The Endless Innovations In Japanese Postwar Art

Alexandra Munroe writes about Japanese avant-garde art of the past 50 years: "Beneath the veneer of appropriation [it] has deeply resisted the blind assimilation of Western culture."

Her words touch on a paradox. The different movements of avant-garde art in Japan often seem to parallel similar developments elsewhere; and the outside art world has inconsiderately concluded that Japan's avant-garde was merely another example of the Japanese ability to "appropriate;" in this case to appropriate "modern art."

Yet, according to Ms. Munroe - and the Japanese artists themselves - the Japanese attitude toward the West's modern art has been far from uncritical, tame, or imitative. In some cases it pre-dated, with exuberant originality, ideas that the West believes first arose in the West.

After World War II, the West's "invasion" of Japan's cultural identity must have seemed overwhelming. Not dissimilar kinds of cultural invasion have occurred in other countries, of course, by means of modern communications and technologies, or after the collapse of tyrannies. But art can often be the exception to the rule. Avant-garde artists anywhere are a deliberate counter-culture within their own country. And in Japan, their reactions to the imposed Western "freedoms," were not, then, typical, and certainly not a return to mere tradition.

The Japanese artists, in fact, took eagerly to the notion of individualism and arrived at the conclusion that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander: If "individualism" means being yourself, it can include a deep-seated sense of local or national identity.

Munroe is the principal author of "Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky," the hefty book coinciding with a major exhibition of postwar Japanese art (from which the images here are borrowed). This show, first seen in Japan, is now at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (until Aug. 27), the last of the three venues of its American tour. Munroe's book offers remarkable insight into a subject that has been too carelessly sidelined by prejudice in the art world outside Japan.

This is not, however, a very obvious, straightforward story. Munroe argues that the avant-garde artists in Japan "sought ... to establish an autonomous artistic identity and cultural sensibility" that would take its inspiration from wherever - from old as well as new, from both Japanese and foreign sources.

This tome is not a quick-browse picture book. The art being discussed is immensely serious. Indeed, "lighthearted" is not a term that has much appropriateness in this context, although "outrageous" or "obsessional" - be warned - sometimes is. Instead, this is a study determined to change the art world's perceptions, and it succeeds because it is a tremendous source of information.

Tanaka Atsuko's "Electric Dress" is a striking example of work to come out of an art movement called "The Gutai Group." Based in Osaka, Gutai lasted from 1955 to 1972. It was anti-academic in spirit, expressing a sense of "relief and liberation from totalitarian bureaucracy," in Munroe's words. If Gutai had an aim it was newness - making things that apparently never existed before, using new materials in unorthodox ways. "Never imitate!" was one of its cries. It was instinctive, not intellectual, highly individualistic, apolitical. It was also against pure abstraction, and staged events and outdoor exhibitions, moving toward theater. Tanaka's exotic costume of painted light bulbs and electric cords - which the artist herself sometimes wore, fits with all these Gutai characteristics.

At the same time, it links with an underlying tendency to re-create some of the old Japanese expressions that the Gutai espousal of Western-type modernism would seem to obliterate. Calligraphy, in particular, was of considerable interest to a number of the Gutai artists. Tanaka's "dress," for all its modernity, has the color, weight, and symbolic transformation of its wearer that ancient ceremonial robes had.

A short-lived movement at the end of the 1960s was called Mono-ha ("School of Things"), and this was far more anti-Western, much more concerned with indigenous culture. Mono-ha's influence lasted longer than the movement itself did.

Unlike Gutai, it sought, writes Munroe, "to reconstruct Japanese identity from a mythical repository of cultural wisdom" - words that fit well with the atmosphere and mystique of Reiko Mochinaga Brandon's "Temple Guardian 'Ah' and 'Un.' " Made in 1987, it is a comparatively recent work suggesting a continued sympathy for Mono-ha ideas. It has the air of what Munroe calls "a ceremonial terrain."

The video image of Mount Fuji speaks for itself as a symbol of Japan both ancient and modern.

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