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The history and future of contemporary art in Japan – Chapter 2: History of contemporary art in Japan

History of contemporary art in Japan

The now familiar term ‘art’ did not exist until the Meiji. The term ‘Japanese art’ can even be said to be a new concept, developed with an awareness of the West during Japan’s period of national wealth and military might. The image formed in 19th century Japonism (Japanese taste) is still strong today.

In order to contend with the western powers and adapt to the unfamiliar concept of beauty, the Meiji Government developed two methods. The first was the promotion and export of crafts, such as the so-called ‘Japanese-style’ vessels and ukiyo-e woodblock prints that are still used today. This was an economic-based strategy to obtain foreign currency, which the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce drew on Japonism, which was in demand from the powers that be, as a means of promoting industry.

The second is to give legitimacy to domestic antiquities by presenting them as pieces of history. It was against this background that the Imperial Household Ministry compiled Japan’s first official history of art, ‘Kohon nihon teikoku bijutsu ryakushi (稿本日本帝国美術略史, the Manuscript of the Brief History of Imperial Japanese Art), based on the imperialist view of history, which was hastily compiled for the Paris Exposition of 1900 and was intended for the outside world.

‘Japanese art’ has been composed with a focus on the works of the ruling classes, especially those associated with the imperial family, in the light of the Western powers. However, the core of the image of Japanese art in the West, with its strong impression, was ukiyo-e and crafts, and (if one can forgive the anachronism) ‘entertainment’ oriented art for the common man.

It goes without saying that this is still the case today. In recent years, manga, anime and video games have finally begun to be included in the fine arts, and the line between fine art and entertainment is shifting daily. More than the influence of contemporary Japanese artists on artists from around the world living in the same era, the impact on international artists is being felt in the form of craftlike creations solely for entertainment purposes, that pay little heed to subcultures and art. Artist Daniel Arsham’s art project in collaboration with Pokémon is a good example of this.

History of Japanese Art

Naturally, however, there exists more than just artisanal craftsmen who are appreciated by the general public: in 1872, the Dajokan (太政官, Grand Council of State) issued a proclamation in which the word art was used for the first time in history, and was created as a translation and neologism. There are traces of trial and error by Enlightenment thinkers such as Nishi Amane (西周) and Mori Ogai (森鴎外), who translated the word art and tried to graft it somehow into Japanese culture.

Until then, pure art did not exist in Japan, although applied art did. It was probably around this time that the concept we recognise today as fine art came into use. Fine art at that time was close to contemporary art in today’s sense. At the time of the flowering of civilisation, Goseda Yoshimatsu (五姓田義松) and Takahashi Yuichi (高橋由一) studied Western painting techniques under Wagman and painted everyday landscapes and ordinary people. Their expression itself would have been avant-garde by the ‘global standards’ of the time. It could be said that the Western art history of trial and error in breaking away from the motifs of myth and history was easily dismissed and only the technique was imported as an innocent and unaware modernism.

Fontanesi, who taught Western-style painting to the Japanese as a hired foreign teacher at the Academy of Engineering, was a Barbizon School painter and understood Impressionism, which was criticised by the Academy. Unaware of the conflict between academic and revolutionary expression that was occurring in Europe, the foreign concept of art, which existed only for its beauty and artistic value, began to penetrate Japanese society with a new aspect.

Japan’s first sensation

On this basis, it can be consciously said that the opportunity for contemporary art in Japan was Kuroda Seiki (黒田清輝). His teacher was Raphaël Collin, known for his graceful style of painting, influenced by Impressionism and Symbolism in the classical techniques of the Academy.

During his studies in France, Kuroda learnt not only technique but also avant-garde expression from the eclectic (in a good way) Collin. After returning to Japan, Kuroda caused a sensation in his home country. This was the famous Koshimaki (腰巻き) Incident.

In 1898, two years after becoming a professor at the Tokyo art school (東京美術学校), Kuroda exhibited ‘Femal nude figure’ at the Hakuba-kai (白馬会) exhibition, which caused a great deal of controversy. At a time when nude paintings were considered obscene rather than art, Kuroda’s painting was exhibited with a cloth wrapped around it, and regarded as an ‘incident’.

This was a departure from the prevailing Japanese values of the time = the existing framework, and was a real sensation. Art history then entered the 20th century, when painting left the canvas and sculpture developed in society. The element of deviation is a key essence of contemporary art that continues to be renewed, as seen in the controversial exhibition ‘Sensation’, centred around the Saatchi Collection in the UK, 100 years after Kuroda.

However, sensationalist deviance is also becoming the essence of somewhat ‘old’ contemporary art. Damien Hirst, of course, has already mellowed into society. In recent years, contemporary art has been focusing more and more on elements of harmony and coexistence. This is conveyed in the message of the art collective Ruangrupa, which curated Documenta 15, where the direction of contemporary art can be seen.

Art is about making friends. This is a hot trend in international art festivals, where we can catch a glimpse of the future direction of contemporary art. However, it is important to be aware that what I am describing here is a pioneer of contemporary art from the perspective of the present, the ‘now’ of 2025.

History is always at a loss for anything to do with the afterword of future generations of researchers, but it is important to bear in mind that the present-day perspective also stands on this point of view. Since Kuroda, deviations oriented towards the art world have been developed in various mediums under the name of high culture, and among them, those that are contemporarily heretical and difficult to recognise as art have sat in the art hall of fame through the passage of time and selection.

【To be continued Chapter 3】

See also Chapter 1

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Valeria Okano

Contemporary art critic. While majoring in aesthetics at an art college in Tokyo, she has been engaged in art activities without limiting her field of activity, such as painting, sculpture, art projects, and curation. The image of this profile is AI generated from her name.

  1. The history and future of contemporary art in Japan – Chapter 3: Where is contemporary art in Japan headed in the future?

  2. The history and future of contemporary art in Japan – Chapter 2: History of contemporary art in Japan

  3. The history and future of contemporary art in Japan – Chapter1: Definition of art