Sculpture and Philhellenism in Japan (1930-1945)

Lecture by Michael Lucken, Professor at INALCO.

In Japan, philhellenism manifested itself in sculpture in the clearest way between 1930 and 1945. It is an aspect of Japanese art which is totally unknown in the West, whereas Buddhist sculpture or that, animal, Edo period (1600-1868), are well known. There are no collections of twentieth-century Japanese sculpture in the West except, perhaps, a few more contemporary pieces.

In the 1990s, while studying Japan's cultural policy during World War II, Michael Lucken was amazed that journals like Shinbijutsu (Les Nouveaux Beaux-arts) feature reproductions of works from European antiquity on the cover or in articles. This did not correspond to what he was looking for in this period of ultranationalism. It took him years to realize that what was involved was not just a sort of circumstantial surface emulation of German neoclassicism, but a profound assimilation. If the illustrations between 1942 and 1945 pass from the Victory of Samothrace to the defeat of the dying Gaul, it is not an absurd use but perfectly understood in terms of themes and adapted to the political situation.

Review Shinbijutsu (The New Fine Arts). 1942-1945.

Exhibition of fine arts in commemoration of the 2600th anniversary of the imperial line. Tokyo. 1940.

In the exhibitions of the time we are struck by a very important presence of figurative sculpture in a mode that is very clearly neoclassical. In the photos of this period, we see that the whiteness of the statues is even more accentuated and that there is a predominance of full-length statues and the female figure.

There has indeed been an apprenticeship in these techniques and these themes by all the successive generations since 1868. The first art school created in 1876 was that of the Ministry of Industry with a rather utilitarian perspective of training young people who can feed the industry. Italian artists will be invited, in particular a sculptor, Vincenzo Ragusa (1841-1927), who will bring plaster casts from Europe to serve as models. The study of classical sculpture is going to be the absolute norm and it still lasts because Japan has remarkable plaster collections.

Since 1890, each school has accumulated plasters and the young people had to already have a training before entering by competition in the prestigious schools. All the Japanese artists who created statues in the 1930s-40s in a neoclassical vein went through this training. Contrary to what happened in Europe, where apprenticeship reduced the study of the classics after 1968, in Japan, the democratization of higher education saw the creation of many small schools of art and academic drawing remains a compulsory course. Even today, after competitions, the teachers discuss with the pupils to show what is good or less good. We completely forget the foreign dimension of this culture and one of the main preparation schools for the entrance examination to the University of the Arts in Tokyo and to the major art universities, Ochanomizu bijutsu gakuin, speaks of "nihonga" (Japanese painting in national sense) as opposed to Western-style painting. In the “nihonga” section, one of the first subjects taught is academic drawing.

As in the West, figurative art has suffered, in Japan, the pressure of modernism and there are several approaches to this classical heritage which clash, even today, following stylistic but also political lines.

Matsuoka Hisashi, Sketch, c.1878.

Ochanomizu Bijutsu Gakuin School of Art “Nihonga” (Japanese-style painting) page.

The succession of the West went through the idea that it was necessary to do like the Westerners but also better than them. The main society of sculptors and interior designers, the Kōzōsha (Builders' Society) was established in the mid-1920s. In the pre-war period, young artists had little to envy what European sculptors are able to do in technical terms, because they have often gone to the West, they have access to good materials, they have workshops with craftsmen who can carry out their orders, etc. From the 1920s, there were exhibition venues which were not only those of the State but also private exhibitions with patronage which bought for public or private orders, by companies, for portraits, busts or statues that will adorn public parks.

View of the Fourth Exhibition of the Kōzōsha (Builders' Society). Tokyo. 1930.

Saitō Sogan, The Burden. Bronze. 1929. City of Kodaira, Tokyo.

Funakoshi Yasutake. Bust of a woman. Rock. 1941.

You can see many statues of naked young women in parks or in front of stations. The exhibitions are not far from what was done in Europe and we see that the young artists are really in their time. the Burden (1929) by Saitō Sogan (1889-1974) shows perfectly mastered work on the classic theme of Atlas. The texture and treatment of the surface reveal the Japanese obsession with differentiating itself from Westerners, but we will never identify, at first glance, this sculpture as a Japanese work. Ode to nation building (1933) by Nakano Goichi (1897-1978) could make one think of a German neoclassical sculpture, but, here again, there is a quest for texture and a work on the epidermis that sets it apart. In a different register but always with this taste for materials and surfaces, Bust of a woman (1941) by Funakoshi Yasutake (1912-2002) seeks the synthesis between the ideal of Greek beauty and the ideal of Christian beauty. It is interesting to see that in Japan, in the middle of the twentieth century, an artist tries to merge these two traditions.

This to sum up the first movement of a Japanese neoclassicism attached to figuration, to the classical canons but which tries to find its own specificity by emphasizing surfaces and textures while in Europe, we have works of style monumental or distorted by cubism.

It is however not the only movement and there is a current which Michael Lucken describes as Dionysian. The Indo-Greek art of Gandhara had an influence on Chinese, Korean and Japanese sculpture through the transmission of Buddhism. Westerners, like Théodore Duret (1838-1927), who went to Japan, considered the Buddhist sculpture of Nara, from the 6th - 7th  centuries, as heir to a Greek influence.

Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. 2nd-3rd century. Schist.Hirayama Ikuo Museum, Hokuto.

Bodhisattva Maitreya, 6th-7th century. Bronze. Chūgūji Temple, Nara.

Yo Kanji. Compositions with the nascent Buddha. Bronze.1929. Utsunomiya Museum.

Shinkai Taketarō. The bath. Plaster. 1907, ©MOMAT.

It was not only the Westerners, but the Japanese who found in this way the possibility of getting rid of Chinese ancestry. A number of intellectuals, artists and critics will seize on this discourse to find the link between Japan and Central Asia. Thus, Aizu Yaichi (1881-1956), professor of Art History, wrote in 1922: “ It is possible that many young people say to themselves when hearing about the art of Nara: “Ah! more old stories!” But they will never be able to ignore it again the day they realize that Nara in the world history of art is the last flames of the magnificent Greek sculpture which, after having reached India with the conquests of Alexander the Great and considerably influenced Buddhist art, were transmitted to China and then to Japan (either directly or indirectly via Korea) where they stimulated the artistic activity of our Yamato ancestors, excited to join for the first time the flow of global artistic production". It is a discourse which is quite common in the 1920s and which marks a reinvestment in the national heritage of the Greek heritage. This movement is taken up by artists who, to counterbalance the Greek heritage taken up and developed by the West, think that there is another Greece, more Eastern, more gentle, less Apollonian and more Dionysian. They will look at this heritage of Greece and create more flexible forms, favor a return of color, make variations on the models of Nara supposedly influenced by Greece. If we don't know this, we can't understand why the artists of this generation will dig into this heritage or else we believe in a return to Japanese roots, which is not the case. Yō Kanji tries to create the "Homo Graecus Orientalis" that does not exist, with an Indian or Mesopotamian face and slender shapes.

A problem arises for the proponents of this theory: if the Hellenistic heritage arrived in Japan via Central Asia, why do we find so few traces of it in Chinese art or Korean art? So there is something that was perceived by Japanese artists of the Nara period better than it was perceived by Chinese or Korean artists. There is therefore a genius specific to Japan to assimilate the Greek thing…

As we cast some doubt on a direct filiation, we will try to give credence to the idea of ​​a spontaneous proximity between Japan and Greece. Like Greece, Japan is made up of islands and is mountainous. We try to find a cultural kinship (polytheism) and a kinship of artistic motifs (floral or vegetal motifs).

It begins with Shinkai Taketarō (1868-1927) whose The bath (1907) is considered one of the first masterpieces of modern sculpture. This statue tries to free itself from the classic canons in terms of mass ratio to better evoke a Japanese morphology. This imagination will rediscover a vocabulary of supple and graceful forms in the wall paintings of the Hōryūji temple (8e century) in Nara. The works produced in the 1930s clearly refer to Art Deco but with a spontaneity that secretly refers to a Greece springing up before philosophy.

Ogishima Yasuji. Wind. Bronze. 1937. MOMAT.

Morimoto Kiyomi. Male. Painted plaster. 1942. MOMAT.

Examples of female bronzes in the public space. ©Michael Lucken

You can read in Clothing, Food, Habitat: A Collection of Essays by Asakura Fumio (1883-1964), 1942: “It must be said that the Japanese body, and that of Japanese women in particular, is a completely ideal and well-balanced body.

Indeed, the Japanese body, when divided by ten in the direction of the height, the measurement thus obtained corresponds to the average size of several parts of the body; the hands, the feet and the other parts of the body can all be divided by this average unit of measurement of ten which corresponds par excellence to the law of nature; one can therefore wonder to what extent the Japanese body which can be divided by this number does not correspond to the law of nature”. In the midst of ultranationalism, we see very clearly an attempt to hijack the Greek canon and reintroduce it into Japanese forms.

THEMen (1942) by Morimoto Kiyomi (1913-2002) is an attempt to portray a Phidias-like ephebe with Japanese features in the midst of the Second World War. This appropriation of Greek classicism with all that that implies of attachment to the source of civilization, to the source of beauty, to the source of philosophy was at work during the war that the Japanese waged against the West.

In conclusion, just realizing the breadth and depth of assimilation of this classic heritage in Japan since the Meiji era comes as a surprise to many people. In addition, it must be understood that there have been several currents, not only artistic but philosophical, which have developed and even clashed. These internal tensions in Japan are even more disturbing in a way, because as long as we consider that there is an influence from the West without understanding the internal dialogue, we remain on the pattern that they do like us , but when we see the internal dynamics we get out of this reasoning and we see the richness of this work. It's something that was very strong in the years 1930-1945, but it's something that still persists today.

We can read in Nōtomi Noburu's article “Nishida Kitarō and Tanaka Michitarō” (2017): “Looking through history, I came across a problem: that of the gap which, in the philosophical tradition, delimits the before and the post-war period. The defeat of World War II rocked the whole of Japanese society, but it also cast a huge shadow over the work of thought. Since the end of the 19e century until 1945, Greek philosophy, which made Plato a founding figure, aroused great interest both among intellectuals and the general public, but this reality was completely obscured after the war and we acted as if the search started from zero. That Uesugi Shinkichi and Kanokogi Kazunobu based their calls for nationalism and totalitarianism on Plato's thought became taboo with the defeat and no one talked about what happened before the war.».

Today, there is a kind of occultation of what was done before the war and the sculptures of this period are very little visible in Japan itself, whereas we continue to study academic drawing in the schools of art and that the public space was populated by female nudes, symbols of democracy, freedom or fertility from the 1950s. When in 1964, the Venus de Milo was exhibited in Japan and that hundreds of thousands of people came to see it, it was not at all, as Malraux said, to contemplate France, but to continue a dialogue that they had begun almost a century ago with all this Greek heritage that they had done their own, in their own way.


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