2. The Original Art Museum—A Mirror of Its Time
◎ Uniting Bitter Enemies
Tokyo Prefectural Art Museum served as a venue for government-sponsored exhibitions, shows by independent art groups, and exhibitions held by newspaper companies. The museum’s activities, as such, mirrored the issues and events of the art world and society at large. A list of the museum’s exhibitions reads like an outline of Japan’s modern art history.
When the Tokyo Prefectural Art Museum’s opened in 1926, the government-sponsored exhibitions were in fierce competition with those of independent art groups. In these conditions, Tokyo Prefectural Art Museum held its opening event, the “Prince Shotoku Memorial Exhibition” featuring over a thousand works submitted by both government-sponsored and independent art groups, and critics applauded: “The art world is always a scene of rivalry, but here, bitter enemies were brought together with better results than expected.”
Around this time, European avant-garde art reached Japan’s shores, and the newest works of Seiji Togo and fauvist admirer Yuzo Saeki were displayed at the museum.
Exhibit view, Sculpture Hall, Tokyo Prefectural Art Museum
◎ Presenting International Art and Japan’s Traditional Culture
Tokyo Prefectural Art Museum also took a role of presenting world-renowned artworks and works of contemporary art. The 1928 “Ohara Magosaburo Collection” exhibition displayed European, Egyptian, and Persian art from a collection that would eventually form the basis of Ohara Museum of Art in Kurashiki. The 1932 “Paris - Tokyo Exhibition” offered 116 works by such avant-garde artists as Picasso, Ernst, and Tanguy.
The museum also became a venue for exhibits of Japan’s traditional culture. Calligraphy exhibitions have been featured regularly at the museum since its opening year, largely due to the efforts of calligrapher Shunkai Bundo. These exhibitions gave other art museums in Japan a precedent for holding calligraphy exhibitions. The “KOKUFU BONSAI EXHIBITION” has also been held annually since 1934. It was sculptor Fumio Asakura who pointed out the artistic qualities of bonsai trees and urged the holding of bonsai shows at the museum.
◎ Influence of War, Rebuilding the Art Groups, and Sixties Contemporary Art
In the late 1930s, as Japan advanced into China, painters such as Ryuzaburo Umehara were dispatched to regions of war, and their depictions of foreign lands were displayed at the museum. During wartime, the Artists Association of the Imperial Japanese Army was formed, with Léonard Foujita and other prominent artists taking part. Exhibitions of their artworks documenting the war were held. After World War II, these paintings were gathered by the GHQ and temporarily stored at Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum.*
After the war’s end, the Ministry of Education worked to restart its government-sponsored exhibition, and from 1946, the Nitten (Japan Art Academy Exhibition) came to be held. The nation’s art groups were also rebuilt in succession. Many artists, however, chose to work independently of the art groups, one of them being Taro Okamoto.
The 1960s saw new art movements that rebelled against the established art system. At “Yomiuri Independent” exhibitions, Genpei Akasegawa and other “Anti-Art” artists used their works to radically transform the museum’s spaces. In 1970, the museum hosted the “Tokyo Biennale '70 between man and matter” an event that became legendary for introducing new art in Japan. As a “temple of art,” Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum was the scene of explosive energy, generated by artists intent on destroying art conventions.
*In October 1943, Tokyo Metropolis was formed by the merger of Tokyo Prefecture and the city of Tokyo, and Tokyo Prefectural Art Museum changed its name to Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum.