Report for the talk “Online Lecture: Mirror of the Japanese Empire: Japanese “War Art” and its Legacies”

Last month we had the pleasure of discussing Japanese War Art with Professor Maki Kaneko, Associate Professor of Japanese Art at the Kress Foundation Department of Art History. The online lecture was moderated by our Centre for Japanese Studies colleague Dr Sherzod Muminov, Lecturer in Japanese History at the University of East Anglia. Together they discussed they role of art and the artist in the wartime Japanese empire, challenging assumptions that artists commissioned by the military conformed to a style of bravado propaganda. On the contrary, many would include subtle elements that questioned the merits of the war. Professor Kaneko was able to vividly demonstrate this through a selection of wartime art pieces, including Miyamoto Saburō’s Hunger and Thirst (1943, Setagaya Art Museum, Tokyo). The soldier’s soulless reflection staring back at him from the puddle provokes thought of the trauma he will continue to live with should he survive the war. 

It was noted that there was, however, intense social pressure on artists to put their skills. Issues of imagined battlefields were also explored in the lecture. Kaneko argued that this was a matter of necessity for many artists who needed military commissions to maintain their status and survive off of their work during wartime. Some artists did turn down commissions, however, on political grounds, although another reason was a rather sensible desire to stay away from the battlefield. Some worked around this, such as artists who had painted infamous gyokusai suicide attacks with next to no survivors, drawing attention to the raw brutality of imagined battle scenes. What really gained popularity during wartime, however, was a trend towards western-style realistic paintings which depicted victorious moments for the Japanese military, such as the surrender of Singapore by British forces. While this was popular on the Japanese mainland at the time, they have since been deemed disappointing by critics for their photorealism at the expense of abstract individuality. 

The lecture was rounded off considering the relationship between wartime paintings and war memory. Kaneko made the point that artists in the post-war made works based on their memories of war, regardless of their lived or direct experiences. Art has since been produced by artists striving to capture the memories of their parents and grandparents, ensuring that the pain and suffering of the conflict endures in the post-living memory age.  

Oliver Moxham
Project Support Officer, Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures

Shimizu Toshi (1887-1945), Refugees, 1941.
Oil on canvas, 162.1 x 130.3 cm.

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