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Exhibition Presents Recently Acquired Paintings from Japan's Overlooked Showa Era
Clover, Tateishi Harumi, Japanese, 1906–1994. Panel; ink and color on paper. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Keith McLeod Fund, 2004.242. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

BOSTON, MA.- The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), will debut Shōwa Sophistication: Japan in the 1930s focusing on works largely created for exhibition in Tokyo, Japan, during the 1930s¬—the early Shōwa era—an important yet overlooked period in the history of the arts in Japan. The exhibition includes 20 objects, 17 of which are new acquisitions that are on view at the MFA for the first time. The subject matter and size give these paintings a commanding presence: large, elegant portraits of westernized Japanese engaged in fashionable pursuits, such as skiing, hunting, and sailing, as well as landscapes and bird paintings. Through text panels and wall labels, the paintings will be interpreted from the point of view of the contemporary Japanese audience for whom they were created, putting the images in their social context and that of artistic tradition from which they emerged. Shōwa Sophistication: Japan in the 1930s will be on view in the MFA’s Japanese Print Gallery through November 9, 2009.

Long the center of the Japanese art world, Tokyo was undergoing rapid change in the first decades of the 20th century. The city was devastated by earthquake and fire in 1923, reconstruction was swift, and the rebuilding of Tokyo into a modern capital was mostly completed by 1930. Pride in this accomplishment helped spur a decade of intense modernization in which Japanese saw themselves as sophisticated citizens of the world: their country created a national park system to rival that of the United States, Japan sent successful teams to both the winter and summer Olympics (and were awarded the right to host the 1940 games by the International Olympic Committee), and they celebrated Christmas exactly as all western countries did (although in Japan it did not have any religious significance). A representation of Christmas can be seen in the exhibition with the painting Woman Standing Next to Christmas Tree (about 1930–36) by Katsuda Tetsu, featuring a Japanese woman dressed in a traditional and colorful kimono posing with a tree covered in green and red ornaments.

During the Shōwa era, a new type of Japanese painting (Nihonga) was exhibited at the leading Tokyo exhibitions (both privately organized and sponsored by the government). Preserving the ink and mineral pigments of traditional works, these paintings were monumental in scale, responding to the fashion set by European academic compositions. In their style the pieces incorporated time-honored brush techniques, but they were also informed by western conventions of rendering space, light, and atmosphere. Many took the new modern Japan as their subject, particularly the new Japanese woman. Young women were important in many commercial jobs and were active consumers of products and services. The “modern” woman can be seen in Tearoom (1936) by Saeki Shunkō¬, produced for the Shin-Bunten exhibition of 1936. Depicting two stylish cafe waitresses with short bobbed hair, it provides a rare view of “moga,” the modern girls who flocked to the capital to enjoy the high-life in the workplace.

The new Japanese woman also participated in outdoor activities such as hiking, skiing, ice-skating, and golf—sports that combined action and fashion. Sports of all sorts thrived in the Japan of the 1930s. Leadership in promoting sports came directly from the Imperial family: Emperor Hirohito was an ardent golfer; his brother, Prince Chichibu, a very accomplished skier. The government believed that girls would benefit from sports, resulting in a generation of healthier young women. Shōwa Sophistication includes several paintings of both women and men engaged in sporting activities, such as Hunters (Karyūdo) (1939), in which artist Tateishi Harumi utilizes a pallet of brown, yellow and black to create a scene of three men and a dog bundled in winter clothing, pausing in their hunt for birds. The vibrantly colored Snow Mountain (Sekihou) (1930–1940) by Enomoto Chikatoshi depicts a woman in ski gear with flushed cheeks, raising her hands just above her upturned gaze, as if to look to the top of a mountain. Her elaborately patterned mittens are set against a mosaic of falling snow.

In addition to portraits, the exhibition contains several landscape paintings that draw on traditional subject matter with a more contemporary feel. For centuries the natural world has drawn the attention of Japanese artists. Painters in the 1930s, such as Shindō Reimei in Foot of the Falls (1933) and Hosoai Shūkoku in The Tremble of Spring Sunlight (1934) continued to explore traditional subject matter, but their paintings of birds, glades, and waterfalls carried additional levels of meaning for viewers in the new era.

By the 1940s, the association of Nihonga with nationalism, and thus militarism, resulted in paintings from the interwar period receiving little critical attention, both in the West and Japan. Many of the artists represented in this group of works, though well-known in their day, have been largely ignored. The MFA’s recent acquisition of paintings from this era makes possible a major reassessment of Japanese artistic production in the first decades of the 20th century, and demonstrates the life of Japanese from a different perspective.

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