- In Pursuit of Universalism: Yorozu Tetsugorō and Japanese Modern Art
Alicia Volk, with the publication of In Pursuit of Universalism: Yorozu Tetsugorō and Japanese Modernism, has made an important contribution to the growing literature on alternative artistic modernisms. Her rich account of the artist Yorozu Tetsugorō (1885–1927), who worked in Tokyo, Kanagawa, and Iwate in the early decades of the twentieth century, disturbs the still-presiding simple linear timeline of modernism that moves from the clusters of avant-garde artists working in Paris in the nineteenth century to the brave new bands of modern artists working in New York in the mid-twentieth century. Borrowing from Anne Louise Pratt and Kobena Mercer, Volk states her aim as a “contrapuntal account of modernism,” one that is global and relational by contrast to the original-versus-derivative way of thinking that holds the Euro-American artistic canon up as the only standard (p. 10). Volk thus ambitiously sets up her project as a contextualization of Yorozu’s work within the artistic discourse both inside and outside Japan.
Yorozu was primarily a painter of yōga, literally translating to “Western painting,” and it is important to see that when he made his debut in 1912, painting was the privileged form of fine art and yōga one of the two major modes of painting—the other being Nihonga, or neo-traditional (Japanese) painting. Active for just 15 years before his premature death from tuberculosis at age 42 in 1927, Yorozu is now best known for his 1912 “Ratai bijin” (Nude beauty) along with several other yōga created at the beginning of his career. These paintings took their places within the Japanese canon from its formation in 1960s Japan.1 From its institutional beginnings, yōga painting mostly has employed the language of stylistic schools originating in the West, and Yorozu’s early work was no exception. His initial artistic adventures were understood by critics as first answering the call of postimpressionism—his school was “derisively dubbed the ‘Gogh- Gauguin’ manner” by the public—and then recognized as answering the call of cubism. Before his death, he worked to reinvent nanga, the literati style of painting from China. Yorozu was, like many of his time, a self-reflexive artist who left writings along with his paintings. Volk’s greatest contribution with this book is her exegesis of Yorozu’s creative and intellectual answers [End Page 434] to the contemporary problematic. It draws particularly on the significance of a manifesto-like statement, which aimed toward a universality termed “X,” a proposed resolution to the dialectical struggle between the poles of East-West, tradition-modernity, and materialism-spirituality.
Written beautifully and compellingly, the book loosely follows the arc of Yorozu’s short career, while each of the five chapters contains its own critical argument speaking to broad issues relevant to the articulation of multiple modernisms. These include the uneasy equation of the West with universality and modernity, the pattern of the avant-garde as manifested in painting, male-female gender asymmetries in 1920s Japan, primitivism as an artistic discourse, and the implications of the “return to the East” (taiyō kaiki).
The introductory chapter serves to outline the foundation of the major art institutions in Japan following the Meiji Restoration by provocatively challenging the hegemony of “Japonisme” in its suggestion of a “reverse Japonisme.” Volk is less interested in the distancing, exoticizing, and Othering of Japan (seen in labels that defined Japanese aesthetics as purely “decorative,” for example) than she is in the story of how the Japonisme that originated in Europe went home. The third chapter sets Yorozu within the context of his artistic climate by describing his spiritual “invention of the self” invoked through the ideal of the “revolutionary artist” that very much relied on the “modern girl” for expression.
The unfolding of the crux of the problem, however, lies in the second chapter’s discussion of “Ratai bijin,” Yorozu’s graduation work. Volk demonstrates how, in the context of the Japanese art world...