Author: Trede, Melanie
Date published: December 1, 2011
ALICIA VOLK In Pursuit of Universalism: Yorozu Tetsugorö and Japanese Modern Art Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010. 328 pp.; 16 color ills., 96 b/w. $49.95
"Why have there been no great modern Japanese artists?"
Linda Nochlin's hypothetical answer to lhis slightly rephrased famous question1 can be just as easily adapted, if we modify it to read, "There have been no great Japanese artists because Japanese are incapable of originality."2 And reversing the viewpoint of die inquirer by turning "the problem" around, as Nochlin did so persuasively, these viewpoints would be not a "Japanese Problem" but a "Euro-American Problem."
The excellent new book by Alicia Volk, assistant professor of Japanese art at the University of Maryland, offers fantastic examples to call into question some of the flawed concepts of the European master narrative of modernism such as originality and revolt against tradition. In her first chapter, "Reverse Japonisme and the Structure of Modern Art Ě n Japan," she juxtaposes oil paintings rendering courtesans with elaborate hairdos by Takahashi Yuichi, painted in 1872, and by Vincent van Gogh, in 1887. While Takahashi's contribution to a groundbreaking verisimilitude in Japanese portrait painting is the result of employing techniques of European oil painting, van Gogh found unexplored avenues by adaptbig compositions and color schemes of Japanese woodblock prints by Keisai Eisen. The uniting aspect of both of these artists' work is the fact mat they looked to a different culture for inspiration. But mimetic rendering, so revolutionary for Takahashi, was what van Gogh fought against, and the Japanese woodblock prints van Gogh appreciated were considered in their native country articles of mass-produced popular culture, which a serious artist did not value. To put it in Eugene Wang's words, "One's traditionalism is another's modernism."3
Within the time line of the modern master narrative, however, van Gogh is granted a stable position as a vanguard artist, whereas Takahashi is virtually unknown outside the discipline of Japanese art history, and were he known he would be labeled as derivative. After all, modernism is all about the right time and place of art creation, and the question of "who came first" decides whether an artist is in or out of the canon.
The same fate applies to Yorozu Tetsugorö (1885-1927), the painter active in the 1910s and 1920s under scrutiny in Volk's meticulously researched book.
Born io a wealthy merchant family of Tsuchizawa, a village in Iwate Prefecture northeast of Tokyo, Yorozu belongs to the third generation of artists since the midnineteenth century who chose to paint in the Western style. HLs only exposure to a non-Japanese culture was a trip to Berkeley and San Francisco in 1906 that lasted six months. He began studying at the renowned Tokyo School of Fine Arts the following year and trained with Kuroda Seiki, a once-revolutionary artist in the Tokyo art scene of the 189Os. Yorozu is best known for his provocative oil painting Nude· Beauty, the first abstract painting in Japan, and for his self-portraits painted hi 1912 and 1913. He experimented with Fauvist and Expressionist coloring and rough brushstrokes and created several Cubist and Futurist figure and landscape paintings. In the latter half of the 1910s, Yorozu was one of a number of painters in the Western style who engaged earlier modes of East Asian ink paintings in novel ways. He also left many sketchbooks, book illustrations, and woodblock prints. Despite the limited range of subject matter - figure painting, portraits and landscapes, a few still lifes - the range of styles and forms of expression Yorozu chose to take up almost simultaneously is postmodern avant la lettre, but typical for painters in the Western style of his generation.
Volk offers deep readings for each of Yorozu's major visual forays in four densely and exquisitely written chapters. These are largely organized chronologically and focus on a single painting or a group of his works. The author documents Yorozu's continuous struggle to negotiate between, and find a synthesis for, what he perceived of as Western materialism, objectivity, and realism, on the one hand, and Eastern spiritualism, subjectivity, and symbolism, on the other. She also draws on his ample writings on art, supplementing these basic materials with a broad variety of contemporary European art discourses introduced in Japanese literary, philosophical, and art journals such as Subaru (1909-13) or Siiimkaba (The White Birch, 1910-23). The immense speed at which photographic reproductions of paintings, prints, and sculptures and the latest texts were available in Japan both in translation and in the original language is impressive: Filippo Tommaso Marinetti's Futurist manifesto was printed in the French newspaper Le Figaro in February 1909 and was presented in Japanese three months later; G. Lewis Hind's influential Poslimpressianists was available in Tokyo shortly after its publication in 191 1.
Yorozu made his entrance on the stage of Tokyo's art scene with his controversial graduation piece from the Tokyo School of Fine Arts, Nude Beauty, discussed in depth in Volk's second chapter. This chapter exemplifies her deeply informed and convincingly argued approaches, which employ local knowledge to situate Yorozu in the place she has arranged for him: a more broadly defined modernism. She interprets Nude Beauty ultimately as an aggressive and revolutionary visual statement against die academic establishment represented by Kuroda Seiki. Volk acknowledges Yorozu's interest in recent European Postimpressionist and Fauvist paintings, most imporiandy, the brushwork and palette of van Gogh and Henri Matisse's distorted physical proportions. The woman lies vertically on a steep hill, the strikingly red color of her loose trousers contrasting with the green shades of the grass she is set against. Her direct and provocative stare donen on the viewer brings to mind the subject of Edouard Manet's Olympia, Along with these unprecedented styles, the disjuncture between the seminude's thick and deliberately uncouth coutoui-s and the dissociated background of the green hill was immediately understood by the school's professors as a provocation. As Volk points out, Yorozu's intentional substitution of the beautiful with the ugly, the accomplished with the unskilled, and the natural with the artificial nearly resulted in his failure to graduate (p. 54).
If we are to follow James Elkins's recent assessment of Yorozu's work, written in the course of rebutting John Glark's expansion of modernism's definition to include Asian modern art, it would
clearly depend on simplified or impoverished versions of Van Gogh and other European painters. ... It becomes difficult for me to sustain interest in Yorozu's paintings as independent works, comprehensible and viable without their Western references. The work looks derivative, and so does the art scene in Tokyo. ... I may prefer Yorozu's Naked Beauty to a painting by van Gogh, but that does not erase Yorozu's dependence on van Gogh. I may devalue the very notion of dependence as a Western construction, but thai does not prevent me from experiencing Yorozu's painting as dependent. . . .4
Although ELkins wrote this after Volk's book was published, her analysis reveals his stance to be, in Nochlin's terms, a "Euro-American problem." This attitude is what Volk sees as a simplification obscuring more important issues pertinent to a thorough understanding of Yorozu's work, as well as the equivalent to reducing van Gogh or Matisse to their adaptations of Japanese woodblock prints. Volk starts her analysis with an investigation of the subject of the nude as a disputed universal notion of beauty. The Japanese translation of nude, ratai ("unclothed body"), refers to both "nude" and "naked," and as such was connoted as pornographic. Articles by critics admonished artists to protect public morals and avoid painting nudes. As the author indicates, Yorozu's avoidance of the usual allegoria»! titles for painted nudes and his choice of the title Ratai hijin was itself a provocation. But the title also combines mutually exclusive terms. The new concept of ratai, the timeless nude, was an integral part of the Westernstyle painting academy, while bijin ("beautiful person," whose beauty was largely defined by her - and previously, also his - clothing) dated back to earlier centuries and was continued by modern painters working in both Western and Japanese styles.
One of the pivotal incidents spurring this discourse was the first public exhibition of a Western-style nude painting: the now lost Morning Toilette, shown by Kuroda Seiki on his return from Paris in 1893. The scandal it caused ultimately led to a public ban on depictions of the nude from the waist down in 1901. Although nudes continued to be painted and included in exhibitions, placed in separate rooms for art students, Kuroda gave up his initial defiance and complied by clothing his nudes from the waist down. As a result of these episodes, the nude became a contested symbol for the freedom of the arts (p. 61). Volk concludes that Yorozu took this subject up in the very manner he did in order ?? critique his teacher's and the art etablishment's submission to the authorities.
Volk summarizes her findings with the observation that Nude Beauty is not avantgarde because it employed recently introduced European styles but "because it mobili/ed these styles, which were themselves indebted to Japanese art, as a means of critiquing the modem and supposedly universal notion of 'art' itself" (p. 72). The labeling of Yorozu as a "revolutionary artist," a term that was indeed introduced in a 1912 article in the journal Shirakaba, is at this point slightly roman tici/ing, especially with the addendum. "The only authority he recognized for his art stemmed not from . . . the academy, state or salon but from himself" (p. 72). Volk asserts that Nude Beauty was not a manifestation of the artist's inner self, as other art historians had argued, such as Tanaka Atsushi, the foremost scholar of modern Japanese painting, to whom Volk owes much pp. 72-73).n To my mind, to characterize the painting "not as a work of creation but of artistic destruction" (p. 73) places too much emphasis on the institutional criticism inherent in the painting and gives insufficient scope to the imaginative and probing transformations effected during the process of its coming into being and to the originality of the completed work.
The third chapter, "Inventing die Self: The New Woman and the Revolutionary Artist," elaborates the argument of Yorozu's quest to establish his selfhood, the ingredient integral to the inception of modernism in Volk's view. Following the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, Japan experienced what Jay Rubin has described as a "release from a total devotion to the national mission."" Among other effects, a number of artists inspired by European Postimpressionism and Expressionism began to assert the primacy of self-expression and die centrality of the autonomous individual in art. It is within this intellectual climate that a synthesis of East-West distinctions as a counterproject to national differences emerged. Volk's analysis focuses on the painting Woman in a Boa, exhibited shortly after Yorozu's graduation in 1912 at the newly created Fusain Society, of which Yorozu was a founding member. The credo of this group of painters was to challenge the art establishment and seek freedom of expression. In Woman in a Boa, the painter developed two new subjects for Japanese painting: the new woman and the modern self (p. 79). Far from the contemporary idealized depictions of female beauties, this was a real woman looking self-confidently at the viewer. In terms of the social, political, and intellectual background that informed Yorozu's choice of iconography and style, this chapter is the richest. Volk draws a vivid picture of the budding feminist movement in the Japan of the early 1910s; Yorozu's search for new visual stimulation in the pleasure district of Asakusa; theater dramas featuring the confident new woman; and contemporaneous depictions of women, including woodblock prints by the artist himself.
Chapter 4, "Expressionism and the 'New Period of the Primitive,' " offers a survey of expressionist art and criticism of the 1910s, as they were read and adapted by Yorozu. Expressionism meant a liberation from the West/East, premodern/modern distinctions and an emphasis on the artist's subjectivity, which Yorozu articulated in his self-portraits painted between 1912 and 1916. Volk characterizes Yorozu's paintings between 1915 and 1921 within the framework of overcoming the schism between Western-style painting (yoga) and Japanese-style painting (nihonga) . A series of ink paintings with added fields of ink tonalities devoid of calligraphic connotations and appropriating abstract compositions by Wassily Kandinsky demonstrates one of Yorozu's responses to this challenge.
The last chapter addresses the apotheosis voiced in the main title of the book, "Unified Rhythm: Toward a Universal Painting." It describes Yorozu's disillusionment with both the contemporary Western-style and Japanese-style techniques in the 1920s. Instead, he turned to literati painting, practiced since the eighteenth century in Japan, in which he saw the best solution to convev his personality. Volk takes up European texts on the significance of "rhythm" in painting, including an historians writing on East Asian an such as Laurence Binyon, an author Yorozu had translated in 1915. 7 The convergence of the category "rhythm" in European painting with one of the central tenets of literati painting, "spirit resonance and vital movement [kiin sótto]" derived from Chinese painting treatises, appealed as an ideal synthesis of painterly expression. A cohort of painters, including Yorozu's better-known Western-style peer Kishida Ryusei, sought to find alternatives to their experiments in oil by revitalizing Chinese or Japanese modes of painting. Volk presents a letter written by Yorozu in late 1918 to explain rather uncon vinci ngly his engagement with ink painting: recuperating after a physical and nervous breakdown, Yorozu reverted to, in his own words, "light work like nihonga" (p. 146). Did his texts on literati painting not rather serve to justify his reluctance to follow recent trends in Western-style painting, such as the Dadaist movement of the early 1920s, or did they express a political stance," or conceal an economic need? After all, he must have profited more from works in Japanese modes and formats than from Western easel painting, especially in the countryside southwest of Tokyo, where he lived with his family from early 1919 until his death.
The reader learns little about Yoro/u's financial and personal circumstances, which may yield other reasons for his artistic production in the 1920s. And it is one of the weaker points of the book that Yorozu's statements, which may override the visual evidence, are at times taken at face value. The main formal drawback of Volk's volume - besides the choice of a small-size font and the consistently missing measurements of the reproduced paintings and sketches - is the lack of a full list of references. Only two pages of "further reading" are given, while the important publications are hidden in endnotes, with the full sources given only hi the initial citation: what a nightmare trying to recover the complete reference of a source the reader comes across in the middle of a chapter.
Returning to the initial question - "Why have títere been 110 great modern Japanese artists?" - and tying in Volk's "Epilogue: Japanese Modern Art in the World," two crucial factors seem to contribute to the continuity of the "Euro-American problem" to this day: an institutional level and intellectual premises. The difficulty of dealing with Japanese modern art in academic art history comes from the overpowering modernist discourse from a Euro-American perspective; the development of art history within Japan since the late nineteenth century; the influential group of art collectors and museum institutions; as well as the particular brand of Orientalism vis-ŕ-vis Japanese studies and art in Europe and the United States." As a result of alt these factors, modem Japanese art was rarely, if ever, taught in art history classes, and it was not until the late 1990s that professorships in Japanese art was filled with a specialist Jn modem art in North America and in France. The establishment of the Society for the Study of Meiji Art (Meiji Bijutsu Gakkai) in the 1980s and its annual, Kindai gaseisv, issued since 1992, certainly played a role in the development of modern art history in Japan outside Japan. Important research has been conducted and is underway.1" By now. exhibitions, collecting, research, and teaching are more conspicuous in contemporary art, that is, the period after 1945 in Japan. And as Volk indicates, much more is being done in the modern field on neotraditional painting in the Japanese style than in Western-style painting. Few groundbreaking publications, such as Gennif'er Weisenfeld's magisterial study on the Dadaist group Mavo of the early 1920s,11 are available, and Volk's book is in the same category of important textbooks for art history classes. Its brilliance was rewarded with the first Phillips Book Prize of die Phillips Collection Center for die Study of Modern Art.
The intellectual and theoretical framework within which Volk operates - diat is, the movement to consider "Multiple (or Multi-Centred) Modernities," "World Art," and "Global Art History" - has developed only in the past decades. John Onians, David Summers, James Elkěns, Hans Belling, and others have each explored methods to render art history a culturally more inclusive discipline (not to mention Aby Warburg, who is, not surprisingly, again experiencing a revival in the past years) . Their texts are welcomed by art historians working on modern cultures outside Europe as an antidote to Art since 190011,2 which perpetuates the Euro-American modernist master narrative. Yet the lack of local knowledge, including language skills, visual histories, arid cultural institutions beyond the world an historians' regional expertises, is a significant obstruction to truly embracing accounts of multicentered modernisms.
John Clark is a pioneer in Asian an history who since the 1980s has elaborated new theoretical models to expand Euro-American definitions of modernism and address broader issues related to East Asian, Soudieast Asian, and South Asian modern and contemporary an. He thus evades the fallacy of reiterating modern nation-states' own nationalist narratives, and he was also crucial in initiating the new field of modern Asian art, die title of his important book of 1998.'3 Likewise, Volk challenges reductive and universal definitions of modernism, referring exclusively to the European tradition, and opts for the term "global modernisms" (p. 220) to describe Yoroxu's work. As she concedes, this story still needs to be fully told. But her stance, diat a global modernism consists of "artistic and cultural interaction," is well taken, as it removes the narrower definition of the global as an allencompassing geographic space. An alternative wording is "multicentered modernisms," which does justice to the contemporaneity of modern positions under distinct cultural, religious, and political circumstances.14
Artists of the early twentieth century were conscious of the significance of cultural interactions and defied the very national divides that continue to linger in today's modem art historical practice. Yorozu voices this opinion in his earliest published pronouncement dating to January 1913. "Letter in answer to a friend's review," which also serves as a retort to the question and answer posed at the outset. The quote is worth citing from Volk's translation hi full:
Maurice Denis argued in a text on Cézanne that "Painting oscillates perpetually between invention and imitation." I believe diat G am in no way walking the same road as [modern European artists]. A senior of mine whom I respect is said to have revealed dial since Post-Impressionism developed through the inspiration of Japanese art, it is a reimportation and nothing new to us. Yet, inasmuch as we all inhabit the earth as mankind, I do not wish to draw such a sharp distinction between the East and West. (p. 41)
1 thank John Clark, Doris Croissant, Juliane Noth, MingTiampo.and Reěko Tornii for generously sharing their knowledge and texis with me when writing this review.
1. Linda Nochlhi, "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" Ari, News 69 (January 1971): 22-39.
2. Ibid., 24; "There have been no great women artists because women are incapable of greatness," On the problem of originality in modern master narratives in relation to Japanese art. see Miiig Tiampo, "Originality. Universality, and Other Modernist Myths," in An ami Glnbnlizaiiim, ed. James Elkins, Zhivka Valiavicharska, and .Mice Kira, -Stone Art Theory Institutes Scries, vol. 1 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010), 166-70.
3. Eugene Wang, "Sketch Ccmcepmalism as Modernist Contingency," in Chinesf An: Modern Expressions, ed. Maxwell Hearn and Judith G. Smith (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001), 103.
4. James Elkins, "Writing about Modernist Painting outside Western Europe and North America," Transrultural Studies 1 (2010): 42-77. http://archiv.ub.uni-heitielberg.de/ojs/ipdex .php/transcuHural/artic]e/view/1928.
5. Tanaka Aisushi, "Yorozu Tetsugoro kenkyii josetsu: 1911-1917," Tokyo Kakuritsti Kinda-i 'Bijutxukan kmkyu kiyô 1 (1987): 83-U2.
6. Jay Rubin, quoted in Gennifer Weisrnfeld, "Mavo's Conscious Constructivism: Art, Individualism, and Daily Life in Internar Japan," Art Journal 55, no. 3 (September 1996): 65.
7. In September 1915, Yorozu published the translation of Laurence Binyon's/n/wnwf ?t? (1909) in seven installments in the local newspaper Iwate niainirftt shinbun (Volk, p. 261 n. 134). Given Yorozu 1S rather brief exposure to the English language, one wonders what this translation looks like.
8. A comparable case would be the Chinese painter Xu Beihong's turn from Western oil to Chinese ink painting in the late 1920s: see Wang, "Sketch Conceptualism," 127-29.
9. Mimi Hall Yiengpmksawan, "Japanese Art History 2001: The State and Stakes of Research," Art Bulletin 83 (March 2001): 105-22.
10. See most reccndy Chinghsin Wu, Japan Encounter the Avant-Garde: The Art and Thought of Kogn Harne, i895-1933 (Ann Arbor. Mich.: Proquest, 2010).
11. Gennifer We isen f eld, Mava: Japanese Artists and the Avant-garde, 1905-1931 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).
12. Hal Foster et al., Art since i900: Modernism, Antimadernism, Post-modernism (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2004).
13. John Clark, Modern. Asian Art (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press. 1998).
14. Monica Juneja and Franziska Koch, "MultiCentred Modernisms - Reconfiguring .Asian Art of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries: Introduction,11 Tmnscultiiral Sludies 1 (2010): 38-41, http://archiv.ub.uni-heidelberg, de/ojs/index.php/transcultural/article/view /6181/1764.
MELANIE TREDE is professor of Japanese art histories at Heidelberg University [Institute of East Asian Art History, HeiafV>erg University, Snninantrasse 4, 69117 Heidelberg, Germany],