- From Art without Borders to Art for the Nation:Japanist Painting by Dokuritsu Bijutsu Kyōkai during the 1930s
When I first started to participate in exhibitions, the criticism that my colleagues and I dreaded the most was that our paintings "smelled Japanese." . . . It was obviously not a compliment . . . yōga painters loathed any whiff of Japan in their own work. On the other hand, the greatest praise one could hope for was to have the critics say that our paintings looked "as if they had been painted by a Westerner" . . . [but] these days, none of us object to the Japanization of yōga.1—Kuroda Jūtarō
As recalled by the artist Kuroda Jūtarō 黒田重太郎 (1887-1970) in 1936, Japanese oil painters active during the mid-1930s felt that their world had come full circle. Gone were the days when they struggled to efface any trace of Japan from their own work. For most of them, translating their Japanese aesthetic sensibilities into the medium of oil painting was a challenging as well as perfectly legitimate endeavor. Although Japanese oil painting (yōga 洋画) by definition entailed a fusion of the Western medium with non-Western formal elements,2 it was during this [End Page 357] decade that artists started to pursue stylistic eclecticism as an artistic goal in its own right, which critics "single[d] out as an independent movement."3
Dokuritsu Bijutsu Kyōkai 独立美術協会 (Association of Independent Artists, hereafter abbreviated as Dokuritsu) was at the forefront of this artistic trend. It was one of the numerous painters' groups formed in the early Shōwa period on the basis of diverse artistic and ideological goals. Founding members had formerly belonged to other independent groups, many of which had been established as alternatives to the government-sponsored Imperial Art Academy Exhibition (Teikoku Bijutsuin Tenrankai, abbreviated as Teiten 帝展). Among them, Dokuritsu had a very specific agenda that, as we will see later, set it apart at its inception from many other similarly progressive organizations.
Widely regarded as the platform of Fauvism, Dokuritsu gained greater prominence during the mid-1930s, when some members pioneered an eclectic style that became known as Nihonshugi 日本主義 (Japanism).4 Artists such as Kojima Zenzaburō 兒嶋善 三郎 (1893-1962) and Nakayama Takashi 中山巍 (1893-1978) sought to marry Japanese artistic traditions and Fauvism, which they considered to be the epitome of modern Western art, to create new art that was unlike any other in the world. Created with this goal in mind, their work from the mid-1930s typically combined Japanese subject matter and motifs with the flat pictorial space, bold lines, and striking color contrasts of Fauvism. Attracting media attention as much for their explicitly ideological comments as for their art, they stood out from their better-known contemporaries, such as Umehara Ryūzaburō 梅原龍三郎 (1888-1886) and Yasui Sōtarō 安井曾太郎 (1888-1955), who also incorporated Japanese visual elements into their work but tended to be less outspoken in their political statements. Araki Sueo 荒城季夫 (1894-?) and Yanagi Ryō 柳亮 (1903-1978), prominent art critics who aspired to greater methodological rigor and sought to reflect contemporary social issues in their craft, welcomed this new development in Dokuritsu. At the same time, they also noticed that Japanism was fraught with artistic and political complications because of the way it embraced two seemingly contradictory philosophies, which I call ethnicity (minzokusei 民族性) and contemporaneity (dōjidaisei 同時代性).5
Critical discussions of Japanism in the mid-1930s revolved around the nebulous relationship between ethnicity and contemporaneity. On the one hand, the Japanists celebrated their ethnicity, which to them meant a shared heritage of Japanese artistic [End Page 358] traditions. They believed that Japanese art was the essence of both their indigenous culture and the key to their creation of truly unique Japanese oil paintings. Their ideas resonated with the conservative political climate of the 1930s, including the doctrine of Nihonshugi, a nationalistic school of thought popular during this period, and other patriotic social trends.6 On the other hand, in tune with many other artists and critics at the time, the Japanists strongly advocated contemporaneity—faith in the formal characteristics of modern art as well as its central concepts, especially individualism, cosmopolitanism, and the notion of pure...