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Saturday, 5 July 2008

Taisho Chic, Art Gallery of New South Wales

Lucy Birmingham Fujii in Tokyo’s Metropolis (25 May 2007) review names the father of the three girls in a striking piece - Sannin no shimai (Shuho Yamakawa, 1936, Three Sisters) - a “political fixer”.

The catalogue Taisho Chic: Japanese Modernity, Nostalgia and Deco tells us that Fusanosuke Kuhara was "detained as a conspirator" following a military coup in 1936.

The elegant automobile - a Packard though not “an exact portrait of the car” (p 40) - does not clash with the tradition embodied in the women's clothes.

The clash comes on pp 82 - 83 in Biwa Concert (Suiha Shibata, c 1930s). Kendall H. Brown of the Dept of Art, California State University Long Beach, asks: “Does this elegant, subtle, and feminine image suggest values antithetical to those of war?”

In the painting the microphone “jars” with the woman - who has a classical Deco-inspired hairstyle - and “the soft cushion, fluid garments, wooden music stand, and the feminine shape of the biwa”.

The biwa is an instrument imported from China in the 7th century (T’ang dynasty) along with much of the Japanese cultural template, including Buddhism. It is time to start writing Japanese history in association with Chinese.

The painting polarises, and Edward M. Gomez in The New York Times (27 January 2002) promotes Kendall’s supposition: “Is the young woman performing or recording the kinds of songs that helped militarize Japanese society?”

Gomez' advantage - six years ago - at the exhibition's opening at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, was hearing the curator of Asian arts unveil the work with a flourish.

“Welcome to modernism!”

The show also went to Chicago (22 April - 20 June 2004), U.C. Berkeley Art Museum (December 2005), and Tokyo (June - July 2007). Michael Dunn covered it for The Japan Times (10 May 2007):

Moga, and the denizens of the cafe society generally, had to defend themselves against frequent charges of not being "properly Japanese," and were held for comparison against the idealized, kimono-wearing, subservient housewife who stood for all that was proper in family life. Popular magazines came out with arguments on all sides, and even the government — with military values in mind — began to eulogize the new, healthy-looking young woman who could swim and play tennis. The traditional woman was therefore gradually remodeled, and the "compound bijin" (beauty) appeared, who was just as comfortable in traditional kimono as in the latest Western fashions.

Koha Morii’s Children fishing (1920 - 30) is, says Kendall, eloquent of the new mood in Japan in the lead-up to WWII. The children - the boy seated holding a fishing rod, the girl standing behind in the act of saying something - “speaks volumes about Japanese culture between the wars”.

The work shows an “absence of any signs of the modern, urban world” and a “physical and cultural space untainted by Western culture”.

Koha Morii, Children fishing detail, 1920-30
Amelia Groom, on Alternative Media Group’s website, offers the feminist view. I like this because among the wonders of this exhibition the best - to my mind - is by Seiyo Kakuchi.

Bijin (1925, pp 78 - 79) is blandly labelled but offers striking variance because of its strange mood. If, indeed, Taisho women had greater independence, more money, and consequently more options, then this painting proves the point.

Not because of the strength of character it depicts but, rather, the uncertainty. A lack of options when there are too many.

Unlike most Japanese bijin (beautiful woman) paintings, Seiyo conceals the subject's neck. And unlike the front-on image - and the prominent band of the traditional obi ‘belt’ - when Yamakawa placed Kaoru Kuhara with dad's Packard, here the obi's complicated back ‘bustle’ dominates.

It’s a detail but in Japanese art - shoe heels partially buried in sand, unpainted ears near a white-primed face - detail is all.

The hair is not the ‘typical’ Deco roll but a simple - though no doubt time-consuming - hairdo that any woman would be pleased to achieve on days when it all seems to get out of hand.

And while her face is made up to be white the typical drama - a visible neck - is absent.

Look at her hands (click on pic for larger image). On both only the forefinger is visible. All the rest are curled and retracted. One forefinger points up, the other down.

This is modernism.

Down is where Seiyo has her bijin looking, too, “as she broke with the florid lyricism of bijinga masters” having followed normative styles in her early years. Kendall says Seiyo “partakes in [a] modern dialogue”.

Even the sasayuri - lilies - in the foreground droop to fit the mood of the contemporary woman, who actually looks like a woman and not an ideal 'type'. There is no other work to compete with it.

Seiyo Kakuichi, Bijin, 1925
While the introduction by Sharon A. Minichiello goes into the detail of the Taisho era - Japan’s time of rapid expansion before its equally rapid fall under the next emperor (Showa) - we are troubled by the domestic elements, such as the fabulous ice cups (pic top, p 143).

While Japanese soldiers were maltreating their colonial populations, starving their wartime enemies, prostituting women from other Asian countries and running amok in Nanking, what were uncle Hiro and aunt Maiko doing back in Yokohama?

Eating ice cream from cut-glass dishes. The purple colour denotes old age. The etched pattern in the purple segments conjures up old native styles while the cut glass in the clear parts suggests Western clarity and resolve.

How Japan finally resolves this conundrum - for the Chinese government will ensure that it does not disappear - is a matter for the coming century.

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