Post-war context

The Second World War will constitute an unprecedented individual and collective trauma and will thus mark a real pause in artistic creation. At the more specific level of Japan, the shock of the atomic bomb, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, will cause a profound calling in question of values and art – which will inexorably and globally push the artists to reinvent themselves. The dominant idea was therefore to start from scratch as if painting had never existed!

Thus Japan, in the decades following the war, will experience a period of incredible expansion. Artists of this prosperous era will respond to the many social changes with a creative and compelling spirit – which was open to experimental movements and new materialistic abstract trends. As such, post-war « avant-garde » Japanese abstraction came from a combination of strengths that were inherent to Japan: on the one hand, an « assertive » spirit of revolt and experimentation; and on the other hand, a paradoxical return to the « source » – with the delayed awareness that the « Western artistic revolution » was actually based on principles stemming from ancient Japanese traditions. As a result, Japanese artists would discover by the mid-1960s that their efforts to imitate Western artists had simply brought them back to a more « matured and accomplished » recognition of their own aesthetic tradition. For exemple, Jackson Pollock’s painting skeins in swirling curls have indeed generated a flourishing calligraphic emphasis in contemporary Western art. But what for Pollock and his descendants seemed to appear like a tool of « released energy » represented already for the Japanese – and this since for centuries – a system of harmonization of graphic symbols mixed with some philosophical thought.

In this prolific post-war context, many will be the Japanese artists whom as of the end of the 1940s will decide to go into exile in France (in Paris in particular) – sometimes settling permanently, sometimes returning to Japan after having traveled between Europe and the United States. Indeed, for those of these young Japanese painters who will choose France – like other older ones at the end of the 19th century – it will either to study in the Parisian art schools or exhibit in the renowned art fairs of the time (e.g. The Paris Biennale where as early as 1959 Japanese artists will be invited). At the same time, Italy (and in Milan in particular) will also experience during post-war a fertile artistic period especially around sculpture – thanks to the presence and teaching of illustrious professors such as Lucio Fontana and Marino Marini. The Lombard capital – which will in fact take the path of abstractionism in the early 1960s – will therefore become an international pole of attraction, including for many Japanese artists who will leave Japan to settle there.

Japanese avant-gardes

From the 1950s, amid a period of economic and cultural reconstruction, a « contemporary » Japanese painting suddenly – and not so surprisingly – appeared.  Japan awakens to a new self-awareness and stops thinking « Western » – hence viewing its national tradition with a different eye.  Indeed, it needed to find a new language, more direct and more complete – a new expressiveness that was no longer satisfied with the stylistic systems of the pre-war period, regardless however « progressive » they were (e.g. surrealism or geometric abstraction).  The artists gathered here (e.g. Gutaï, Informal, or even from the New School of Paris) testify perfectly of the existence of these new Japanese avant-garde currents, which, in the aftermath of the war, had made Tokyo, Osaka, but also indirectly New York, Milan, Turin or Paris (where the Japanese community never stopped growing) international art scenes, both essential and oh so unrivaled.  These artists therefore express the strength of this Japanese art which blends ancestral traditions with a deep desire to change the mores of their society in favor of an individualism directly inspired by the Americans which occupied Japan from 1945 to 1951.

As a reference, the Gutaï movement (Gutaï Bijutsu Kyōkai – 具体美術協会 – « Association for concrete art ») was born from the clean slate left by the American nuclear attacks in Japan.  Far from the country’s capital, in the province of Kansai, young artists had the willingness to create a completely new and iconoclastic art which in no way obeyed to the heavy traditions of Japan or Western art.  In his manifesto, the founder of the movement, Jiro Yoshihara (1905-1972), explains: « Gutaï art does not transform, does not divert matter, it gives it life ».  In fact, the so-called Gutaï works must be real sensory explosions because, like Jackson Pollock’s « dripping » (as of 1947), it is the very act of painting that becomes a means of expression!

The spearhead of Gutaï is thus originality in abstract expressionism.  The very name of the group which means « tangible » translates a quest for new means of expression aiming at totally surpassing the already known art practices.  And it is therefore in natural materials that the movement will find its principal source of creation (see for example among our artists Tsuyoshi Maekawa or Senkichiro Nasaka).  This movement will thus succeed in making many followers among the young Japanese artists who belong at the same time to the Informal Art movement (see for example among our artists Toshio Arai or Toshimitsu Imaï – who are inspired just as much by « Gutaï » materials than by an « informal » gesture which they associate with a traditional practice of Japanese art).

In a slightly different way, artists like Hisao Domoto or Yasse Tabuchi are more aquatic in their vision of the traditional Japanese landscape, thus achieving an abstract touch that is both more vivid and more nervous.  Another major reference, Key Sato – who is a so-called « earthly » artist, with dense and internally structured material – has instinctively rediscovered the overhanging perspective of historical paintings from the Kamakura period (1185-1333).  Still others stick to « magical » effects of matter that they cultivate with an ancestral skill well adapted to their new medium (see for example among our artists Nobuya Abe, Aiko Miyawaki or Josaku Maeda).  These latter offer us more or less high pastes, very crafted, with heavy and often vivid color effects, which are reminiscent of the purely decorative concerns of the painters from the Momoyama period (1573-1603).  Finally, some painters who practice gestural abstraction, work towards a violently expressionist direction and create in fact a truly Japanese « action painting » (see for example among our artists Tadashi Sugimata or Kazuo Shiraga – flagship Gutaï artist who stands out very singularly by literally sliding on the canvas « with his feet »).

More broadly as to the so-called Japanese painters « from Paris » (see for example among our artists Akira Kito, Jun Dobashi, Yuzuru Shoji, Akira Tanaka or Chuta Kimura) – all of them emigrants from a country where the tradition of painting is both grounded and refined – they arrive in France to seek to solidify their identity and artistic heritage while venturing into the « city of lights », the world capital of Western art at that time – like of the many painters of the Meiji era (1868-1912) who had already been there to ultimately produce a westernized Japanese painting, the Yōga.  Many of these remarkable avant-garde artists – sometimes even « free » of any affiliation with an artistic movement – will win numerous prizes (national and international), thus managing to generate – without complex vis-à-vis the pioneers of lyrical abstraction in Europe or abstract expressionism in America – a unique and almost perfect pictorial synthesis which harmoniously blends East and West.

Due to its nature and its kaleidoscopic character, Japanese art from the second half of the 20th century has rarely been the subject of exhibitions outside of Japan, apart from a few major museum retrospectives (e.g. MoMA in New York in 1966, Centre Pompidou in Paris in 1986 or the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2013).  One of the reasons why most of these exhibitions have mainly focused on the post-war period resides probably in the fact that, until that period, Japanese art was rather easy to apprehend as being a simple extension or even a development of the Western artistic context.  In this respect, our site does not intend to be merely an introduction to the post-war art of a Far Eastern country.  Above all, it seeks to contribute to a better understanding and appreciation of a particularly original art that has been a source of influence and contribution to other international avant-garde currents.  Indeed, if Japan is today at the head of the developed nations – while its traditional civilization remains unanimously respected and vivacious in spite of the catastrophies and the inevitable erosion of external influences – its contribution to the history of 20th century art is, we believe, far too little known to this day by the general public.  So therefore here we seek to correct this flagrant and unacceptable cultural injustice!