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"Conflicts of Interest" explores relationship between art and war in modern Japan
buki Kôshû, Japanese, active early 20th century; printed by Nakano Shinnosuke, Japanese, active early 20th century; published by Morikawa Shinzô, Japanese, active early 20th century; Shōwa period Our Forces, Flying a Great Distance, Bombard the Airport and the Surrounding Area in Nanjing, from the Series “Sino‑Japanese Incident: Illustrated Report of the Nation‑in‑Arms: First Series”, 1937; color woodblock print; sheet: 15 1/8 in. x 10 in. (38.4 x 25.4 cm) guard sheet with letterpress text: 15 5/8 x 10 in. (39.7 x 25.4 cm) mat size: 19 1/4 x 14 1/4 in. (48.9 x 36.2 cm) framed: 20 3/8 x 15 3/8 in. (51.8 x 39.1 cm); Saint Louis Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles A. Lowenhaupt 907:2010.4

ST. LOUIS, MO.- The Saint Louis Art Museum will celebrate a gift of more than 1,400 Japanese prints and related works with the groundbreaking exhibition Conflicts of Interest: Art and War in Modern Japan. The gift has made the museum one of the world’s largest public repositories of Meiji-period military art, allowing for the creation of an exhibition that features a much wider range of modern Japanese war-related art than has ever been shown.

Conflicts of Interest opens Oct. 16 and runs through Jan. 8, 2017. The exhibition is curated by Philip Hu, associate curator-in-charge of Asian art in collaboration with Rhiannon Paget, Andrew W. Mellon Fellow for Japanese Art.

The exhibition highlights the intense and extraordinary relationship between art and war in modern Japan through a wide variety of 180 objects. Extraordinary examples of Japanese woodblock printmaking from the Meiji period (1868–1912) form the largest component of the collection and exhibition. They represent the last major genre of woodblock art in Japan using traditional techniques before the advent of modern printing styles and technologies.

Starting in 1983, Charles and Rosalyn Lowenhaupt, of St. Louis, formed an extremely significant collection of Japanese art that visually documents Japan’s rise as a modern nation and its parallel development as a military power in East Asia, starting from the Meiji Restoration in 1868 through World War II.

The collection’s main strengths are color woodblock prints depicting the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905), two important land and naval conflicts fought and won by Japan against the vast empires of China and Russia. These military conflicts were observed with great interest around the world—and portrayed in countless works of art—because they shifted the balance of power in East Asia.

The Lowenhaupts began giving selected works from the collection to the Saint Louis Art Museum from 2004 onward, and in 2010 donated the bulk of the collection. Further donations made in subsequent years bring the total number of works to nearly 1,400.

“Conflicts of Interest celebrates the generosity and discernment of the Lowenhaupts,” said Brent R. Benjamin, the Barbara B. Taylor Director of the Saint Louis Art Museum. “In presenting highlights of this collection to the public, we hope to foster understanding of the extraordinary art and visual culture of wartime Japan and explore the ways images can communicate narratives and ideals of nation, empire and ethnic identity.”

The subject of war is nothing new in the history of Japanese woodblock printing, better known in the West as ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the floating world.” However, Meiji war prints have long been considered to be the final expression of an artistic tradition that began in the late 17th century.

While Meiji war prints have been exhibited in the West for some time since the early 1980s, the scale of previous presentations has been considerably smaller, focusing either on one war or only on woodblock prints or lithographs. Conflicts of Interest examines a broader sweep of time and brings together a wide array of object types in an effort to demonstrate that the Japanese propaganda machine extended to all manner of cultural consumption.

“We tried to examine the broader historical framework by focusing not only on Japan’s wars with China and Russia, but on a period bookended by the Meiji Restoration and the Pacific War—two of the most important events in modern Japanese history,” Hu said. “By taking this longer sweep of time, it is possible to trace continuities and observe breaks in the artistic tradition.”

Hu said the exhibition includes a much wider range of visual and material culture than has been shown together before. Woodblock prints are joined by other works on paper in the form of folding screens paintings, hanging-scroll paintings, drawings, lithographs, stereographs, printed books, illustrated books, postcards, trade cards, gameboards and textiles.

“These materials demonstrate how much cross-fertilization there was in subject matter, design motifs, and propaganda intent,” Hu said. “The lines between news and art, reality and fantasy, political indoctrination and personal entertainment were not always very clear.”

Featured in the exhibition are a large number of objects by Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847–1915), widely acknowledged as the greatest print artist of the Meiji period. In addition to his prints, Kiyochika is represented by a hanging scroll painting, Majesty of the Empire, executed in the unusual combination of ink and oils on silk.

There are also numerous works by other well-known artists such as Kubota Beisen (1852–1906), including a pair of silver-leafed folding screens and a triptych of hanging scrolls. Ogata Gekkō (1859–1920), Migita Toshihide (1863–1925), and Taguchi Beisaku (1864–1903), who rank among the finest woodblock artists of their time, are each represented by several stunning prints.

There are also prints depicting Japan’s role in the Eight-Nation Alliance, a multinational military coalition including the United States and leading European powers, which suppressed the Boxer Rebellion in northern China in 1900. A rare triptych of color woodblock prints depicting the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor is one of the featured highlights. In addition, the exhibition brings to light many works by talented but lesser-known or anonymous artists, some of whom are being exhibited for the first time or making their publication debut in the accompanying catalogue.

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