The Saint Louis Art Museum’s current exhibit “Conflicts of Interest: Art and War in Modern Japan” highlights an underappreciated category of Japanese art.
The museum’s Andrew W. Mellon Fellow for Japanese Art, Rhiannon Paget, and curator of Asian Art, Phillip Hu, joined St. Louis on the Air contributor Steve Potter to discuss the exhibition.
A significant portion of the exhibit was donated to the Saint Louis Art Museum by Charles and Rosalyn Lowenhaupt, who had amassed an extensive collection of artwork documenting Japan’s rise to power as a modern nation. The exhibit includes a variety of media, including folding screens, lithographs, paintings, hanging scrolls, textiles, postcards and even game boards. The main component, however, is woodblock battle prints.
Hu explained that Japanese battle prints have not traditionally been favored by collectors who tend to prefer more exotic images of beautiful women, actors or landscapes. In a significant departure from this pattern, the focus of “Conflicts of Interest” is the relationship between art and war.
“Art can depict joyous events, beautiful events, but it can also depict troubling events and wartime as well,” said Hu.
Paget added that artists often intend to elicit certain emotions from their audiences, and the creators of the pieces on display in this exhibit were no different.
“In this case a lot of these artworks are trying to stir up popular enthusiasm for the growth of the Japanese empire…lots of militarism, patriotism, and so forth,” she said.
The earliest woodblocks in the collection date back to 1866, and the most recent was made in 1942. The labor-intensive process of crafting these pieces was highly collaborative, Paget explained.
“Woodblock prints -- traditionally in Japan they’re the product of a collaboration between four different roles,” she said. “So you have the woodblock print publisher, then a designer, then a block carver and a printer, and these are all highly specialized artisans.”
Paget, who was recently awarded her doctorate in Japanese art history, described some of the pieces included in the exhibit as both “fabulous” and “chilling.”
The woodblock “Conditions aboard the Battleship Matsushima during the Battle of the Red Sea,” for example, depicts a graphic scene which takes place on the deck of the Japanese ship Matsushima after an attack by the Chinese. Most of the work included in the collection is not as disturbing as that particular piece, and examples of political satire can be found as well.
The last image of the exhibit depicts Pearl Harbor. Hu noted that the print is interesting as it follows a style thought to have died out much earlier and is dated December 8, 1941. Because Japan and Hawaii are on opposite sides of the international dateline, the attack on Pearl Harbor is remembered by Americans as having taken place on December 7th, while it is marked as December 8th on the Japanese calendar.
“This collection can be looked at from a purely historical point of view,” Hu said. “It can also be understood in terms of propaganda, but it can also be understood as the sort of commercial forces of the time playing themselves out.”
Color woodblock printing was competing with new technologies like lithographs and photographs during the early 20th century, Hu explained. As a result, woodblock designers had to consistently produce more colorful, more exciting designs at a very fast pace in order to maintain their position as a profitable business.
The “Conflicts of Interest” exhibit is relevant to all museum guests, Paget explained, because it offers an important reminder of the power of persuasive images.
“As we go through this exhibition, I think it’s kind of a good reminder that you do need to be visually literate and take things always with a big pinch of salt,” she said. “Think critically about what you’re being told because there’s an agenda often behind these images.”
What: "Conflicts of Interest: Art and War in Modern Japan"
When: Oct. 16, 2016 – Jan. 8, 2017
Where: Saint Louis Art Museum, One Fine Arts Drive in Forest Park
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