Monday, February 6, 2023

Art and national restoration: Denmark in the 19th century, Japan in the 20th

Sebastian Smee, Scarred by defeat, they gave birth to a golden age of Danish art, The Washington Post, February 3, 2023.

Early in the 19th century Denmark became entangled in the Napoleonic Wars and lost its large merchant fleet, had its naval vessels commandeered by the British, and suffered the destruction of much of Copenhagen. Its economy collapsed and it had to let Sweden have Norway.

Often, when a nation loses its bearings and self-esteem, it looks to its artists to alleviate the shame. Something like that happened in Denmark, which, between 1818 and 1848, enjoyed a “golden age.” (The term was first employed by the critic Valdemar Vedel.)

Defeat is often attended by a kind of self-conscious dignity that is, as Wolfgang Schivelbusch wrote in “The Culture of Defeat,” “as inaccessible to the victor … as the kingdom of heaven is to the rich man.” The result can be a sense of moral superiority, often attended by a process of purification. Both are observable in Danish art of this period.

Smee’s article is a review of an exhibition of that art at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Beyond the Light: Identity and Place in Nineteenth-Century Danish Art.” Smee continues:

The Met’s show is mostly drawings. [...] But it contains a couple of marvelous small paintings by Martinus Rorbye. One of them, “View From the Citadel Ramparts in Copenhagen by Moonlight,” shows two sailors and a soldier standing on the rampart of a citadel that was battered during the Napoleonic Wars. The central sailor’s pose is sturdy and resolute. The soldier’s bayonet gleams in the moonlight and the extravagant feather emerging from his helmet rhymes and overlaps with the curve of a sail in the harbor.

And so forth and so on, etc.

Smee concludes:

The art coming out of Denmark’s disastrous defeats suggests a people trying to steady the ship of state and console the national psyche. It was an art remarkable for its moderation, balance, symmetry and sincerity, and it offers up many pleasures. But much of it feels spiritually vacant.

That’s why it’s interesting that, internationally, the best-known 19th century Danish painter is Vilhelm Hammershoi. By the time he peaked, Denmark had undergone a new series of shocks. In 1849, the absolute monarchy was abolished, and then, in 1864, it lost more of its territory, this time to Bismarck’s Prussia, stripping Denmark of about a third of its population. Hammershoi’s work transcended nationalism and identity. He painted hauntingly empty interiors that are like Vermeers or Edward Hoppers bleached of color and cleansed of narrative. He was, as Lawrence Wechsler once wrote, “a poet of absorption.” He painted vacancy infused with a spiritual sense. He painted tranquility. His paintings are balm to souls reeling from rhetoric.

OK. Let’s take Smee’s thesis at face value, that art helps a nation recover from defeat and that we can see that recovery in this art. What does this have to do with Japan?

I would argue that art, at least the popular art known as manga, served a similar function for the Japanese after World War II. While manga existed before the war, they were a relatively minor genre. Things changed after the war. Manga proliferated until they were a dominant form of popular culture.

I make such an argument in my article, Dr. Tezuka’s Ontology Laboratory and the Discovery of Japan (2011). Here’s the abstract:

Not long after the end of World War II Osamu Tezuka published three manga known collectively as the SF Trilogy: Lost World (1948), Metropolis (1949), and Nextworld (1951). Taken together they represent an effort to rethink Japan’s place in the world, and that, in turn, required rethinking the world itself from top to bottom. Each text features a parade of creatures, from plants to animals, to humans; each has scenes of primordial nature. All involve radiation that changes the flora and fauna of the world, all involve strange humanoid creatures, some ‘natural’ and some artificial. In particular, Tezuka plays with gender identities. In Lost World a woman made of plant matter becomes the ‘Eve’ of a new world. In Metropolis the central character is an artificial being that can be either male or female. In Nextworld we have a pair of physically identical young women where each is raised in a different society and so has quite different adult characteristics. Japan is not mentioned in the first book, but by the third Japan is a mediating factor between two warring superpowers. The strange humans in these manga are precursors to the robots, cyborgs, and quasi-Utopian humanoids that have proliferated in Japanese popular culture over the last half century.

Here is a bit of my argument:

Consider the position that Kenneth Burke articulated in his essay, “Literature as Equipment for Living.” Using words and phrases from several definitions of the term "strategy" (the phrases quoted in the following passage), he asserts that

… surely, the most highly alembicated and sophisticated work of art, arising in complex civilizations, could be considered as designed to organize and command the army of one's thoughts and images, and to so organize them that one "imposes upon the enemy the time and place and conditions for fighting preferred by oneself." One seeks to "direct the larger movements and operations" in one's campaign of living. One "maneuvers," and the maneuvering is an "art." (1973, 298)

Further, to the extent that these stories are shared, members of a society can articulate their desires and feelings to one another thereby making themselves mutually at home in the world.

I am thus arguing that in these three manga Tezuka provided his readers with templates for making conceptual and emotional sense of their utterly changed world. Obviously, other people from different times and places are going to bring different concerns and interests to these texts. They aren’t going to “find” the concerns of post-war Japanese “hidden” in these texts. They will use the texts to cope with their own lives.

Here is a bit more from the article:

The first of the science fiction trilogy to be published, Lost World (1948; English translation: Tezuka 2003a), is set on two planets: Earth, and Mamango, a twin of Earth that comes near Earth every five million years. The geographical location of the Earth-bound events is not clear; no locations are named, no cities, no countries. A Japanese audience would locate these events in Japan by default, and some of the characters have Japanese names, such as Kenichi Shikishima, one of the central figures in the story. When the story ends, two people, a man, Shikishima, and a woman, Ayame, remain on Mamango and will create a new race of human beings. That race will be of Japanese descent, but the land will not be in Japan.

The second one published, Metropolis (1949; English translation, Tezuka 2003b), is mostly set in some large city named Metropolis, which is explicitly not-Japan. However, two of the central characters, Detective Mustachio and his nephew Kenichi, are identified as being from Japan and thus being Japanese. Mustachio announces himself as being from Japan (2003b 46, cf. 53). Japan is now explicitly identified in the story; it is a named place that is differentiated from other named places such as Metropolis and Long Boot Island. But Japan is not a site of action that is significant to the story.

The last of the three, Nextworld (1951; English translation: Tezuka 2003c), is set in locations all over the world. Much of it takes place in the capitalist Nation of Star (obviously representing the United States) and the socialist Federation of Uran (representing the Soviet Union). But the story begins in Japan, has episodes there, and ends in Japan. In one plotline, the Earth is being threatened by a large approaching mass of gas from outer space. Once this phenomenon is perceived and categorized as an Earth-wide threat, there is a segment where the heads of Star and Uran say, “Let’s escape to Japan” (2003c, vol. 2, 99). Japan is an explicit destination for the most powerful politicians on Earth. Not only that, but Tezuka presents Japan with Japan-specific cultural features, such as a chanting priest (2003c, vol. 1, 90; vol. 2, 109, 119) a sumo wrestler (2003c, vol. 1, 94-96), and a man in a judo costume (2003c, vol. 2, 118). Such features do not appear in Lost World, although it is set in Japan; nor, of course, do these features appear in Metropolis.

Finally, Tezuka has given Japan a differentiated geopolitical identity. Star and Uran are in conflict and eventually go to war; Japan does not participate in that conflict. Whatever the geographical relationships between the three nations, Tezuka has given Japan an important political role to play in the world.

Osamu Tezuka was enormously important in Japanese culture, roughly comparable to Walt Disney in American culture. His Astro Boy stories are a direct outgrowth of this trilogy, and they ran through-out the 1950s and into the 1960s. I could go on and on, but I can’t, not in a blog post.

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