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Asian Modernities Exist in “the Development of Abstract Art”

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YŌGA late 1800s

YŌGA late 1800s

Word Count: 790
Word Count: 790 Xueyan (Jessica) Wu
Professor Hong Kal
FA/VISA 2340
02 March 2015

Asian modern art has been largely neglected by Western audiences; a simple reference to Rita Gilbert’s “Living with Art” timeline confirms this notion. As such, Alfred H. Barr, Jr. neglected to include Asian modern art in his seminal 1936 map, The Development of Abstract Art, and consequently, I have provided a revision.
Barr’s depiction epitomizes a European-dictated arrangement of art history, which excludes all versions of modernity not part of ‘his’ visual. I question the legitimacy of this omission. Modernity is not a singular definition, not solely manifested in one structured European interpretation. It is not necessarily residing in one place, but migrating and shifting, following the social conditions and traditions which surround different geographical contexts.
One may contend that Asian modernist art does not belong within Barr’s space or that it does not fit any prescribed definition of modern art. There are valid reasons for this belief; the most widespread insisting it is merely a ‘copy’ of European modernity, and therefore, already included within Barr’s interpretation. This is untrue on many levels. Tatehata Akira writes in Why Cubism, that “…we must admit that a large part of Asian cubism is “something like cubism” and stops at a superficial ‘resemblance’.” The work of Asian cubist Yorozu Tetsugoro affirms this: in Self Portrait with Red Eyes, it looks completely distinctive from European cubism, with no correspondence of European artistic tradition, either conceptually or stylistically. The influence may be derivative, but any ‘resemblance’ is insignificant to its overarching contribution, which renders this form of modernity valid and distinct.

Indeed, the very birth of many modern art forms (i.e. expressionism, synthesism, cubism) plays into this essential contradiction. Pablo Picasso, the father of modern cubism, is a master of this cultural translation: his distinctive cubist style was foremost an adaptation, or a periphery, of colonial African art, which indicates to ambiguities inherent in its own formation. Yet African tribal art is merely acknowledged as an afterthought and not a valid movement, boxed in grey (Negro Sculpture), in Barr’s depiction – which seems dismissive, even bordering on ungrateful.

In the same vein, Asian cubism could be considered a periphery to its European father, or even a ‘hybrid’. But this ‘resemblance’ is insignificant, as Akira argues, and “… if a translation of cubism on the periphery could take on the meaning of advancement, [it] attained productive transformation...” In truth, this is precisely definitive of the progression of Asian modernism; perhaps, it is a failed imitation of modernism by Western standards, and an unwelcome endeavour by Asian standards, but on its own, it is a valuable entity heralding a new definition of modernity. To convey this development, I have penciled in “Asian cubism” on Barr’s map, derived (the arrow), beside, and smaller in size from its muse, “Cubism”. Whether it exists to the left, right, above, or otherwise, is not relevant; the intention is that it exists as a separate, valid definition of modernity.

This struggle to define modernity is not exclusive to the East vs. West, but internalized within Asia as well. In Japan, a complex history of socio-political struggles formed the background for nihonga and yōga. These duo waves defined Japanese modernity – although they could not be more different. Yōga drew from the Barr-dubbed “universal” European mode of modernity, and nihonga, drew its modernity from traditional roots. Similarly, both Van Gogh and defining yōga artist Takahashi Yuichi broke through the conventional mode of visual expression to achieve their “modern” moniker, yet their representations are only vaguely familiar.

Volk addresses this inconsistency in In Pursuit of Universalism, alluding to no singular definition of modernity, calling the East / West quibble “irresolvable”, and that “nihonga and yōga… are symptoms of the fundamental paradox of Japanese modernity… oppositional and mutually exclusive, [they] are constituted within… the irresolvable binaries … that undergird the modern paradigm.” Modernity should not be simply a matter of semantics and labels: restricting its definition as per Barr’s diagram is both irrelevant and irreverent to the art itself.

To illustrate this breakthrough on Barr’s diagram, I have included a space for nihonga and yōga, in between Abstract Expressionism and Van Gogh – with directional arrows from Japanese Prints leading to nihonga, and from Van Gogh and Japanese Prints leading to yōga. These Western movements interestingly evolved around the influence of Japanese Prints and Near-Eastern Art, and this representation proves that there is interdependency in the formation of modernity. In fact, the inter-adaptation between Eastern and Western modernists I regard as a “productive mistranslation” to create new, valid separate definitions of modernity on Barr’s map.

Works Cited
Akira, Tatehata. “Why Cubism.” Contemporary Art in Asia. Ed. Melissa Chiu and Benjamin Genocchio. Cambridge, MA & London: The MIT Press, 2011), 107-115. Print.

Kal, Hong. “Chinese Modernism and Early Realism.” York University. York University, ON. 10 Feb 2015. PowerPoint presentation.
Kal, Hong. “Modernity Modern Art.” York University. York University, ON. 10 Feb 2015. PowerPoint presentation.
Volk, Alicia, "Reverse Japonisme and the structure of modern art in Japan." In pursuit of universalism: Yorozu Tetsugorō and Japanese modern art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010. 13-41. Print.

[ 1 ]. Hong Kal, “Chinese Modernism and Early Realism.” February 2015. PowerPoint presentation.
[ 2 ]. Tatehata Akira, “Why Cubism.” Contemporary Art in Asia (Cambridge, MA & London: The MIT Press, 2011), 113.
[ 3 ]. Hong Kal, “Modernity Modern Art.” February 2015. PowerPoint presentation.
[ 4 ]. Akira, 110 – 111.
[ 5 ]. Alicia Volk, "Reverse Japonisme and the structure of modern art in Japan." In pursuit of universalism: Yorozu Tetsugorō and Japanese modern art. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010, 36.
[ 6 ]. Volk, 10.
[ 7 ]. Akira, 114.

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