Investigating Reality: The Japanese Avant-Garde’s Search for Realism, 1929-1941
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CitationBraxton, Mycah. 2021. Investigating Reality: The Japanese Avant-Garde’s Search for Realism, 1929-1941. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
AbstractThis dissertation uncovers the wartime avant-garde discourse of critical realism advocated by modernist, surrealist, and abstract artists and photographers. In response to the mass imprisonment of communist party members in the early 1930s, major theorists of the left-wing humanist, actionist, and “active spirit” movements pursued a return to “realism” to represent the violence and failures of the state domestically and in the occupied colonies. Accordingly, numerous artists adopted techniques from surrealism and modernist photography to re-introduce a critical social focus back into art. As a means of protecting individual expression and the capacity for political critique, avant-garde realism promised to see reality on the “other side” of the repressed visible world and was adopted across intellectual and artistic circles.
The 1930s are a particularly grim moment in Japanese history: during these years, the Japanese state began its march to fascism, repressed freedom of expression, and persecuted thousands of political opponents. Correspondingly, art history of this era ends abruptly with the death or imprisonment of prominent avant-garde artists in 1933, and resumes in the 1950s with a sudden interest in realism and “humanism” among photographers. Instead, my dissertation reconsiders this gap by uncovering and examining the wartime discourses of realism and humanism as a response to the rise of fascism, and utilizes a multidisciplinary approach to pursue the deep context of contemporary philosophy and literary criticism that supported them. This dissertation demonstrates that the discourse of “realism” was used by surviving left-wing artists who sought to fortify individual subjectivity, reveal social diversity and economic inequality in resistance to totalitarian ideology, and ultimately redefine the meaning of making art under an intensifying fascist state of government.
The first major discursive shift towards realism occurred during the New Photography movement, when in the late 1920s the editors of the major photography magazine Photo Times introduced new theories of photographic realism and accuracy specific to photographic media as a rejection of pictorialist photography. Chapter One describes how this movement’s early years were marked by extensive debate regarding the nature of photographic realism, especially between the merits of the mechanical “lens-eye” and the scientific realism of light-sensitive paper, and how these could enhance both the potential of human sight and of creative expression. Furthermore, Asahi Newspaper’s First International Advertising Photography Competition launched the careers of Japan’s first generation of professional photographers, and introduced numerous techniques of montage, silhouette, and double-exposure photography to showcase commercial goods. Subsequent chapters explore how avant-garde artists such as Horino Masao, Komatsu Kiyoshi, and Ei-Q repurposed these techniques for the critical investigation of reality, especially the anxiety and inequality of contemporary society.
Chapter Two demonstrates how New Photography Movement critics, questioning their singular focus on accuracy, gradually shifted their theoretical focus to emphasize photographic realism as bound to the expression of society through the photographer as a socially embedded agent. Drawing on extensive archival research, I demonstrate how photographers used new methods of montage, graphic and typographic design, and the innovative angles of the camera-eye to represent Japan’s urban spaces and the social inequality of its growth. These techniques were also briefly adopted as new agitational methods by the proletarian arts movement, and, in parallel, themes of protest appeared in the works of well-known artistic photographers, such as Yasui Nakaji’s widely reproduced images of May Day.
Chapter Three examines how artists reframed realism in response to the shock of the mass arrests of communist and proletarian arts supporters in the early 1930s. Miki Kiyoshi identified the humanist solution of subjective realism to this “era of anxiety,” and I explore how artists correspondingly repurposed the “realist” quality of photography to combine subjective expression with the objective external world. This included the intersection of surrealism and romantic expression in the early drawings of Ei-Q and the graphic design and photography of the printmaker Onchi Koshirō. Fostered by the magazine Action, the humanist movement celebrated individualism and the reclamation of an active self present in reality and capable of individual agency and political action. In Chapter Five, I examine the emergence of a humanist discourse on the relationship between abstraction and realism, focusing on the works of Hasegawa Saburō, then a prominent advocate of abstract art and the founder of the Free Artist’s Association.
The later emergence of “active humanism” prompted numerous artists to shift their focus from surrealism to realism, and to adopt strong political themes criticizing the violence of the state domestically and in the occupied colonies. Chapter Four examines the extensive critique of surrealism launched by Komatsu Kiyoshi and supported by the explicitly anti-fascist philosophical and literary journal Action Literature. Komatsu, attempting a synthesis between proletarian naturalism and avant-garde art, articulated the urgent need to confront contemporary reality and reveal the political brutality hidden beneath it. During this movement, photography’s realism developed an almost metaphysical meaning of truth hidden behind layers of misinformation and propaganda. “Active humanist” works, such those by Yazaki Hironobu and Fukuzawa Ichirō, painted works that explored psychological interpretations of the photographic discourse of the “lens-eye” to reveal the truth of society hidden by contemporary propaganda.
Artists outside of Tokyo also aimed to reveal the truth of society in the face of state control of information. Chapter Six examines avant-garde artists working in the Osaka-Kobe area who suddenly took up realist visual practices from 1937-1941, with a particular focus on the Tampei Photography Club. At this time, the state sought to redirect artistic production to the war effort by introducing the “New Order” movement, which eventually restricted rations of art materials to artists producing propaganda. These Osaka-Kobe artists emphasized fear of impending war, as well as photographic subjects—such as shantytowns of Korean laborers and Jewish refugees arriving in Kobe— that refer directly to the hidden severity of international conditions in East Asia and beyond. Furthermore, they advance a localist celebration of the historical internationalism of the Kobe-Osaka region, directly rejecting the developing ethnonationalism of Japanese fascism. These artists, especially Shiihara Osamu and Yasui Nakaji, alternated between surrealist imagery and critical realist works, indicating that their oeuvre and its potential political meaning is a significant thread for further research.
This analysis of the critical use and meaning of realism among the 1930s Japanese avant-garde offers important new insights for the interwar period, including the persistence of individualism, humanism, and experimental art through the war years, as well as the strong influence of humanism and realism on postwar art. It turns a new focus to how avant-garde realist artists working in painting circles reacted to and drew influence from developments in mass media and photography. Finally, it adds a crucial chapter to the history of international modernism, in which politically engaged artists used modernist techniques, rather than social realism, to confront reality and criticize state violence and the suppression of political dissent.
Citable link to this pagehttps://nrs.harvard.edu/URN-3:HUL.INSTREPOS:37368516
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