Modern Boy, Modern Girl:

Modernity in Japanese Art 1910 - 1935

HATA Teruo  Pictorial Autobiography  1937

 An Exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales,
17th July to 30th August 1998

Reviewed by Lorraine Murphy


Following, quite literally, in the space recently vacated by This Other Eden, Paul Mellon's wonderful collection of British paintings from the late seventeenth to the early twentieth centuries, Modern Boy, Modern Girl: Modernity in Japanese Art 1910 - 1935 could not, it would seem, be more different. And yet, quite surprisingly, these visually dissimilar exhibitions share much the same themes and, in fact, present different faces of precisely the same social phenomenon: the transition of a society from feudalism to capitalism. As such they reflect the same sense of awe at the forces being released both in the landscape and, indeed, within the lives and perceptions of the people themselves, with the urban replacing the rural; individual interest replacing the traditional sense of the communal; speed and movement replacing a sense of timelessness and tradition. Much of this exhibition's interest, for me, lies in the way it depicts so graphically how these great themes have been experienced and translated in vastly different circumstances by such fundamentally different cultures.

Part, but only part, of the measure of this difference is, of course, cultural. Japanese society, isolated from the western world until the late nineteenth century, had developed too long in its own orbits to simply mirror those societies with which it was now interacting for the first time in several hundred years. There is, as well, a temporal difference; a difference of precedent and a difference of timeframe. Britain industrialised first, and its engagement with capitalism, while nonetheless catastrophic, can be traced over a couple of centuries. Japan industrialised much later and within a few decades, using a western 'model' to fast-track the process. However, behind these different faces are the same measure of excitement, wonder and, occasionally dread and dislocation, that necessarily accompany such an immense social upheaval.

The story, as they say, of Japanese 'modernisation' is straightforward enough. Stated baldly, in the rather malicious imagery of the immediate postwar textbook I studied at school, Commodore Perry, in 1854, presented the then closed Japanese society with the choice of 'cannonballs or sewing machines'. After first stoically choosing the cannonballs and, only upon reflection, the sewing machines (which proved in retrospect to provide them with a more efficient long term weapon at Pearl Harbour in December 1942), Japanese society was transformed from within. The old feudal structures were speedily dismantled during the Meiji period between 1868 and 1912 and new infrastructures developed to nurture heavy industry and capital investment. This was a planned reconstruction but its effects were made no less radical and dislocating by this planning. For the social lessons 'learnt' during British industrialisation had to be 'learnt' again in this new context, as indeed they are still being 'learnt' in the third world today.

By 1912, the succession of the Emperor Taisho inaugurated a period when a rapidly growing urban middle class had both leisure and buying power to develop the domestic consumer market. This was a dynamic, expanding society and much of the freshness and excitement can still be felt in this exhibition. There is a sense of finding new models, experimenting with old media to develop new ideas, and breaking through the restrictions of traditional forms. There is the excitement of breaking rules and commitment to putting the past behind them as artists develop new paradigms to express new ideas. All that matters is the present and the occasional glimpse of a possibly better future.

The exhibition's first section is 'The Lure of the City', with its visions of buildings thrusting up into the sky, roads and railways cutting through distance, people sitting in cafes, at the theatre, in cinemas, shopping in the new department stores, or relaxing on the beach or the golf course. There are, of course, powerful reflections of an industrial downside as well. Factory chimneys pumping smoke into the sky. People in a grey anonymity pouring out of the factory as the shift changes. A rubbish collector boy lying collapsed and exhausted on a pile of garbage in his handcart.

KIKUCHI Komei, Enveloping Smoke 1933

This flipside of modernisation is elaborated and extended in the section called 'When the Workers' Song Stopped', where 'proletarian art' and posters demonstrate that this modernising dynamism was also energising workers to fight for their rights in the downside of this brave new world. The struggle between Labour and Capital is, of course, one of the great themes of industrialisation and these heroic images are as international as the exploitation they attempt to overcome. Yet, once again, there is a palpably forward moving thrust. A sense of people determined to triumph over adversity; a sense of impending change that an existing and growing solidarity will make possible; a sense of hope in the future. The early years of the Showa period, which began in 1926, initially brought a continuance of this same mood. However, like the rest of the industrialised world, the crash in 1929, brought with it economic contraction and dislocation, a mounting repression, militarisation and a neo-nationalism which manifested itself in a peculiarly Japanese style of fascism during which, unfortunately, '...the workers' song stopped'.

ISHIGAKI Eitaro, Arm 1929

The exhibition takes as its timeframe the years 1910&endash;1935, so it does not extend into the later 1930s when Japan expanded its imperial power and Shintoism was redeveloped to form an ideological foundation for a modernisation channelled towards militarism instead of consumerism; cannonballs rather than sewing machines. For this reason the atmosphere remains buoyant and experimental; concerned with stretching and extending cultural borders rather than geographical ones. 'The New Mainstream' produced two strands: one 'western-style' (yoga); the other Japanese-style (nihonga) with the Japanese 'Avant-Garde' setting themselves in opposition to this mainstream. However, we can see, in all these movements, the expressions of Japanese artists reacting to widening cultural horizons; borrowing and extending modernist ideas, which, after all, are really global; developing old forms to serve new purposes and interpret new experiences; revolutionising a society which had been kept artificially closed for too long.

SHIMOKAWA Hekoten,  Changing Ginza 1929 

To our own, rather jaundiced, decidedly cynical society, this measure of wonder could, unfortunately, appear naive. Trapped in a contracting economy that draws its visions from past golden ages expunged of anything unpalatable, this belief in the present and the future could be difficult one to imagine, let alone conceptualise. Personally, I find the excitement engaging. I regret, however, that the enthusiasm and optimism of working to build a better world has now to be experienced second-hand and is, undoubtedly, an historical product.

Lorraine Murphy is the editor of Education Australia.




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