06 February 2011

Nihonga Avant-Garde at National Museum of Modern Art

I went to the "Nihonga Avant Garde 1938-1949" exhibition at the National Museum of Modern Art (東京国立近代美術館)today. In Japanese, nihonga refers to "traditional Japanese painting", which really, by the era covered in this exhibition, could only be distinguished from "youga" or western-style painting being done in Japan by the formulation of the pigments used (earlier on, the styles were somewhat more distinct).

Really, not the greatest art exhibit ever. Very few of the paintings spoke to me in any way or contained much that I felt was noteworthy; indeed, were it not for an academic need to study and classify art, and thus be able to focus on a ten-year-period of "nihonga", I don't really think many of these paintings would be exhibited a lot.

As always, there were a few paintings really worth seeing. Toyoshiro Fukuda's "Scenery of a Mine" stood out for capturing a little bit of the spirit of 1930s muralism. The most powerful piece was 山崎隆 / Takashi Yamaziki's "Impression of Battlefield / 戦地の印象", a completely abstract room-panel-sized piece which contains absolutely fascinating details that suggest rather than state what's going on, and only when viewed close-up (for the exact reason, seeing a scan of "Impression of Battlefield" is pretty pointless).

On the way out I ran into the book "The Hiroshima Panels" in the bookstore. A husband-wife team spent thirty years painting a series of panels about the horror of Hiroshima and eventually other events; again high-quality scans are critical, the versions available on the web don't capture what was shown in the printed book I saw. The artists had an unblinking eye for documenting tragedy: in addition to the deaths directly from the bomb, the fate of the American POWs in Hiroshima (tortured to death by enraged captors) and the Korean forced-labor workers (bodies never buried) are both included in the series, and later they painted a panel about the Rape of Nanking. Apparently the gallery for their work (they're both deceased) is out in Saitama, I'll need to make a point to get out there.

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