Tokyo Report (2 or 3?): Orientalism, Kitsch and Modern Art

by on Sep.21, 2011

I usually don’t love museums because everything seems so hygienic and stabilized, but I loved the Tokyo Museum of Modern Art exactly because it didn’t give the canonically stable view of Modern Art. The museum tended to juxtapose modern Japanese art with modern western art, as if to show that Japanese artists were part of modernity, were participating in modern art. But the results were much more interesting (and perhaps this is indeed what the curators meant to accomplish), as the modern Japanese art not only of course was influenced by modern art from Europe but also the traditional japanese art that had influenced the modern european art. And modern art, which – back to Greenberg, Adorno etc – is supposed to be our defender against kitsch; but orientalism is at the heart of kitsch. So those are a few of the things I thought about when I walked through the beautiful Tokyo Museum of Modern Art. But mostly I just loved the art.

Here are a couple of my favorites:

Harada Naojiri’s “Bodhisattva Riding the Dragon”:

And Fujit Tsuguharu’s “Five Nudes” (fascinating how the cat seems to be the “punctum” of this picture, while the women seem like overexposed photographs):

8 comments for this entry:
  1. Kent Johnson

    That bodhisattva image is fabulous. Would make a great logo for a skateboard or surfboard company.

    Did you see any stuff at the Museum by the Gutai artists, the Japanese “version” of Abstract Expressionism? They were in the immediate wake of the Americans, but not imitative at all (their founding manifesto extolled the beauty of destruction and decay)–wonderful stuff was done with calligraphy, which in turn influenced people like Brice Marden and others, and some of the Gutai quickly evolved into Fluxus-like performance, too– in fact, they were an influence on Fluxus artists.

  2. Johannes

    I do know their work and yes that makes for an even more complicated turn in these events. I love the coat of lightbulbs. Forget her name. But you know there wasn’t too much of that stuff in the museum if I recall correctly.

    That would be an awesome surf board!


  3. Johannes

    Also, one key observation I forgot to mention about the museum’s critical framework. It had divided the pre-war art into the immature phase and the mature phase. The curators believe Japanese modernism reached its “maturity” when it learned to balance the Japanese materials and the western influence. Needless to say, both of these are from the immature phase, when the art seems kitschy and/or wrong in some way./Johannes

  4. adam strauss

    “but orientalism is at the heart of kitsch”; and I’d wager that orientalism is a good mode for art–that it can be a great generative vector. I understand Said etc’s anxiety/frustration at how colonialism had an asymetrical influence on how the “other” is percieved, but for better or worse what’s bad for public policy can still be exciting in regards to aesthetics (and no I don’t mean to reinforce an aesthetic/political binary). I personally am often fond of the Orientalist element in W Stevens (“Comedian as the Letter C” etc) for example–but I have definitely read people who believe that’s the un-interesting part of his poetry.

    Am I dumb or is Orientalism not necessarily substantiallym different from multi-culturalism?

    I am delighted to see surfboards mentioned–such a rad sport!

  5. Kent Johnson

    Adam, this thing about Orientalism in relation to poetry: a book of essays that will be published by end of this year on the Yasusada controversy engages the matter at different angles, and you might want to check that out. here’s teh link to the order page:

  6. adam strauss

    Hello Kent–thank you for the link!

    I hope all’s well for all ya’ll!

    I don’t know why I’ve never “told” you before–I quite like “your” Yasusada.

  7. Jeffrey

    Interesting that you should have posted that particular painting by HARADA Naojirō. That became one of the *most* important and controversial paintings of the Meiji period (1868-1919) because one prominent critic (who had ties with the oligarchy) singled it out for criticism as an example of “romantic empty thoughts”–kitsch in other words. One of Japan’s most famous novelists at the time, MORI Ōgai, came to the defense of the painting, and many comments were exchanged in the newspapers and art journals of the day.

    The model for the painting was a maid in the home of the novelist MORI Ōgai, who was a friend of the painter HARADA Naojirō. That maid/model became the mother to MURAYAMA Kaita, the super-wonderful, super-challenging poet about whom I wrote so much in my recent book, _Writing the Love of Boys: Origins of Bishōnen Culture in Modernist Japanese Literature_ (Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2011).

    MURAYAMA Kaita is the painter of this spectacular painting, which was deliciously shocking when it was first painted in 1914. 

    Some of Kaita’s art is prominently displayed in the same Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo. Kaita died at the young age of 22.

  8. Jeffrey

    Sorry, that painting was from 1915! Typo!