Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 11, 2019
Asato Ikeda The Politics of Painting: Fascism and Japanese Art during the Second World War Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2018. 144 pp.; 33 color ills.; 12 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (9780824872120)

In The Politics of Painting: Fascism and Japanese Art during the Second World War, Asato Ikeda considers four artists who, she argues, promoted fascist ideology through seemingly nonmilitaristic paintings made in the 1930s and 1940s. Through an examination of the work of Yokoyama Taikan (1868–1958), Yasuda Yukihiko (1884–1978), Uemura Shōen (1875–1949), and Fujita Tsuguharu (1886–1968), Ikeda rethinks conceptions of fascism and its manifestation in the Japanese visual arts, as well as these artists’ relation to fascism internationally. Ikeda argues that Japanese fascism emerged as a response to the “problem” of modernity: whereas during the Meiji period (1868–1912), the state had promoted Westernization, “the central issue” during the war years “was Japan’s cultural crisis resulting from what was seen as excessive exposure to Western, modern culture” (13). In the 1930s and 1940s, Japanese fascism advocated a return to a “culturally pure” Japan, one that emphasized national symbols and historical narratives, traditional gender roles, and celebrations of the “peripheries” of the country.

Ikeda’s account begins with Yokoyama Taikan’s depiction of Mount Fuji in Japan, Where the Sun Rises (Nihon hi izuru tokoro, 1940), an image that might initially appear to be a take on the iconic Red Fuji of Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849). When examined alongside Taikan’s text “Proposal of the New Order in Japanese Art” (“Nihon bijutsu shintaisei no teishō”) from 1941, however, this representation of the red sun over the snow-capped mountain comes to be seen as promoting national characteristics against the “corrupting” Westernization of Japanese art. Taikan’s proposal for a “new order” included a state-controlled institution that would govern all art production, exhibitions, and education. The story takes an even darker turn when the push for a “new order” is examined in light of contemporaneous Japanese critics who took cues from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy to argue for the expression of a racial identity unique to Japan. Although Taikan’s images may not read as fascist at first glance, Ikeda shows that through careful historicization and contextualization, their political implications can be recognized. Her inclusion of a photograph of Adolf Hitler examining paintings at a 1939 exhibition of ancient Japanese art in Berlin reminds us of the global implications of ultranationalism at the time.

But how deep does fascism run when it comes to paintings that depict traditional themes in what appears to be a traditional Japanese style? Ikeda proposes Yasuda Yukihiko’s Camp at Kisegawa (Kisegawa no jin, 1940–41) as an exemplary work of “‘fascist modernism’—the fascist appropriation of modern aesthetics” (49). The work depicts a scene from the twelfth-century narrative of the famously fractious Minamoto brothers, Yoritomo and Yoshitsune, both renowned warriors. Instead of portraying them at odds with one another, Yasuda focuses on an occasion when Yoshitsune places himself at the service of his elder brother. As Ikeda explains, this moment of camaraderie would have had specific cultural meaning during the war years: “Viewed in 1940 and 1941, when war in the region had been dragging on for a decade and younger men were increasingly being drafted, the idealized depiction of Yoshitsune helping his brother at war would have served to spur viewers—particularly those who had not yet enlisted—to do the same” (55). Ikeda also explains that the painting combines traditional Japanese stylistic elements with international modernism: “Like German and Italian paintings of the period, wartime Japanese-style paintings like Yasuda’s could be considered as modern art that had gone ‘classical’” (65). Through the state’s official approval and display, the painting became a vehicle for fascist modernism. How, and to what extent, paintings can be used to embody state ideology through narrative and style is a recurring question implicitly posed for readers’ consideration.

This question aligns with considerations of shifting gender roles in the early twentieth century and the role of women during wartime. Examining the work of Uemura Shōen, Ikeda demonstrates how fascist ideology could resonate through depictions of women (67). Described by Ikeda as “one of only a few successful female artists in modern Japan” (67), Shōen drew on traditional forms of visual culture such as Noh theater, whose roots lay in the Kamakura period (1185–1333), and ukiyo-e, popular and commercial artworks from the Edo period (1603–1868). Although both had lost popularity by the Meiji period, the fact that Shōen drew on them demands that we contextualize her works within the discourse surrounding traditional arts and gender norms. Ikeda argues that Shōen engaged with a developed contemporary discourse of cultural nationalism—one that sought to reclaim Edo-period aesthetics as authentic and unique to Japan. Like Yasuda’s Camp at Kisegawa, Shōen’s paintings participated in a distinctively Japanese fascism through their simultaneous cultural specificity and stylistic embrace of the “machinist aesthetic of international modernism” (77). At times it seems a stretch to read paintings such as Dance Performed in a Noh Play (Jo no mai, 1936) or Sudden Blast (Kaze, 1939) as embodiments of Japanese fascism, for surely artists can paint traditional images for whatever reasons they choose, regardless of immediate political context. In examining these works in relation to Japanese fascism, however, Ikeda invites productive questions regarding both the artist’s intent in creating the paintings and their reception by a wartime audience.

Ikeda draws a closer parallel between traditional women’s roles and wartime politics in examining two other works by Shōen—Late Autumn (Banshū, 1943) and Lady Kusunoki (Nankō fujin, 1944)—that refer to domestic frugality and a woman’s sacrifice of her son or sons during wartime. These were themes that twentieth-century Japanese women could relate to during wartime and that were actively promoted by the state as honorable and necessary during that period. Ikeda notes that “women and wartime state authorities came to share a common goal in the 1930s and developed a symbiotic relationship: the government gave women an unprecedented degree of social responsibility; in return, women were publicly recognized for their achievements for the first time in their history” (84). Such considerations lead Ikeda to a discussion of feminist art history in Japan and the role of women in general during wartime.

The final artist examined is Fujita Tsuguharu, who, Ikeda contends, played a part in Japanese fascism by directing attention to the “peripheries” of the country. For Ikeda, Fujita’s Events in Akita (Akita no gyōji, 1937) is at odds with his activities in the Parisian art scene in the 1920s and signals a move from Western to Japanese subject matter. Like Yasuda and Shōen, Fujita had earlier combined elements of traditional Japanese style with international modernism; for example, his Sleeping Beauty (Nemureru onna, 1931) appears to take stylistic inspiration from ukiyo-e and depicts a nude (and blonde) woman. Events in Akita, by contrast, turns to Akita prefecture in the Tohoku region of Japan and was inspired, perhaps, by the artist’s interest in Mexican mural painting and a newfound awareness of the social role of public art. Ikeda shows that Fujita’s perception of Akita as “authentically Japanese” mirrors a broader cultural interest in the region: “The discourse about Tohoku in the 1930s and early 1940s, however, was distinct from earlier movements, as it was characterized by an interest in cultural aspects of Japan’s periphery and by the sense of nationalism that sought to articulate national identity through the use of local customs” (91).

Important to interest in Tohoku was Mingei—the Japanese arts and crafts movement whose founder, Yanagi Sōetsu (1889–1961), viewed Tohoku’s regional culture as Japan’s true national culture—and minzokugaku, a “semi-academic discipline” of folk studies or ethnology that emphasized the resilience of “snow country” communities (93). Ikeda argues that Japan “othered” Tohoku, first by describing it as backward and then by celebrating its primitiveness. This was a potentially dangerous practice, as representing Tohoku as Japan risked promoting a perception of the nation as premodern or “primitive” (97). However, treating Tohoku as akin to a colony, not unlike Korea or Taiwan, contributed to state ideology and set the region apart as “a repository of Japan’s unique cultural tradition, uncontaminated by the West and modernity” (97). Ultimately, Ikeda argues that “Fujita’s project in Akita reveals that the artist was able to contribute to the state through non-battle paintings by espousing the state ideology of Japanese fascism, which was primarily concerned with the country’s cultural authenticity” (99).

Ikeda notes that, unlike Japanese battle paintings, none of the four works that are the primary focus of her book were confiscated by the United States during its occupation of Japan (1945–52), presumably because they did not display overt signs of fascism or militarism. Her contention that nonmilitaristic paintings might have promoted Japanese fascism is a compelling prompt to uncover other previously ignored works from the period and to take a fresh look at works we thought we already knew. In a time when we are still grappling with ultranationalism, fascism, and dictatorship, Ikeda reminds us in The Politics of Painting that seemingly innocuous images can reinforce dangerous ideology.

Hannah Slater
Department of History of Art, Ohio State University