

The panel members aim to illuminate the dynamic interaction between art and contemporary culture by investigating the visual and discursive forms not yet examined seriously by scholars: war record painting (senso kirokuga), Buddhist icon photography (butsuzo shashin), flower arrangement (ikebana), and art criticism.  Each paper reveals that the search for new Japanese identity in relation to the modern era was actually conditioned and/or aided by the power of history.

Two of the papers address how artists re-interpreted the imperial institution and Buddhist icons, respectively, within a modern context.  Their selective references to these long-standing symbolic and visual traditions served to legitimate the continuing integrity of Japanese culture. The third and fourth papers analyze critical evaluations of Japanese Fauvism and the rebirth of ikebana as a radical art form.  The aim of such undertaking was to critique the recent historicization of Japanese visual culture. 

Through these presentations, this panel seeks to expand our understanding of the production and consumption of visual and material culture in modern Japan beyond the institutions of fine arts.

Reshaping Japanese Cultural Properties: Ogawa Seiyo and ‘Beatification’ of Buddhist Objects

Maki Kaneko, Northwestern University (from January 2007), Japan

The first two decades of twentieth-century Japan witnessed the growing interest in old temples and ancient Buddhist art. A number of novels, poems, and travel writings of this period demonstrated a strongly romanticised view on Buddhist remains and historic cities such as Nara. They were well-consumed by populace and functioned to (re-)configure Japanese perception on and approach to their own cultural heritages.

Within this context, Ogawa Seiyo (1894-1960), a professional photographer, played a significant role in shaping image of old temples and Buddhist sculptures. From the 1920s onwards, Ogawa devoted himself to photograph Buddhist cultural heritages first in Nara, and later in other areas including Korea and China. In contrast to documentary photographs popular in the late nineteenth-century, Ogawa treated Buddhist temples and sculptures as art objects and photography as a means to educe their hidden beauty. Employed in a number of publications and sold as a souvenir, his ‘beatified’ image of Buddhist objects were widespread among the general public.

Focusing on Ogawa’s activities and imagery, this paper examines processes in which image of ancient Buddhist art was produced and consumed in the context of early twentieth-century Japan. I will demonstrate firstly a way in which Ogawa appropriated Buddhist objects with reference to his active interactions with intelligentsia associated with Taisho culturalism; and secondly, how texts and Ogawa’s images work together in a number of ‘guidebooks’ for old temples including Watsuji Tetsuro’s (1889-1960) best-selling book, A Pilgrimage to the Old Temples (first published in 1919). By doing so, the significant and enduring impact of Ogawa’s imagery on people’s perception to Buddhist cultural heritages will come to the fore.

Fauvists in the Land of Rising Sun: Critical Evaluations of “Japanist” Painting, 1934-1935

Mikiko Hirayama, University of Cincinnati

Studies of Japanese art history have gone through major transformations since the last decade.  Context-driven approaches have eclipsed the dominance of object-oriented methodologies in much of the field.  The rise of the art historical discipline during the modern period has been one of the central topics in such recent scholarship. 

This paper examines an area that has not yet been addressed in these new inquiries: the history of art criticism.  My focus is on the discourses on “Japanism (nihonshugi),” a short-lived, controversial art movement from the mid-1930s.  The ultimate goal of Japanist painters was to create “uniquely Japanese oil painting” by synthesizing Fauvism and Japanese art.  They were the first yoga artists to elevate stylistic eclecticism into an explicit guiding principle. 

I will argue that the commentary on Japanism contained some of the most sophisticated critique of contemporary Japanese art to date, specifically dealing with art since the introduction of Post-Impressionism during the 1910s.

Publications on Japanism also reveal the critics’ self-reflections on their own discipline.  Many writers who reviewed Japanist paintings had been heavily involved in discussions about the state of art criticism, a relatively new discursive category in Japan.  Their struggle to introduce more rigorous, politically informed approaches to their field during the early 1930s continued in their later writings on Japanism.

This presentation sheds light on a burgeoning historical perspective toward modern Japanese art and art criticism in the 1930s, and thus contributes to the current scholarship on the formation of the art historical discipline in Japan.    

Teshigahara Sofu and the Cultural Politics of Modern Ikebana in the 1930s

Noriko Murai, Temple University Japan, Japan

This presentation examines the work of Teshigahara Sofu (1900-1979) in the 1930s when as the founder of Sogetsu School he emerged as one of the most innovative practitioners of Japanese floral arrangement (ikebana). Through exhibitions and theoretical writings, Sofu positioned ritings,alc.jpikebana as a radical art form produced by elite male professionals. Yet the majority of the practitioners he inspired were well-to-do women who arranged flowers as a commercialized hobby. The interaction between Sofu’s efforts to make ikebana a “fine art” and the activities of the women who supported him is an essential element of modern ikebana.

Much emphasis has been placed on the artistic aspects of Sofu’s ikebana. Studies tend to focus on his role in transforming ikebana from a traditional art. A significant quantity of his arrangements and writings, however, appeared in popular women’s magazines. There are often dismissed as evidence of ikebana as a patriarchal enterprise that kept women within the confines of the household, in other words, representing an aspect of ikebana at odds with the ideal of artistic freedom Sofu otherwise advocated.

This presentation investigates Sofu’s participation in these “popular” media alongside his “highbrow” activities, such as his subscription to “the New Ikebana Manifesto” (1933). Ikebana experienced a phenomenal expansion in his time that had wide-ranging artistic and cultural implications in twentieth-century Japan. To understand this, celebrities such as Sofu and the mobilization of female practitioners must be interpreted as mutually reinforcing.

Cultural Significance of an Invisible Emperor in Sens˘ Sakusen Kirokuga (War Campaign Documentary Painting)

Mayu Tsuruya, Denison University

Japan’s military regime mobilized the art community in order to construct its official imagery of the empire during the second Sino-Japanese War and the Pacific War between 1937 and 1945.  The state’s paintings resulting from this war art program were called Sens˘ Sakusen Kirokuga (War campaign documentary painting), and totaled about two hundred pictures depicting Japan’s military campaigns.  These pictures were shown to the public at large-scale exhibitions.  They served the government’s need for communicating war information to the masses in a society where every man and woman should be mobilized.

Among these state-sponsored images of the war, there is no single portrait of the emperor, who was head of the state and Commander in Chief by Japan’s prewar constitution.  This absence of imperial portraiture in these official paintings makes a stark contrast to the endless western portraiture of majestic kings and political leaders made to assert their critical importance in society.

This presentation examines cultural meaning in the emperor’s absence in this war imagery.  It first analyzes the wartime imperial ideology that advocated a total submission of the individual to the nation, and then links it to a Japanese tradition that has often treated the emperor as a subject too sacred to be illustrated in visual form.  In this context, the presentation seeks to reveal that the emperor is ideologically present in the official war imagery even though he is not depicted.