The art of rising from the ashes

Japanese Prints during the Allied Occupation 1945-1952
August 8, 2003

After Japan's 1945 defeat, the Allied occupiers began a general reform of the country and its people. Yet, although the new broom swept clean politics and economy it neglected most of the arts. Film and literature were subjected to some censorship but painting to very little. Various military officers and businessmen were found guilty but painters who had equally supported militaristic policies were never called to account and, indeed, even now such information is usually left out of their official biographies.

Nonetheless, although the visual arts were generally marginalised to the point of irresponsibility, occupation censorship did have some effect. Some traditional-style Nihonga painters had been among the most enthusiastic supporters of militarism. They now found their art proscribed, not so much by the occupation authorities as by that portion of the population that still supported art.

The lives led by the Japanese under the occupation were different from their wartime lives. Although for a time equally spartan, postwar Japan was now encouraged to spurn militarism and to think optimistically about individualism and democracy. Art was to be progressive, open, free.

This was an aim for which both oil painting and Nihonga were ill equipped.

Both had developed a literal naturalism in order to satisfy the simplicities of wartime propaganda, and this style was suddenly taboo. Now perceived as much more attractive were styles and techniques that did not aspire to this kind of realism.

Among these was the art of the woodblock print. These artists had supported the war effort as fervently as anyone else, but their work was not commonly considered "official", as were military-themed paintings. So deep was this postwar taboo that it was only last year that the Foujita's large rendering of the fall of Saipan was allowed for public viewing.

Woodblock print artists were thus in a good position. Perceived as militaristically untainted, they also used much simpler means than oil painters (who in any event had great difficulty obtaining materials), and they made demotic multiples rather than elitist "singles". Further, their lighter colours (and postwar Japanese prints used all sorts of pastel shades not hitherto common) and their more easily comprehended structure carried with it, however speciously, some idea of a demotic art.

From these beginnings rose one of the most important genres of postwar Japanese art. This rise is generously chronicled here by Lawrence Smith, former keeper of Japanese antiquities at the British Museum and author of both Japanese Prints 1912-1989 and The Japanese Print since 1900. He examines in detail one school of print-makers, led by Onchi Koshiro, which survived the war and found itself searching for a new Japanese aesthetic.

Although there was some borrowing from the past, such as a pre-war series of Tokyo views, these later glimpses of the city were executed in a manner more apparent, more simplified and more "sunny". In addition, the new woodblock print begin to show the influence of art from abroad. Shortly, Onchi was to turn to entirely abstract means, and many other woodprint artists followed his lead.

At the same time their prints were attracting the favourable attention of several of the occupiers. Among these the most important was the US graphic artist Ernst Hacker, who befriended the group and was close to Onchi and others of the circle, including the then almost-unknown Munakata Shiko.

Later William Hartnett, Oliver Statler and others wrote about the modern Japanese print and arranged for showings abroad.

It is, indeed, to just such an exhibition that we owe this admirable book.

It was intended to support a showing of the Hacker archive recently given to the British Museum.

Donald Richie has published widely on Japan, especially its arts.

Japanese Prints during the Allied Occupation 1945-1952

Author - Lawrence Smith
ISBN - 0 7141 1476 6
Publisher - British Museum Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 128

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