BY Andrew Maerkle in Features | 27 OCT 14
Featured in
Issue 167

Heads Above Water

The anarchic 1920s Tokyo art movement Mavo and the internationalism of the Japanese Avant-garde

BY Andrew Maerkle in Features | 27 OCT 14

In July 1923, a new Dadaist-Constructivist art group debuted in Tokyo. Calling themselves ‘Mavoists’, and taking the letters MV as their monogram, the five founding members announced the establishment of Mavo in a manifesto published on the occasion of their first group exhibition: ‘We are standing at the cutting edge, forever standing at the cutting edge. We have no constraints. We are radical. We will revolt. We will advance. We will create. We ceaselessly affirm and negate. In all senses of the word we are alive – more alive than anything.’

Against the backdrop of an expanded empire and economy post-World War I, and a government that sought to suppress oppositional politics, the Mavoists, whose numbers fluctuated over the course of the group’s short life, were inspired by anarchist, nihilist and leftist thought. They practiced what their catalyst, the artist Tomoyoshi Murayama, called ‘conscious Constructivism’, a dialectical approach to art that rejected universal aesthetic values and challenged the artist to push beyond individual subjectivity. Made with materials including photographs and advertising imagery, samples of Russian texts, concrete, cans and women’s shoes, their mixed-media collages, paintings and assemblages reflected the emerging global culture.

Mavo, issue 6, 18 July 1925, reissued 1991

The Mavoists also antagonized existing institutions by bringing their art into public spaces. In August 1923, they attempted to mount a roving exhibition of works placed on handcarts and accompanied by a marching band, which was ultimately stopped by the police. The artworks had been rejected by Nika-kai (Second Section Association), a group of painters from the Ministry of Education’s academic salon, which was celebrating its tenth annual exhibition with a special display of paintings by artists including Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso. In November, the Mavoists held a dispersed exhibition of works at cafés and restaurants across Tokyo. They also expanded across other fields of expression, engaging with dance and theatre, and starting a limited-run experimental journal called Mavo.

On 1 September 1923, just days after the failed exhibition, the Great Kantō earthquake devastated Tokyo, claiming over 100,000 lives. As with other groups involved in what was called the ‘New Art’ movement, the Mavoists joined efforts to rebuild the city, designing expressionistic facades for shops and restaurants, and submitting Constructivist models to the ‘Exhibition of Plans for the Reconstruction of the Imperial Capital’ in April 1924. That same year, Murayama designed Japan’s first Constructivist stage – a multi-storey structure partitioned into cubicle-like sections – for a production of Georg Kaiser’s 1912 play From Morning to Midnight at the Avant-garde Tsukiji Little Theatre.

Masao Kato, The Delightful Castle GateMavo, issue 4, 1 October 1924

While relatively few of their works survive, Mavo’s intellectual dynamism is still felt in the pages of their journal, published for seven issues from 1924 to 1925, and reissued in 1991 in a facsimile edition (itself now out of print) by Nihon Kindai Bungakukan (the Museum of Modern Japanese Literature). From its distinctive cover lettering in both Japanese and English to its bold compositions of reproductions, prints, type and design elements, the journal bristled with provocative content, arranged upside down, right to left and left to right, inverted or stretching across several pages in irregular columns, so that one almost tumbles through it. Contained within it were translations of poems and texts by Wassily Kandinsky and El Lissitzky, commentaries on local and international art, essays on Soviet Avant-garde architecture, as well as scenarios for Dadaist stage productions and poems filled with nonsense words and absurdist imagery by group members and other writers.

For the cover of the third issue of Mavo, published in September 1924, artist Michinao Takamizawa created Portrait of a Foreigner’s Mistress, a collage incorporating strands of hair and firecracker packets. Within the journal, the group staged a kind of conceptual exhibition, with prints and reproductions individually pasted onto sheets of found newsprint integrated into the binding. A text introducing this section compared the journal itself to the explosives on its cover, and asserted: ‘We are the basic preparation for the eternal revenge of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie, and we are pushy but frank destroyers.’ Cited for the potential public danger of the firecrackers, the issue was censored upon its release.

Left: illustrations for Toshio Maki’s ‘Two Theatre Proposals as Part of a Commonsense Process Toward a Movement to Eradicate Drama and Theatres’; right: Urban Power Construction League announcement; Mavo, issue 7, 24 August 1925

The history of modern and contemporary art in Japan, filled with odd lacunae and ideological rifts, has proven to be highly malleable. It begins with the institutionalization of art during the Meiji-era social reform and Westernization campaigns of the latter half of the 19th century, which resulted in a schism between the idea of a nativist Japanese art and an invasive foreign art. This foundational rift has continued to shape art discourse in Japan. Japanese practitioners of Western art forms could either be dismissed as slavishly copying the West, or they could establish credibility by claiming an authentic knowledge of Western trends. Mavo’s Murayama, who engaged in the former and benefited from the latter, was a case in point.

In such a climate, ‘influence’, both from the West and from Japanese forebears, becomes a loaded word. There has been a tendency among successive Japanese art movements to present their work as sui generis, only to be rejected by subsequent generations. This situation has contributed to a messianic desire to proclaim the arrival of an authentically ‘Japanese’ contemporary art. Recent years have seen, for example, Takashi Murakami’s attempt to hotwire a lineage connecting Edo-period eccentric painting to his theory of Superflat Japanese contemporary art through manga and anime. Similarly, in the catalogue for her 2007 survey of recent Japanese art, ‘The Door into Summer: The Age of Micropop’, the critic Midori Matsui elevated the art of the 1990s – which she says ‘responded to the specific problems of the Postmodern age in Japan’ – in contrast to the ‘artistic models imported from the West’ of previous generations.

Iwane Sumitani, Tatsuo Okada and Michinao Takamisawa, Dance, performance documentation, published in Mavo, issue 3, 1 September 1924

This rhetoric obfuscates the history of art in Japan, and misrepresents the character of Japanese artists’ interactions with Western art. Disrupting assumptions about an intractable time lag between centre and margin, early-20th-century Japanese art periodicals, and even the mainstream press, provided coverage of new art movements – particularly Futurism – as they emerged in Europe. Information also arrived in the form of visitors from abroad, such as the Russian Futurist David Burliuk, who spent two years in Japan from 1920–22, and the Constructivist Varvara Bubnova, who arrived in 1922 and remained until 1958. Japanese artists were in a position to engage critically with European art and adapt it to their own ends.

There were, by this point, several generations of Japanese artists who had studied in Europe, and returned home with publications, reproductions and actual works. Murayama went to Berlin in January 1922 to study philosophy, but dropped out because he lacked the requisite knowledge of Latin. Introduced to the Berlin art scene by Japanese compatriots, by March of that year he had been invited to participate in the ‘Great Futurist Exhibition’ at the Neumann Gallery in Berlin, and in May he took part in the ‘First International Art Exhibition’ and Congress of International Progressive Artists in Dusseldorf, where Lissitzky and Theo van Doesburg declared their plans for an international Constructivist movement. What makes this all the more remarkable is that the then-21-year-old Murayama had not been a practicing artist in Japan. It was only after his return to Tokyo, where in May and June 1923 he held a series of exhibitions of his ‘conscious constructivist’ works, that he met his peers in the New Art movement.

Left: Kyojiro Hagiwara, untitled collage; right: poems by Kiyoshi Enomoto, Yoshihisa Torii and Kinichi Umetsu, Mavo, issue 6, 18 July 1925, reissued 1991

Murayama’s case might be exceptional, but it suggests two things: at a time when the European Avant-garde was itself being invented on the fly, Japanese artists proactively recognized themselves in these new developments; and European artists, in turn, recognized a shared international sensibility with their Japanese peers. Indeed, the listings of publications such as De Stijl, Der Sturm and Merz in the Mavo journal testify to the Japanese Avant-garde’s confidence in its place in an international community.

The year 1925 was a high-water mark for the New Art movement, with two exhibitions and a theatre event being held by Sanka (Third Section Association), a super group that included members from Mavo. But internal divisions between the members became untenable and, by the end of the year, Mavo’s core had disbanded. A number of Sanka artists, including the Mavoist Masamu Yanase, gravitated to the Proletarian Arts movement. Murayama became a prolific director, playwright and set designer in the Proletarian Theatre movement; his works include 1929’s Bouryokudan ki (Record of a Gang of Thugs), about the 1923 massacre of labourers working on the Jinghan Railway in China. However, contending with censors who could alter works or ban them outright, the leftist art and culture movement encountered further suppression in advance of war in the Pacific. During periodic government sweeps of Communists and Communist sympathizers, Murayama was arrested in 1930, 1932 and 1940.

Mavo, issue 7, 24 August 1925 

Following World War II, the rediscovery and critical appreciation of Mavo was gradual. In 1951, for a special feature on 50 years of Western painting in Japan in the art periodical Bijutsu Techo, Murayama wrote a brief article reflecting on Mavo and the Proletarian Art movement and, in December 1957, in the same publication, the critic Yusuke Nakahara grappled with the complex dynamics between Mavo, Proletarian Art and Surrealist painting in the pre-war Avant-garde. A wealth of contemporaneous writings and materials exist about Mavo, and a substantial body of scholarship has since built up around the subject. However, the group is arguably still underappreciated in the contemporary art context, particularly compared to the current re-evaluation of postwar interdisciplinary groups such as Jikken Kobo (Experimental Workshop) and the Gutai Art Association. The unresolved issues of the war and subsequent us occupation of Japan loom as a subconscious boundary between then and now. Mavo’s example shows that it may be time to consider the possibility that internationalism is a precondition for all Japanese art since the Meiji period. Conversely, it also invites doubts about whether – for all our international surveys and biennales, Japan Foundations and Goethe-Instituts, residencies and art fairs – we are, in some way, less international now than before; about whether, through the institutionalization of a global contemporary art, we have become international in spite of ourselves.

Looking at the landscape of Japan today, it is hard to believe that an internationalist, anti-authoritarian movement like Mavo ever existed, just as it is hard to believe that during the postwar protest movement the streets were filled with students battling police. Within art schools, museums and the art market, the institution of visual art in Japan has generally been ambivalent about directly confronting social issues. Particularly among the generation that came of age after the 1980s bubble economy, artists have tended to focus on more diaristic, inward modes of expression. But the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster brought questions of art’s social responsibility back to the forefront. What can art do in the face of such a crisis?

Tomoyoshi Murayama Construction, 1925, oil, paper, wood, cloth and metal, 84 × 113 cm. Courtesy: Gallery TOM, Tokyo

Responses have varied. In the immediate aftermath, the guerrilla artist group Chim–^Pom challenged media representations of the disaster, infiltrating the exclusion zone around the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant to raise a flag emblazoned with the international radiation symbol – which, as is made clear in the video documentation, also contains within it a ‘rising sun’ emblem – on a bluff overlooking the damaged facility. During the height of the anti-nuclear movement in 2012, the artist Yoshitomo Nara uploaded to the internet an image of a work he had made in 1997, depicting a young girl holding a ‘No Nukes’ sign, for protesters to print out and turn into placards. Other artists have channelled their anger into cogent social critiques, as Tadasu Takamine did in his exhibition ‘Cool Japan’ in 2012–13, which examined the ideological systems of control surrounding nuclear energy in Japan.

But the question also has an implicit historical dimension: how is art’s role in Japanese society defined? Here, a reflexive approach is necessary for rethinking the complex relations between state and culture, institution and practice. Based between Los Angeles and Tokyo, the multimedia artist Koki Tanaka has made a series of works that deftly explore the latent connections between Japanese art history and social action. For Painting to the Public (Open-Air) (2012), Tanaka invited participants to march with their paintings from the Meguro Museum of Art to the Aoyama | Meguro Gallery in Tokyo. Tanaka’s event posited links between the early Modernist school of Japanese plein-air painters and the 1964 ‘Promenading-on-the-Street’ exhibition, staged by the artists Hiroshi Nakamura and Koichi Tateishi, who paraded their paintings around Tokyo Station. For Tanaka, such precedents allow for the recognition of painting – an activity that can be pursued and appreciated without reliance on nuclear-energy sources – as a political practice, regardless of its content. For another participatory event, Tanaka rephrased Jiro Takamatsu’s 1974 instruction piece, REMARKS 5, which states, ‘Try to repeat the content of a specific consciousness as many times as possible’, into the action Precarious Tasks #7: Try to Keep Conscious about a Specific Social Issue, in this Case ‘Anti-Nuke’, as Long as Possible while You Are Wearing Yellow Colour (2013).

Tadasu Takamine, The Hyogo Room, 2012, exhibition view of ‘Cool Japan’, Art Tower Mito

As the advances of the anti-nuclear movement in Japan are rolled back by the current prime minister, Shinzō Abe – who is pushing nuclear energy as the engine of his ‘Abenomics’ agenda – these works shift agency away from institutions and back to individuals. They show us that anyone can organize their own political action at whatever scale is feasible – something that might be obscured in the mainstream media’s coverage of the protest movement. The recent railroading through parliament of the controversial State Secrets Law, and the ‘reinterpretation’ of the pacifist postwar constitution to allow for the right of collective self-defence, are also worrying for the state of democracy in Japan. When the present looks hopeless, art can provide an imaginary horizon for stimulating political consciousness and collective organization, precisely because it speaks across generations.

The ability to rethink historical movements, as Tanaka has done, suggests a means for reinventing art’s political mission. A few artists, have, in fact, already revisited the work of Mavo. In 1983, Yoshio Shirakawa organized the exhibition ‘Dada in Japan / The Japanese Avant-Garde 1920–1970: Photo-Documentation’ at Kunstmuseum Düsseldorf, attempting to synthesize the pre-war and postwar Avant-gardes through the recurrence of anarchic performance in Japanese art. More recently, Ei Arakawa, who learned of Mavo through Shirakawa’s writing, has incorporated it into performances such as M for Mavoists (and so on…) (2010) and Joy of Life (2012), while Miwa Yanagi staged the three-part Theatre Project: 1924 (2011–13), revisiting key moments in the careers of Murayama and the founders of the Tsukiji Little Theatre.

Miwa Yanagi, 1924 Human-Machine, 2012, documentation of performance at National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto. Courtesy: the artist and National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto

Shirakawa based his reading of the Japanese Avant-garde on the metaphor of uneri, an image that evokes the ouroboros-like motion of waves swallowing other waves and being swallowed in turn. But perhaps a closer analogy can be found in Italo Calvino’s Mr. Palomar (1983), who sees in the waves the possibility to ‘overturn time, to perceive the true substance of the world beyond sensory and mental habits’, only to walk away, ‘even more unsure about everything’. What Arakawa identifies – when he has participants in a Japanese art history workshop at Tate Modern mimic poses from Mavo performances, as he did for Joy of Life – and what Yanagi shows through her reconstruction of the Tsukiji Little Theatre’s 1924 production of Reinhard Goering’s Seeschlacht (Sea Battle) – with its frenetic action and modular, shifting stage – are the uncanny parallels that arise from a history in which the international and Japanese contexts, past and present, are themselves caught in an ouroboros-like cycle. We recognize correspondences with our own time, but we don’t quite know where to place them, or where to place ourselves.

Perhaps the question of how to define art in Japan will remain unresolved, but we might nonetheless see Mavo as a kind of reverse cipher for unlocking history’s idiosyncrasies. Rather than showing us the expected alignments between past and present, it reveals the inherent discontinuities. In seeing how Modernism and the Avant-garde, both in Japan and elsewhere, were contingent upon a wide array of systemic and chance factors, we can, paradoxically, find the courage to make the art we need right now.

Andrew Maerkle is a writer, editor and translator. In 2020–21, he was the founding editorial director of the Bunka-cho Art Platform Japan translation project. He is translator and co-editor of Kishio
Suga. Writings, vol. 1, 1969–1979
, which is forthcoming from Skira in December. He lives in Tokyo, Japan.