The suppression of great art

Why is it that Western-style painting in Japan was kept such a closely guarded secret in the West? Why was the work of Vincent van Gogh not more widely known and appreciated before the twentieth century? Why was Vermeer largely forgotten until his work was rediscovered after 1860?

Having just completed a four-article series in which I struggled to obtain information on and examples of Western-style painting by Japanese artists, I came across one book which has tried to answer the first question: Dōshin Satō’s prizewinning Modern Japanese Art and the Meiji State. The Politics of Beauty.

Weighing in at a hefty 365 pages, and costing £55 ($75), it has hardly been widely read. Professor Satō pieces the story together from a wide range of evidence: social analyses of painters of the day, government records, tabulations of exports from Japan, and analyses of major art collections. He examines key words in the Japanese language and their origin and meaning, the relationship between calligraphy and painting, the lineage of major schools of painting, and the evolution of the world view as depicted in painting. Heavy going indeed.

The conclusion is that Western-style painting in Japan and its appreciation outside Japan were influenced by many different factors. But key among them was the personal opinion of a single American professor, Ernest Fenollosa, the commercial interests of the Japanese government, and the personal financial interest of influential individuals.

For whatever reasons, Fenollosa chose to ignore the developing Western-style painting in Japan, instead promoting traditional painting, and (presumably to fill the resulting vacuum since 1800) popular Ukiyo-e prints, which in Japan had not been considered to be fine art.

Modern Western art critics and historians continue to follow in Fenollosa’s prejudices, with Hokusai’s prints in particular being lauded as being the pinnacle of artistic achievement – a situation which clearly disturbs Satō deeply, as a professional art historian.

The commercial interests at work were clearly seeking to increase the value of art exports. There was no shortage of traditional Japanese painting and other art, which at the time was not highly valued in Japan. However there was a Western market which seemed prepared to pay considerable sums of dollars and other desirable currencies, in return for paintings and other works which had not even been properly catalogued. For a long time, the best (and best-studied) collections of Japanese art were those in the West.

Many of those involved in Japanese art at the time had also built their own large collections of traditional Japanese art, which at the premium prices being paid in the West for such objects, were becoming very valuable. Fenollosa’s glitteringly successful career, a series of books, and his large personal collection were all heavily dependent on suppression of the real history of art in Japan since 1800.

Charles Goddard Weld, a rich Bostonian, purchased Fenollosa’s huge collection, which he then donated to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It remains one of the largest such collections outside Japan, but permanently deprives Japanese people of being able to enjoy seeing their own artistic and cultural history in Japanese museums.

Although richly praised, Satō’s study was not published in English for more than a decade after it had appeared in Japan. Having watched several excellent documentaries about Hokusai and Japanese art, none of the Western critics or historians took the trouble to inform me of the real, Japanese truth behind all this, presumably because by now so many are so heavily committed to the false history: Western museums and galleries, auction houses, collectors, even the print industry, all depend on this extraordinary misrepresentation.

Neither is it any good turning to the Internet, Wikipedia, or other online sources in this age of free information, unless of course you are fluent in Japanese and can navigate pages available from Japanese museums and collections. So much for net neutrality, it just seems to serve what the establishment already wants us to believe.

I am afraid that when it comes to such (in)vested interests, very few seem interested in finding out or telling the truth.

Dōshin Satō tr Hiroshi Nara (1999, 2011) Modern Japanese Art and the Meiji State. The Politics of Beauty, the Getty Research Institute. ISBN 978 1 606 06059 9.