Arts and Culture
What can historians learn by studying events that fall outside the sequence of those that became integrated into the dominant narrative of “history”? With this question in mind, this paper presents an alternative perspective on the history of modern art in Japan at the beginning of the twentieth century. In the standard account of modern Japanese art, the so-called Post-Impressionism was introduced to Japan by the younger, forward-looking elite group associated with the literary magazine Shirakaba (White Birch), who promoted a new philosophy of artistic expressions rooted in the cult of the individual. The prominence of printed materials, both text and illustrated reproductions, has been pointed out as one of the defining characteristics of the Japanese reception of Post-Impressionism at the time. This narrative does not mention, however, the more direct cross-cultural encounter between Roger Fry, the British art critic and historian who coined the term “Post-Impressionism,” and Okakura Kakuzo, the Japanese art critic and historian whose acquaintance Fry cultivated right around the time when he was organizing the landmark exhibition “Manet and the Post Impressionists.” What did Fry see in Okakura, and Okakura in Fry? And what did the Shirakaba group see in Post-Impressionism, and what did they see (or not see) in Okakura? It appears that the vector of these various interests did not align to form a synergetic network. This paper explores what this divergence and misalignment tell us about the nature of cross-cultural encounters between Japan and the West at the beginning of the 20th century.