Academic journal article Woman's Art Journal

Women Artists in the Japanese Postwar Avant-Garde: Celebrating a Multiplicity

Academic journal article Woman's Art Journal

Women Artists in the Japanese Postwar Avant-Garde: Celebrating a Multiplicity

Article excerpt

A work of art that is newly created must express a beauty that is new and distinct from that of other existing works. To duplicate pre-existing beauty is artisan's work, it is a work of handicraft. An artist's responsibility is to discover an unknown beauty and realize it as her work.

--Atsuko Tanaka (1)

A dress made of nearly 200 light bulbs incessantly changed colors, as if pulsing in correspondence to the indecipherable rhythm of the universe. This awe-inspiring artwork by Atsuko Tanaka (1932-2005) was recently featured in a retrospective exhibition at the Grey Art Gallery in New York that introduced Western audiences to a majority of the artist's works. When a young Tanaka risked electrocution to wear this Electric Dress (1956) during an exhibition, she sought to realize the "extraordinary beauty that cannot be created by human hands." (2) At that time she declared that the artist's role was the discovery and realization of an "unknown beauty"; Tanaka persistently pursued this concept throughout her career until her recent death.

Along with Yayoi Kusama and Yoko Ono, Tanaka is one of the few Japanese women artists to have received recognition in the West, though many others just as deserving still await their introduction or reevaluation in the global context. Such lack of recognition is largely due to the historical relegation to oblivion of women artists by the mainstream Japanese art world, which remains resistant to political approaches to art history, including those inspired by feminism and gender studies. During the last decade, however, curators and art historians--primarily female--have made efforts to rediscover these artists buried in history. A substantial recent effort to bring recognition to a new group of women artists was the 2005 exhibit "Zen'ei no Josei, 1950-1975/Japanese Women Artists in Avant-Garde Movements, 1950-1975," organized by Reiko Kokatsu at the Tochigi Prefectural Museum of Art. (3) She spent years preparing for this monumental exhibition, locating the art and documenting the careers and contributions of the Japanese women artists whose works were represented. (4)

Conceived as the sequel to Kokatsu's 2001 exhibition "Hashiru Onnatachi/Japanese Women Artists before and after World War II, 1930s-1950s," "Zen'ei no Josei" presented 220 objects by 46 artists engaged with the historical context of postwar Japanese avant-garde movements. (5) The term zen'ei, the literal translation of the French term avant-garde, was at first received with much reservation by Japanese artists and critics because of its close association with the Communist political left. Yet the term eventually became accepted in the Japanese art world to refer inclusively to those artists not belonging to the existing art organizations, or to artworks that challenged established notions of beauty by utilizing unconventional styles and media. Tanaka's statement attests to the fact that she took the zen'ei connotation to heart.

Though most of the 46 women artists in the exhibition have pursued an artist's career throughout their lives, only a dozen or so--including Yuki(ko) Katsura (1913-1991), Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929), Yoko Ono (b. 1933), and Shigeko Kubota (b. 1937)--have earned museum-scale retrospective exhibitions. (6) The rest, many of them now deceased, still await reevaluation by museum curators and art historians. Shattering the historical oblivion, "Zen'ei no Josei" provided the first opportunity to view together the achievements of 46 remarkable artists. Despite its considerable distance from Tokyo, the exhibition at Utsunomiya attracted thousands of viewers and was widely (and positively) reviewed in major newspapers and journals. (7) Partly due to the resistance towards feminism among the majority of Japanese institutions, the exhibition did not travel elsewhere. In the hope that some of these works will be seen outside Japan in the near future, it is important to introduce the artists to a wider audience. …

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