Colonial Modern Art and Propaganda

by johnmccreery

As I write I am taking a break from translating an article by a Taiwanese scholar. The theme is modern art in Taiwan during the Japanese colonial period. It and another, similar piece by a Korean scholar now waiting in my inbox raise all sorts of interesting questions. The influence of Asian and African art on the 19th century avant-garde in Europe (impressionists influenced by Japanese ukiyo-e; cubists influenced by African sculpture) is an oft-told tale. But here we have something different, colonial situations in which an art world is formed, modeled on the same kinds of organizations and exhibitions found in the metropole, in which both colonized and colonizer artists participate. Since the historical periods in question are the 1920s, 30s and 40s, both are influenced by European arts trends filtered through Japan then transformed by propaganda in the build-up to war between Japan and China and then WWII in the Pacific. I find myself wondering if similar art world interactions were going on in other colonies around the world. Does anyone know?

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3 Comments to “Colonial Modern Art and Propaganda”

  1. Looking at music, that situation was very common in the 1920s and 1930s in the Caribbean, including the Yucatan peninsula. Artists came to perform and local artists performed with them. Local artists developed musical styles similar to those prevalent in the cultural metropoles. In Yucatan opera, operetta and zarzuela were major musical influences, and famous European performers of these types of music/song/theatre came between the last half of the 1800s and the 1930s to perform, not only in Yucatan but in much of the Caribbean and in Mexico City. What today is known as Yucatecan Trova owes much to that old art scene. What is most interesting is that by the 1930s the other circuit had been established: Caribbean and Mexican performers were becoming popular in the cultural metropoles, which at that point included New York too.

  2. Gabriela, thanks so much. Very interesting. I can see the similarities but also some interesting differences. You talk about art scenes. I am talking, at least in part, about art institutions. Following the Meiji Restoration, Japan adopted many of what the new Imperial government saw as best models from the West. The army was modeled on the German army, the navy on the British navy, the legal system on French law. Given that Paris was the center of the latest art movements in Europe, French models were adopted for art as well. Japan set up its equivalents of the French Academy and Salon d’Automne, the institutions against which the French avant-garde rebelled. Japan, too, had its rebels. At least in the case of Taiwan, similar institutions were set up under the Japanese colonial regime. There was an official Taiwan Fine Arts Exhibition (Taiten) and an unofficial Taiyo (Taiyang) association with its own private exhibition. To many rising young Taiwanese artists, however, the ultimate goal was to show at the Inten, the Japanese equivalent of the Salon d’Automne in Tokyo. One anecdote the paper I am translating recounts concerns a Taiwanese artist who, every year, painted two paintings. He sent the better of the two off to Tokyo for submission to the Inten and submitted the other to the Taiten (Taiwan Exhibition). When, as often happened, the submission to Inten was rejected, he then showed it the following spring in the independent Taiyang exhibition (Taiyoten). One point of political interest is that these institutions created a situation in which the only way for a young artist eager to pursue a career in modern art to achieve his ambitions was to become, in effect, a collaborator with the colonial regime.

  3. Nothing much to add, but this is fascinating stuff. I wonder how much the context-shift inevitably reconfigures ‘the same’ institutions? Both because there are local dynamics in play and because intercultural understanding is rarely perfect.

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