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Here and There :
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Here and There introduces art, artists, galleries and museums around Japan that non-Japanese readers and first-time visitors may find of particular interest. The writer claims no art expertise, just a subjective viewpoint acquired over many years' residence in Japan.

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image image The Surrealist Moralist: Ichiro Fukuzawa at MOMAT
Alan Gleason
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Ichiro Fukuzawa, Will Evil Voltage Rise in the 21st Century?, 1986, Tomioka City Museum / Fukuzawa Ichiro Memorial Gallery.

Ichiro Fukuzawa (1898-1992) is commonly credited as the painter who introduced Surrealist art to Japan in the 1930s. Laugh Off This Hopeless World, the retrospective currently at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, supplies plenty of evidence to support this, then goes on to show that he was a relevant presence in the postwar avant-garde as well. The chronologically arranged exhibits help one make sense of the revealing transitions Fukuzawa's art underwent in the days leading up to, during, and immediately after World War II. In many ways his trajectory mirrors the changes the entire country went through during the tumultuous Showa Era (1926-89).

Born into a wealthy family in Tomioka, a small city northwest of Tokyo, Fukuzawa entered Tokyo Imperial University but skipped class to attend the sculpture school run by Fumio Asakura. In 1924 he traveled to Paris to study sculpture, but within three years had switched to oil painting. A major inspiration was the collage art of Max Ernst, and Fukuzawa's work took on a similarly Surrealist bent, full of enigmatic and often absurd images that frequently skewered the pretentions of authorities of various sorts. In Poisson d'Avril (April Fool) (1930) a number of serious-looking men assume silly poses that later scholars have traced to illustrations found in French science books for children. The titular fish ("April Fish" being the French for "April Fool") lies mutely in their midst. In Professors - Thinking about Other Things at a Meeting (1931) the learned men sit around a table, presumably discussing matters of import, but the back of each chair contains a Magritte-like window onto the occupant's inner thoughts -- a nude woman, a boat cruise with a pretty date, and so on.

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Ichiro Fukuzawa, Poisson d'Avril (April Fool), 1930, The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo.

While these early works were sometimes hard to decipher, Fukuzawa's point of view was in plain sight. Unlike Surrealists who looked to their dreams for inspiration, Fukuzawa was fascinated by human foibles, the more contradictory the better, employing the tools of Surrealism to mock those contradictions. His palette was also rather dark and subdued compared to that of artists like Dali, with color and detail taking a back seat to the message. His satirical impulses notwithstanding, Fukuzawa was above all a humanist, concerned with the injustices perpetrated by the powerful on the weak.

In 1931, while still in Paris, Fukuzawa won acclaim for some works he entered in a major group exhibition in Tokyo, and returned to Japan later the same year. During the thirties he acquired a reputation as Japan's primary exponent of Surrealism, writing books and articles on the subject and inspiring a generation of similarly inclined artists. But this was also a time of growing militarism in Japan as the government pursued expansionist adventures on the continent. In 1935 Fukuzawa himself visited Manchukuo, the Japanese puppet state set up in Manchuria, and was inspired by its vast open spaces. Still, he appears to have viewed the colonization effort there with some skepticism. Oxen (1936) depicts some sturdy-looking bovines against a backdrop of expansive plains -- but on closer inspection, their bodies are tattered, papery things riddled with see-through holes, in what has been interpreted as a comment on the brittle nature of Japan's conquests.

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Ichiro Fukuzawa, Oxen, 1936, The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo.

As the decade progressed, the government began cracking down on art it deemed subversive. Surrealists and other avant-gardists were thought to be Communist-influenced. One of Fukuzawa's works during this period showed a young woman in kimono scattering sheets of paper with a hammer and sickle on them. The censors were mollified, however, when one of his colleagues explained that the girl was actually throwing the flyers away. But Fukuzawa's luck ran out in early 1941, when he and the art critic Shuzo Takiguchi were arrested for violation of the Peace Preservation Law and imprisoned for seven months. Freed just before Pearl Harbor, Fukuzawa did an about-face and began producing "war paintings," propaganda work at the behest of the government -- probably as a condition for his release. He was not alone in this conversion; prominent artists like Tsuguharu (Leonard) Foujita were later castigated for the gusto with which they supported the war effort. Fukuzawa seems to have avoided incurring the disfavor of these postwar critics, if only because his wartime output was not exhibited or was too ambiguous to be considered pro-war. This exhibition treads lightly on that period, showing only four of his works from the war years: a still life of flowers, two seascapes (sans battleships), and one painting that stands out for its obvious war theme: Shipborne Special Unit Leaves the Base (1945), a stock portrayal of a single soldier in a small patrol boat tossed by stormy seas. The accompanying legend explains, however, that Fukuzawa lifted the image from a movie publicity still, begging the question of whether he was serious in his intent to do a bona-fide war painting (the war was, after all, coming to an end at this point), or was only going through the motions and employing a bit of hidden irony in the bargain.

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Ichiro Fukuzawa, Group of Figures Defeated in Battle, 1948, The Museum of Modern Art, Gunma.

However traumatic imprisonment, censorship, and the war itself may have been (he personally experienced the March 1945 air raid that leveled Tokyo), they seem to have served as a robust springboard for Fukuzawa's postwar output. In 1946 he began producing works that were indubitably anti-war: skulls, images inspired by Dante's Inferno and medieval paintings of the Buddhist hells, and, in a recurring motif, piles of faceless, naked figures collapsed in agony in desert-like landscapes. The title of the most celebrated of these, Group of Figures Defeated in Battle (1948), says it all. If the facility with which he switched from war propaganda to pacifist messaging strikes some as opportunistic, to his credit he never again wavered from this overtly critical stance, which only grew sharper toward the end of his career. One could argue that he was simply returning to his prewar themes, that he never really lost his moral compass even while concealing it for survival's sake during the war.

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Ichiro Fukuzawa, Toilet Paper Hell, 1974, The Museum of Modern Art, Gunma.

One notable stylistic difference between Fukuzawa's prewar and postwar work is that he dispensed with the Surrealist riddles of the former; in the latter his intentions are always clear. If his art lost anything, it was his early-period interest in the individual human figure, replaced by allegorical depictions of society as a mass of indistinguishable lost souls. Toilet Paper Hell (1974), a biting look at the run on paper products triggered by the "oil shock" of 1973, shows hordes of naked, ochre-skinned savages fighting over the suddenly scarce commodity. A similar mass of figures fills the foreground of one of his final works, Will Evil Voltage Rise in the 21st Century? (1986). Stripped of any trappings of civilization, the figures appear to be engaged in primitive hand-to-hand combat, yet behind them loom the highrises of a metropolitan skyline. One is reminded of the famous Hiroshima Panels by Iri and Toshi Maruki, which portray groups of nude figures in agonizing circumstances to similar effect.

Fukuzawa's unquenchable curiosity about the human condition took him to Brazil and Mexico in the early 1950s, where his style was influenced by the bright hues and designs of indigenous paintings and murals, and to the United States in 1965 at the height of the civil rights movement, where he was drawn to African-American culture and photographed people living in Harlem. During these sojourns his paintings became livelier, less sardonic, even hopeful, but he never really abandoned his fundamentally pessimistic view of modern society.

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Hisui Sugiura, Mitsukoshi Department Store: Ginza Branch Open on April 10, 1930, The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo.

If the Fukuzawa show puts you in a somber mood, the perfect antidote can be found just down the hall at MOMAT during the same exhibit period. Sugiura Hisui: Image Collector is a colorful and blessedly non-didactic assemblage of the pioneering graphic art of Hisui Sugiura (1876-1965), whose cheerful illustrations could be seen everywhere -- on advertisements, posters, book and magazine covers, cigarette packages -- during the Taisho (1912-26) and early Showa eras. Applying his artistic gifts to the burgeoning market for commercial design in the boom years between World War I and the Great Depression, Sugiura is credited with putting graphic design on the map in Japan. I recommend setting aside the better part of a day to see both the Fukuzawa and Sugiura shows, preferably in that order.

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Hisui Sugiura, Yamasa Shoyu (soy sauce), 1920s, The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo.


All images courtesy of The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo.


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Laugh Off This Hopeless World: Fukuzawa Ichiro
12 March - 26 May 2019
Sugiura Hisui: Image Collector
9 February - 26 May 2019
The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo
3-1 Kitanomaru-koen, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo
Phone: 03-5777-8600 (Hello Dial)
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (to 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays); admission until 30 minutes before closing
Closed Mondays (or the following Tuesday when Monday is a national holiday), during installation periods (check schedule), and New Year holidays
Access: 3 minutes' walk from exit 1b, Takebashi Station, Tokyo Metro Tozai Line

 
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Alan Gleason
Alan Gleason is a translator, editor and writer based in Tokyo, where he has lived for over 30 years. In addition to writing about the Japanese art scene he has edited and translated works on Japanese theater (from kabuki to the avant-garde) and music (both traditional and contemporary).
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