Source: The New York Times archive
London / EXHIBITION : Cross-cultural encounters in postwar Japan
By Souren Melikian
Published: Saturday, September 28, 2002
This is a story of unlikely encounters and cultural split personalities that could only have happened in the 20th century.
The prelude takes place in Vienna under Nazi rule with Ernst Hacker, a young Austrian from a Jewish family as the central character. In 1938, while still a student at the Academy of Art, Hacker emigrates to New York, where he supports himself as a graphic designer and attends the American Artists School. He meets Lucia Vernarelli, whom he marries, and, having acquired U.S. citizenship, is drafted.
In 1945 Hacker is in Manila, and in 1946 he is posted to Japan. In the half-destroyed capital, the graphic designer seeks out printmakers and meets a famous artist, Onchi Koshiro, who had studied engineering in Tokyo under German professors. The Jewish refugee from Austria and the Japanese artist communicate in their shared language: German.
Thus began an improbable friendship that would spawn an even more improbable artistic school. Unknown until the current show, "Japanese Prints During the Allied Occupation, 1945-1952" at the British Museum — put together by the curator emeritus Lawrence Smith — the school's works can be seen in public for the first time (until Dec. 1).
If the immigrant Hacker may at times have felt disoriented, the Japanese were steeped in long-standing cultural schizophrenia, attempting to reconcile the conflicting aesthetics of East and West. In 1938, the year Hacker left Vienna, Onchi made a woodblock print portraying the composer Yamada Kosaku. The figural manner is borrowed from the Western academic tradition, but the bust stands against flat bands of black, ocher and white, abruptly contrasted, in pure Japanese taste.
Also in 1938, Munakata Shiko printed black-and-white portraits in which the influence of Picasso and Matisse's draftsmanship are more evident than the Japanese legacy. A year later, in this experimental atmosphere, Japanese artists who straddled the two worlds and shared an interest in printmaking began to meet on the first Thursday of every month. Their aim was to look together at prints they made solely for themselves, and their group was dubbed "The First Thursday Society."
The house in which they met — designed in 1932 by Endo Arata, a Japanese student of Frank Lloyd Wright — survived the war, as did the society. How Hacker and two buddies, Alonzo Freeman and John Sheppard, came to join it in early 1946 is not known — American soldiers were not permitted to fraternize with Japanese civilians.
Onchi's work was a kaleidoscope of Western avant-garde styles interpreted in sparing Japanese fashion. "Window Open to the Sea," 1941-1944, is an abstract composition on which the linear geometricism of Paul Klee has left its mark. The "sea" is a grayish-blue triangle lodged within the geometrical figure that stands for the "window." A small chair introduces an incongruous figural note.
In "Fairy Tales in the Shell," done in a minimalist manner, tiny curving shapes suggestive of Joan Miro's compositions are jotted in the middle of a blank sheet. Executed in the woodblock print technique, the result greatly differs from the sources that inspired it. Onchi was probably the catalyst of this East-West alchemy — there had never been any sign of abstractionist tendencies in Hacker's art.
Onchi in turn seems to have absorbed influences through Hacker. A strange composition dubbed "Impressionist Portrait of E.H." shows an eye and half the nose of a face (Hacker's) inserted between a curving band of ocher and abstract blue elements. Onchi dedicated it to his new friend.
Western trends of all kinds found echoes in the Japanese woodblock prints. Mori Doshun may have looked at reproductions of Edouard Vuillard's watercolors of the 1890s, while Yamaguchi Gen appears to have been receptive to Matisse's still lifes of the 1920s, hence his "Flowers in a Glass."
There were kitsch images — Yamaguchi Susumu's "Lake Chuzenji" — as well as a few gems. Azechi Umetaro's delightful "Mountain (Yama)" depicts mountains in simplified mauve volumes shaded on one side under a delicate grayish-blue band, the sky. Leafless trees with spiky stumps rhythmically distributed in the foreground send back a distant echo to German Expressionism.
At long intervals, a yearning for the past comes through, as in Tsukamoto Tetsu's landscape handled in the manner of a traditional painter dipping the tip of his brush in black ink. The bird's-eye view, the staccato effect of the short strokes speak of the Japanese tradition rooted in the legacy of Ming China.
One striking masterpiece was produced in the midst of these experiments. Wakayama Yasoji's "Spring" landscape, barely recognizable as such, could be characterized as suggestively figural. Touches of light color conjure up the idea of fields under a cloudy sky, without showing any of it in detail. Irregular shapes in the distance may stand for trees — it is hard to tell. It all looks like impressions remembered from a dream.
Around 1950 Hacker, back in America, produced his ultimate chef d'oeuvre, a portrait of his wife in the pale delicate colors favored by contemporary Japanese printmakers. The serenity that it exudes is far removed from the black images of distress that he had done less than two decades earlier — and kept, in some cases all his life, like the scene of a man he knew in Vienna who had hanged himself.
Yet, he had not altogether given up his Expressionist style of yore. The lonely figure crouching on the sidewalk, titled "New York down-and-out" is an image of despondency, in the style of 1938. Hacker became utterly eclectic. "The Brooklyn Bridge," a print of the 1950s displays, Smith writes, "some residual influence from the city scenes in the Sosaku Hanga style he saw in 1946." Another comparison springs to mind as far as the crowded architectural composition is concerned: the Frenchman Emile Laboureur's views done half a century earlier during a brief trip to New York.
The cultural schizophrenia that the 1946 prints made by Hacker's Japanese friends reveal persisted after his departure, and even after his death, in 1987. It is still there.
As an appendix to the show of the Hacker archive, which was acquired by the British Museum through a gift, a selection of contemporary prints displays greater diversity than ever, even if mostly derivative in nature. Some betray familiarity with the paintings of Serge Poliakoff, conveyed in the delicate tones of Japanese prints. Others illustrate an attempt at recapturing the greatness of Sharaku's portraits in the 1790s. Such is Tsuruya Kokei's scene from the play "Kuruwa Bunsho." All look like stylistic exercises, occasionally elegant and nearly always pointless. Cultural schizophrenia never was the best path to artistic creativity.