Japanese Modernism at a "Branch Point": On the Museum of Modern Art, Hayama’s "1937" Exhibition

Kevin Michael Smith, University of California, Davis
Partial cover of "1937" exhibition flyer featuring Murai Masanari’s "Urbain." ©The Museum of Modern Art, Kamakura and Hayama.
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Abstract

This article frames the Museum of Modern Art, Hayama’s 2017 exhibition on Japanese modernism during the simultaneously vibrant and tumultuous 1930s through the lens of Japan’s uneven capitalist development and wartime mobilization. The author suggests that the exhibition’s unique international scope, rich selection of figurative and abstract modernist works, and emphasis on the year 1937 as a nexus through which the decade’s competing tendencies can be reevaluated readily disclose the constitutive, dialectical relationships between historical difference, total war, and modernist form in imperial Japan and its colonies. The exhibition’s featured works and curator Asaki Yuka’s direction together emphasized the inseparability of Japanese modernism from the encroaching conditions of world war during the late 1930s, thereby contributing to a growing body of scholarship and series of exhibitions challenging the received oppositions between autonomous modernism, proletarian realism, and wartime propaganda. After introductory remarks on the reassessment of 1930s-era Japanese avant-garde aesthetics, the article provides a series of close readings of significant paintings included in the exhibition, including Murai Masanari’s 1937 Urban, Matsumoto Shunsuke’s 1935 Building, and Uchida Iwao’s 1937 Port. These formal readings explore how the year 1937 marked a pivotal “branch point” for Japanese society, not only in terms of the confluence of various artistic trends but also in terms of the fierce opposition between socialism and fascism that bifurcated potentialities for Japan’s future.

 

Keywords: modernism, imperial Japan, total war, fascism, uneven development, avant-garde, proletarian arts, 1930s, museum exhibitions