Mavo's Conscious Constructivism: Art, Individualism, and Daily Life in Interwar Japan

By Weisenfeld, Gennifer | Art Journal, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

Mavo's Conscious Constructivism: Art, Individualism, and Daily Life in Interwar Japan


Weisenfeld, Gennifer, Art Journal


It has often been noted that one of the defining factors of Japan's entry into the modern era was an emergent ideology of individualism (kojinshugi) inspired by Western philosophical and political thought.1 Widely ranging interpretations of individualism, however, were spawned in relation to changing social and political conditions as Japan went from being a newly established nation-state to a thriving imperialist power during the period from the Meiji Restoration in 1868 until the beginning of the war in China in the early 1930s. In its various manifestations, the continually evolving discourse on the individual had profound consequences for art and literature. It broached serious questions concerning the locus of Japanese identity in the wake of the government's aggressive policy of westernization, opened a discussion on the nature of the autonomous self, and prompted an unprecedented exploration of psychological interiority and subjectivity in the arts.2 By extension it also addressed the issue of the social role of this newly autonomous individual.

The artists involved with the group Mavo, active in the late Taisho period (1912-26), worked in the midst of these philosophical debates and concerned themselves with the convergence of cultural life, ideology, politics, and society. The interpretation of individualism expressed in Mavo's writings and art was one aspect of the group's project to transform the nature of artistic practice in modern Japan. A dynamic relationship between art and ideology evolved during the course of Mavo's activities, and leftist thoughtanarchism in particular-affected Mavo artists' attitudes toward the individual's relationship to state and society.

Mavo was formed in July 1923 through the union of two new forces in Japanese Western-style art (yoga): the artist Murayama Tomoyoshi (1901-1977), self-proclaimed interpreter of European modernism, and the already established Japanese Futurist art movement. Nearly all the artists involved in Mavo had previously participated in the Miraiha Bijutsu Kyokai (Futurist Art Association).3 In addition to Murayama, Mavo's initial membership included four former Futurists: Yanase Masamu (1900-1945), Ogata Kamenosuke (1900-1942), Oura Shuzo (1890-1928), and Kadowaki Shinro (fl. 1900-1924). There were a number of different explanations of Mavo's naming, all of which differed on key points but generally served the important purpose of giving the group an enigmatic and stylish aura.4

After its founding, Mavo quickly expanded to include Shibuya Osamu (1900-1963), Kinoshita Shuichiro (1896-1991), Sumiya Iwane (1902- ), Okada Tatsuo (fl. 1900-1937), Takamizawa Michinao (1899-1989), Yabashi Kimimaro (1902-1964), Toda Tatsuo (1904-1988), Kato Masao (1898-1987), and Hagiwara Kyojiro (1899-1938), among others. Until the group's dissolution at the end of 1925, Mavo artists engaged in diverse artistic activities including the publication of a magazine, art criticism, book illustration, poster design, dance and theatrical performances, and architectural projects.

As the "Mavo Manifesto" of 1923 clearly indicates, the group had no pretensions to ideological unity.5 It was a gathering of diverse personalities, each with distinct, but often overlapping, interests. Forceful and charismatic, Murayama is generally recognized as the leader of the group. He had recently returned from a year studying in Weimar Berlin, where he met a host of influential avantgarde artists and writers. Murayama frequented Herwarth Walden's Galerie der Sturm, a stronghold of Expressionism. Through Walden, he not only debuted his work at the Grosse Futuristische Ausstellung (Great Futurist Exhibition) in March 1922 at the Neumann Gallery but also participated in the Erste Internationale Kunstaustellung (First International Art Exhibition) in Disseldorf and the concurrent Kongress der International Fortschrittlicher Kinstler (Congress of International Progressive Artists), which exhibited work by artists from eighteen different countries working in a myriad of artistic styles. …

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