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Money, Trains, and Guillotines: Art and Revolution in 1960s Japan

by William A. Marotti
Duke University Press, Durham NC, 2013
464 pp., illus. 106 b/w, 19 col. Trade, $94.95; paper, $25.95
ISBN: 978-0-8223-4965-5; ISBN:  978-0-8223-4980-8.

From Postwar to Postmodern: Art in Japan 1945-1989

by Doryun Chong, Michio Hayashi, Kenji Kajiya, Fumihiko Sumitomo, Editors
Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, 2012; Distributed by Duke University Press

464 pp., illus. 175 b/w, 50 col. Paper, $40.00
ISBN: 978-00823-5368-3.

Reviewed by Mike Mosher
Saginaw Valley Sate University


Money, Trains and Guillotines presents the art activism of Akasegawa Genpei in the political context of postwar Japan.  This includes the various social forces that reached a public head in the massive rally to protest the Security Treaty with the US, held at the Diet (Japanese parliament) on June 15, 1960, which then diffused.  Labor had grown more progressive, factories were being taken over by the workers, and citizens were increasingly critical of the security that bound Japan to the nuclear protection of the United States.  That barbed criticism was even aimed at the Emperor...until the Communist Party dictated it be re-submitted in respectful, supplicating tones.

Meanwhile, there were artists who proposed to erect a giant glass guillotine in the Imperial Plaza!

Meanwhile, Akasegawa Genpei's prints based on the 1000-Yen bill offered a critique of cash economy and of capitalism.  What the artist saw in the tradition of a Dada readymade, and Pop Art from London and New York, authorities saw as either "gizohai" counterfeit, or a "mozo" public threat—either an outright forgery or a more nebulous messin' with the imagery and integrity of money.

That Akasegawa collaborated with a group called High Red Center, whose name —actually made up of the first syllable of each of the artists' names—only added to official suspicion (Reds? Revolutionaries?  Communists?).  Collaborators Takamatsu Jiro laid mysterious cords through galleries, or on the street between a museum and a train station, while Nakanishi Natsuyuki moved from abstract paintings and clothespin-filled installations to staged performances (sometimes covered in clothespins) in galleries or on the streets.  Other art collectives were called Neo-Dada, Group Zero Dimension, the Time Group, or the League of Criminals.

The annual Yomiuri Anpan, or Yomiuri Indépendant, art exhibition was visited each year by the Japanese Emperor and his wife; this gave an official imprimatur to innovation in the visual arts.  Its sponsor, the Yomimuri newspaper, was founded by a police roughneck, given money to purchase paper, who soon realized its influence and prestige could be increased by literary quality, a baseball team (after Babe Ruth's visit to Japan), and an annual art exhibition.  The publisher's indictment as war criminal took place at the time of increasing unionization at the newspaper and elsewhere under the benign eyes of the US occupation.

When the artist Akasegawa wasn't showing works in the annual newspaper-sponsored Yomimuri Anpan, or Yomimuri Indépendant exhibitions that he based on the 1000-Yen bill, he exhibited mysteriously wrapped packages, or rubber sheeting installed on the wall in "Vaginal Sheets".   There was official nervousness as the 1964 Olympics approached, and finally the Yomimuri Anpan was cancelled in 1964, fearful the artists might somehow embarrass that year's Olympics held in Japan.  As a child in the US Midwest, I remember the LIFE magazine special issue on Japan in 1964, its cover photo a woman, in traditional kimono, wooden sandals and rice powder makeup, gleefully rolling a bowling ball at a public bowling alley.  There were articles on wayward youth, dancing at dawn in their underwear and sleeping outdoors, and a feature on macho novelist Yukio Mishima.

None of these art interventions documented in Money, Trains and Guillotines are fully understandable without the background of the politics of the time, and the author skillfully presents both art and politics, focused and interwoven.  Author William Marotti's twenty-year effort has produced a fine book.

Now, I don't pretend to have yet read the all of the primary documents contained in the rich source book From Postwar to Postmodern: Art in Japan 1945-1989, but its value as a key to 20th century Japanese art is immediately apparent.  Akasegawa Genpei's 1966 essay "The Intent of the Act Based on the Intent of the Act—Before Passing Through the Courtroom", his words on his 1000-Yen imbroglio, is here and a nice complement to Marotti's book.

From Postwar to Postmodern begins with essays by Matsumoto Shunsuke (1946) and Katsragawa Hiroshi (1953) on artists' proper response to the US occupation, and runs through the 1980s, ending in a postscript "Japanese Art After 1989" that acknowledges Takahashi Murakami and his stable of artists.  That story, one of another, very different era, is well told in Murakami's own 2005 Little Boy exhibition catalog.

Its four editors, and other scholars, occasionally provide "In Focus" essays presenting a contextualizing overview of the artists discussed in that section.  From the end of the war in 1945, to the mid-1950s artists debated their relationship to Western avant-gardes and to their own pre-war traditions.  Photographers pondered the effect of their "street urchins and lumpen" images in the national consciousness, as well as contemporary photography's intellectual depth.  New art criticism blossomed, and the Gutai group sought a concrete quality in their work, rooted in materials, that transcended the image.  While pushing the limits of the paintbrush and the application of paint itself, Tokyo's Experimental Workshop and Osaka's Gutai both were interested in the flamboyant action painter Georges Mathieu, who (among several prominent western artists, including Robert Rauschenberg) gave a demonstration in Japan.  In 1960 Takiguchi Shuzo reviewed the Yomiuri Anpan Exhibition without mentioning by name a single artist in Akasegawa Genpei's circle, though questioned the new Dadaism on display.

The book is enlivened by twenty-four fine color plates of Japanese artworks that are discussed in the text, and with numerous black and white photographs of artists, artwork and sometimes-befuddled audiences.  Matasoshi Nakajima has provided a useful timeline at the end of the book.  From Postwar to Postmodern, weighty as a sculpture, is a welcome addition to my bookshelves devoted to Japan, and is now placed beside Money, Trains, and Guillotines.

Last Updated 2 October 2013

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