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From Postwar to Postmodern, Art in Japan 1945–1989 ed. by Doryun Chong et al. (review)

From: Monumenta Nipponica
Volume 68, Number 2, 2013
pp. 327-331 | 10.1353/mni.2013.0031

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Why the sudden interest in postwar Japanese art? This is a question that many have been asking recently.1 Nonetheless, this development has not been precipitous at all, but reflects over two decades of research, community building, and scholarship both inside and outside of Japan.2 The field has evolved, with a critical mass of mid-career scholars and curators whose work has created a significant English-language context and discourse that has gained the attention of the wider world.3

An important landmark in this development is the publication of From Postwar to Postmodern, Art in Japan 1945–1989. This volume, distributed by Duke University Press, is the sixth in MoMA’s Primary Documents series and follows documentary anthologies on the art of Eastern and Central Europe, Argentina, Brazil, Sweden, and China. These have provided an impetus for curators and scholars to reconnect MoMA with its internationalist past, and From Postwar to Postmodern is no exception. As scholars of world art history are rediscovering everywhere, globalization is not new.

A well-constructed volume, From Postwar to Postmodern is the result of transnational cooperation between MoMA, the Japan Foundation, and the Asian Cultural Council. With the help of the Japan Foundation’s networks, MoMA has created an elegant platform for close collaboration between its own scholars and curators and those working in Japan. The book therefore reflects current scholarly trends both inside and outside the country. This is a superb textbook for undergraduate courses, especially if supplemented by a course pack or book with more in-depth essays and illustrations. From Postwar to Postmodern was planned concurrently with the catalogue for Doryun Chong’s MoMA exhibition (see note 3), and this book and the catalogue work well as companion volumes. For those seeking greater historical reach, J. Thomas Rimer’s Since Meiji: Perspectives on the Japanese Visual Arts, 1868–2000 (University of Hawai‘i Press, 2011) is wider in scope and an excellent alternative. A more focused option is Art, Anti-Art, Non-Art: Experimentations in the Public Sphere in Postwar Japan 1950–1970 (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2007), an exhibition catalogue edited by Charles Merewether and Rika Iezumi Hiro. More inclusive, but out of print, is Alexandra Munroe’s Japanese Art after 1945: Scream against the Sky (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994).

The historical scope of the volume is knowledgeably framed by Chong, who clearly sets out its parameters: Japan’s defeat in war (1945) and the death of Hirohito (1989). Chong also, however, problematizes and contextualizes these choices. He is careful to point out that, while prewar art is beyond the scope of the book, “Japan possesses a long and robust tradition of artistic modernism” (p. 14), and he traces this back to the Meiji period in a useful potted history for nonspecialists. World War II is, however, treated as a watershed that “put a halt to the vibrant, by now maturing modernism in Japan”—a perspective that is now being challenged both in Japan and abroad.4 Despite Chong’s separation of wartime and postwar culture, he acknowledges that the war still haunts Japan. He writes that “the end of the war did not signify a clean break or completely new beginning” (p. 15) in art and culture, questioning perceptions of the postwar period as a blank slate. Furthermore, the book confronts issues concerning the postwar period and its duration and in this way becomes a useful site for debate in undergraduate classrooms.

The choice of texts translated is judicious, although somewhat focused on Tokyo. The selections strike a good balance between works that have not been previously translated and major texts reproduced for reasons of accessibility. Of particular note is the volume’s self-consciously interdisciplinary scope, which is a reflection of the challenges to disciplinary boundaries, the openness to experimentation, and the fertile cross-disciplinary debates seen during the period examined. A 1952 essay by Abe Kōbō, translated for this volume as “For a New Realism: The Meaning of Reportage,” is an especially inspired selection from literature, and the sections on architecture are strong. Although Hyūga Akiko’s 1978 essay on manga is a good historic choice, more recent writings on...

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