Originally published in
Kyoto Journal #58, May 2004
Reprinted in support of LACMA's Kimono for a Modern Age Exhibition 2014
Turning Point: Oribe and the Arts of Sixteenth-Century Japan
Miyeko Murase, Ed. (Yale University Press, New Haven, 2003)
Mavo: Japanese Artists and
The Avant-Garde 1905-1931
Gennifer Weisenfeld (University of California Press, Berkeley, 2002)
Gennifer Weisenfeld (University of California Press, Berkeley, 2002)
Mirror of Modernity: Invented Traditions
of Modern Japan
Stephen Vlastos, Ed. (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1998)
Imagine … It's early 1924. Furuta Oribe XII's 20-something only son, Oribe xiii, is deep into an early mid-life crisis. Life as an heir-apparent is not cutting it. Endlessly attending and holding those stuffy tea gatherings every time a cherry blossom petal takes to wind or a maple leaf blushes. He's full-up-to-here with the pretentiousness of emptiness, with a capital "EMPTY". Besides, no one sits seiza anymore.
His family's legacy of quirky ceramics and interior design, so beloved by generations of aesthetes of yore, has not transitioned into the new social economy. The Western hungry ghosts have insatiable appetites for Japanese oldies-but-goodies Chinoiserie knock-offs. The nouveau riche industrialists are good to go 24/7 with assembly line versions of his great-great-great-etc. granddaddy's classics, but the output is so much vulgar stuttering, diluting the genius of spontaneity. They think a whack of a paddle, a swish of brown slip and a splat of green glaze and … a masterpiece. Ha!
Very soon he'll be installed with full rights as Mr. XIII. This will mean managing and supporting the dreary household staff. It's not his cup of tea.
Wriggling out of the nijiriguchi, he hangs up the "Sorry We Missed You!" sign on the roji gate and heads for the sento. In the genkan, the front page of the morning's shinbun blasts an editorial about the decline of morals of youth due to a dangerous and growing sense of individualism among the intelligentsia. Women are cutting their hair short, exposing their skin in public, and men are wearing unisex fashion. There's a notice about a group of artists who are staging an art show and poetry reading at a café in support of a petition for more affordable housing. Another about the round up of students hanging out at that same joint.
Slipping into his new brown hounds-tooth jodhpur, cream mohair jacket and forest green leather boots, he heads shitamachi to find that little café. His soul is dry. And he's very thirsty. Thirsty for a fresh look at the world.
Consider what might transpire if xiii had met the modernists of his own time, Picasso for sure … But this fantasy must serve this review, so he meets Murayama Tomoyoshi and his band of merry Taisho pranksters, the artists of the Mavo movement.
Turning Point is the long awaited book on about the impact of Momoyama generalissimo chajin Furuta Oribe on Japanese aesthetics. Hideaki Furukawa, the director of The Museum of Fine Arts in Gifu, offers in its early pages, "The impulse to challenge and defy convention could be called the defining theme of Japan's Momoyama period. 'Oribe' neatly captures this sprit of creative nonconformity…" The Oribe book made its debut in sync with the block-buster one-stop exhibition of the same name held at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art staged at the end of 2003 through early 2004.
Weisenfeld's dense opus, Mavo, is a chronicle of the activities, inspirations and impact of Mavo, the Japanese sociopolitical aesthetic movement dated 1905 - 1931. It primarily focuses on Murayama Tomoyoshi, the movement's mastermind, who seemed to have a whole lot of fun stirring up the already turbulent Taisho status quo, with a capital QUO. While a bit dense to casually, the narrative would serve very well if complementing an exhibition.
"Mavo was a self-proclaimed avant-garde constellation of artists and writers collaborating in a dynamic and rebellious movement that not only shook up the art establishment, but also made an indelible imprint on the art criticism of the period," she outlines.
Rigorous narratives supported by copious illustrations fill these two volumes. By re- and de-constructing reputations, myths and the physical remnants of the times, they address philosophy and production of art in a multitude of methods -- from clay and oil painting and sculpture, to architecture, theatre and the mass media. They also give us images of how Japan deals with errant aesthetes.
During each period, evolutions of artistic styles were inseparable from developments in Japanese enterprise, hegemony and industrialization, mass consumer culture, and social order. Bookending three centuries of isolationism, it may be argued that the volumes under consideration reflect "modernist" trends within its own time period, providing an interesting spectrum from which to explore the premise of Vlastos' book Mirror of Modernity: Invented Traditions of Modern Japan.
"Artists are too often omitted from sociopolitical studies [of the Japanese intelligentsia], here they gain their rightful place in the debates of the early twentieth century. Including those who dealt with art: educators, bureaucrats, dealers, collectors and publishers," notes Weisenfeld.
As an exhibition catalog, Turning Point is a font of illustrations of stunning dogu for chanoyu. It also contains generous helpings of mind -candy about the who / how / huh of Oribe. In addition, it offers literary works, screen painting and even Portuguese maps and diaries. Each points to Oribe's impact as a major "player" in volatile and changing political, social and cultural landscapes of his time … and now.
A major focus of the book and exhibition is the new archeological scholarship being undertaken at historic Seto kiln sites. Sifting through household waste and layers of potsherds, they are documenting the popularity and mass production of Oribe-ness. What is lacking in both book and exhibition is a sampling of today's Oribe-ish ephemera such as plastic sushi bar shoyu dishes. Do I ask too much?
The editor states, "During the era of Oribe, a common aesthetic language bound all the visual arts more strongly than any other time in Japan before or since, and intimate working relationships existed among artists in different media." Until the advent of Mavo, perhaps.
Like the French impressionists in the late 19th century, Murayama and his avant-garde cronies took on the gadan (art establishment) of their time, unabashedly challenging conventional taste and social norms. And like Oribe, Murayama was charismatic and drew tremendous inspiration from his collaborations with others.
Where Oribe's jazzy naturalistic designs were to be "seen" mostly dimly lit tea rooms set to promote harmony and tranquilly, purity and respect, MaVo was a brash, in-your-face under- and-above-ground collective tour de force affront to the bitter reality of life Meiji / Taisho.
The origin and significance of the "Mavo" name itself seems to be contested among the group members. The most widely disseminated story has it coming from a random selection within a collective process with representation of the membershipitself. While a hotly disputed conclusion, it proved to be a useful "brand", replete with mystery. The actual composition of "membership" also waxes and wanes with opinions, however scholarly, but consensus contends it fluctuated.
What is quite clear, however, is that they played turned everything upside down and backwards.. For example, The "V" in Mavo on their publication covers is mimicked in several of the members' (men and women) hair styles … or is it vice versa?Like Andy Warhol's "Factory" in New York of the 1960s, the group of young, largely self-trained Mavo men and women spent as much energy promoting its manifesto as making the "art" itself.
"While drawn together because of a 'constructivist inclination,'" states the author, "the Mavo artists did not assert ideological solidarity. Rather, they maintained distinct convictions, respecting each other's personal goals."
On the serious art side, Mavo was deeply imprinted by German Abstract Expressionism and the "happenings" of Dada and other modernist movements in Europe and the USA. Illustrations include architectural designs catering to the lifestyle of the proletariat. Graphic designs for leftist literary works, periodicals and promotional materials for Mavo events incorporated typographic influences of Europe (including classic Germanic script and Hebrew!).
Weisenfeld writes: "They strived to revolutionize the form, function and intent of Japanese art. They aimed to reestablish a connection they felt had been broken in the Meiji period with the codification of autonomous "fine art' based on the Western model … reintegrating art into the social (and political) practice of everyday life."
As a friend living in Japan said, it would take an exhibition in New York or Paris for Furuta Oribe to be publicly claimed by the Japanese as a favorite son in "mixed" (gai and Nihon-jin) company. And then there's Mavo. Can't imagine the French keeping Picasso a secret for 400 years, much less declaring the uniqueness of analytical cubism.
If you're reading Kyoto Journal, you have undoubtedly been in this situation: You're in the market check-out line; your basket includes tofu. The Japanese customer in front of you turns and, eyeing the tofu, says, "You can eat?" You nod, perhaps a polite grunt, and say, "Do you eat this?" "Yes, but I am Japanese."
In Mirror of Modernity, his excellent collection of essays on an eclectic assortment of "modernisms", Stephen Vlastos writes, "Modern Japan is widely regarded as a society saturated with customs, values and social relationships that organically link present generations of Japanese to past generations." (The accompanying article, "En Avant Garde" attempts to exercise this notion.)
A confession: I fell for it when I was a teenager. I believed in Japan's reverence for the traditional. I shunned rock 'n' roll for origami. I completely missed the party scene in the 60s and am trying to make up for lost time by getting high on matcha and eating dried breakfast cereal called "Zen".
An easy, entertaining read (with a great index, glossary and bibliography), the book takes us backstage to view the artifices of the Meiji and Taisho with compelling arguments to support his conclusion that there may be no there "there". It's done with mirrors.
Vlastos central question is, "How, by whom, under what circumstances, and to what social and political effect are certain practices and ideas formulated, institutionalized and propagated as tradition?"
While it is stated that Ito Hirobumi was the principal architect of Japan's modernization project in the latter part of the 19th Century, we are told that Yanagita Kunio invented the "tradition of Japanese tradition" by claiming, "Japan's preservation of its original culture made Japan unique among modern nations. Japan alone had achieved modernity without cutting itself off from its original culture."
"Every tradition trades between two poles: imagination and contrivance, creation and deception, he says."
The explosive growth of Japanese capitalism after World War I sparked new media technologies, new forms of entertainment and pleasure seeking, and the mass markets with their items of personal consumption. It's how the Daimyos became princes and evolved into CEOs.
Vlastos' selection of 16 essays by which to explore the social and cultural chaos is eclectic: the fundamental notion of wa, harmony, is hit head-on. Other checkpoints include labor management, shifting gender roles as reflected in the café waitress as moga (modern girl), the development of sentimentality for folksy village life, the challenges to tame colonial Manchuko with Imperial loyalty. At the same time the archipelago was evolving into a "modern" nation state, newly contrived prefectural identities were galvanized with neo-religious fervor.
One of the most intriguing discussions is the morphing of the classic warrior skills into more broadly accessible martial arts, budo, represented here by Kokudan judo. This provided a safe way to address the threat of the growing popularity of sports and the penultimate expression of world harmony, the Olympics -- a Western construct which was considered dangerous to the populace as it could infect society with "individualism and liberalism". Author Inoue Shun notes, "Ideologues argued that sports must be "Japanized" through budo." These "games" became a much-needed "safe" expression of national identity and was consumable casually or otherwise by everyman.
Another intriguing piece deconstructs the notion of "home", the architecture of domestic life, in post-Meiji. Its author, Jordan Sands, notes one of the big jumps from the feudal to a modern, social construct could be found in the new practice of family dining. This meant synchronizing mealtimes and sharing an eating place. It required replacing individual meal trays with a dining table. He goes on to address other elements of domesticity such as interior design as it imposes and implies social status and carves out the possibility of privacy.
The author's own essay focuses on agrarianism. "At the end of the 1920s embattled farmers and rustic intellectuals transformed agrarianism into a movement of economic renewal and political activism. Farmers, desperately searching for practical solutions to the very real problem of economic survival, and rural polemicists, certain that capitalism and city culture were the root cause of the crisis, developed their own brand of agrarianism." Capitalism's "erosion of social authority" was thwarted by "the enshrinement of the agricultural village as the well-spring of authentic Japanese culture." As a result of the social turmoil of the 1930s, the reassuring image of harmonious and productive farm families served the ideological needs of many sectors of Japanese society, he concludes."
Vlastos calls upon to Miriam Silverberg for a glimpse of that new “traditional” phenomenon: the café waitress as representative of moga. Not to be confused with geisha and the kissaten, coffeehouse, staff, she was "bourgeois woman's challenge to established gender norms".
[The café was itself a modern construct. Unlike the coffeehouse, which is said to have been established in 1888 and could be considered a version of the pre-modern teahouse, the café, was considered a "modern success of the Taisho-period milk halls," the author says, but does not describe further. Puratan (Printemps) is considered the first Japanese café, modeled after the male-staffed French hangout. Puratan was opened in the spring of 1911 by the artist Matsuyama Shozo, a painter in the yoga (Western style) who served food and wine to go with the graffiti he had painted on the café walls. It catered mainly to the salaried middle class and intellectuals.]
Going back to the front of this article, it attempts to demonstrate how Japan draws upon the past to create and validate the present and uses this energy to illuminate the past. Sounds like a flawed plan for a perpetual motion machine. I maintain that one must go back as far as possible and cite the source. Rand Castile, the American scholar of chanoyu, once observed that Rikyu created wabi. Sabi, on the other hand, cannot be created. "Perhaps wabi exists only in opposition to something." I maintain this tension is similar for the notion of "modernity."
Taking Vlastos at his word, I can't help but look at the Momoyama's chado explosion, with its nostalgic bow to the artifice of wabi and chashitsu -as-cosmos construct. Are these any less contrived than the café and sumo's yokuzono system discussed in his book? Aren't the former "modern" for their time?
When asked why, despite the unbroken lineage and impeccability of presentation of the art, the oiemoto of a major chanoyu school is not designated a "living national treasure", I was told that no one can tell him he isn't.
I would suggest that this practice of self-alignment has something to do with encounters with gaijin. Perhaps it was an act of purification, much like the Biblical Exodus period of isolation and wandering in the desert to galvanize identity. While not discussed, it seems necessary to determine whether there was a lack of fabrication of tradition during the 300 years of Japan's isolation until "opening up".