Maximum Embodiment: Yoga, the Western Painting of Japan, 1912-1955
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Maximum Embodiment presents a compelling thesis articulating the historical character of Yoga, literally the “Western painting” of Japan. The term designates what was arguably the most important movement in modern Japanese art from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. Perhaps the most critical marker of Yoga was its association with the medium of oil-on-canvas, which differed greatly from the water-based pigments and inks of earlier Japanese painting. Yoga encompassed both establishment fine art and avant-gardist insurgencies, but in both cases, as the term suggests, it was typically focused on techniques, motifs, canons, or iconographies that were obtained in Europe and deployed by Japanese artists.
Despite recent advances in Yoga studies, important questions remain unanswered: What specific visuality did the protagonists of Yoga seek from Europe and contribute to modern Japanese society? What qualities of representation were so dearly coveted as to stimulate dedication to the pursuit of Yoga? What distinguished Yoga in Japanese visual culture? This study answers these questions by defining a paradigm of embodied representation unique to Yoga painting that may be conceptualized in four registers: first, the distinctive materiality of oil paint pigments on the picture surface; second, the depiction of palpable human bodies; third, the identification of the act and product of painting with a somatic expression of the artist’s physical being; and finally, rhetorical metaphors of political and social incorporation. The so-called Western painters of Japan were driven to strengthen subjectivity by maximizing a Japanese sense of embodiment through the technical, aesthetic, and political means suggested by these interactive registers of embodiment.
Balancing critique and sympathy for the twelve Yoga painters who are its principal protagonists, Maximum Embodiment investigates the quest for embodiment in some of the most compelling images of modern Japanese art. The valiant struggles of artists to garner strongly embodied positions of subjectivity in the 1910s and 1930s gave way to despairing attempts at fathoming and mediating the horrifying experiences of real life during and after the war in the 1940s and 1950s. The very properties of Yoga that had been so conducive to expressing forceful embodiment now produced often gruesome imagery of the destruction of bodies. Combining acute visual analysis within a convincing conceptual framework, this volume provides an original account of how the drive toward maximum embodiment in early twentieth-century Yoga was derailed by an impulse toward maximum disembodiment.
war signified resistance to and recovery from the spiritual sickness of “modernized” Japan [Nihon no seishin no byōteki jōtai]. It signified a will to overcome the various crises of which I have spoken; it contained a prayer for the nation’s revival. The war was an entreaty for the nation’s rebirth, an “overcoming of modernity.” In my eyes, the innumerable men who died in the war had attained “purity” through their direct acts, they had become holy.79 Aimitsu’s “neurotic disease of modernity”
decorative relief panel behind the nude, a partial view of an elaborate Chinese bedstead. Koide supposed that unlike in Europe, where he believed bedding and drapery connoted a luxurious sensibility, it was difficult to generate a plausible context for the nude in the space of Japanese daily life, because in the Japanese home, bedding left out unfolded in daytime would convey the impression of a slovenly lifestyle.87 In other paintings, a similar logic led Koide to provide his figures with
such as “war god” (gunshin).32 Thus, military authorities suffered little compunction about the promotion of Fujita’s Attu Island Gyokusai. Indeed, they commissioned Fujita, in his capacity as chairman of the Army Art Association, to spearhead a publication titled Picture Scroll: The Bloody Battle of Attu Island. This catalogue provides a heroic narrative of the Attu Island garrison, illustrated with reproductions of twenty-four paintings by different artists in various styles. Fujita’s Attu
looked to fellow members among the Free Artists to wage an “investigation of humanity.”70 This outlook won the sympathy of the critic Hijikata Tei’ichi, who expressed his hope for the emergence of artists of “resolution so strong as to be willing to sacrifice their entire career’s work.”71 Hijikata seemed to equate an artist’s sincerity and passion with the degree to which he was willing or able to suffer for his art. Thus, he admired the painful bodily confrontation with the European foundation
human figure. Yōga embodiment did not come to a full stop with the turn to abstraction in the late 1950s. Umehara Ryūzaburō would continue earning honors and popular acclaim with the florid gestural style of Fauvism that he developed in the 1930s nearly until his death at age ninety-seven in 1986. Critics, however, marginalized him and his followers from postwar Japanese art history on account of their “anachronism” and their pursuit of “satisfaction in a kingdom of the senses cut off from social