War brings devastation – and also new perspective with it. The Saint Louis Art Museum explores the theme of war in artists’ renderings to capture that reflective position during tumultuous periods in time. Its newest exhibition explores the development of Japan as a modern nation and a military power in East Asia in “Conflicts of Interest: Art and War in Modern Japan.” “We’re very excited to see this exhibit, which opens Oct. 16 [and has been] in the making for six years, come to fruition,” Philip Hu, the associate curator of Asian art, says. “In 2010, Mr. and Mrs. Charles A. Lowenhaupt gave the bulk of their [private] collection to the art museum, and in the years after, have continued to acquire things, which they’ve immediately gifted [as well]. We’re grateful for that and hope it will provide a wonderful view into St. Louis art collecting.”
The exhibition encompasses the period between 1868 and 1942. “On the front end, 1868 is very important because that was the year Japan decided to become a modern nation. It got rid of all the shoguns, restored the emperor to absolute power and became a westernized, modern civilization,” Hu explains. “We end in 1942 because that is the date of the last object [in the collection], which depicts the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was made one year after the attack to commemorate that important event in world history.”
The extraordinarily vast collection showcases a wide range of media, from hanging scrolls and folding screens to game boards, cards, textiles and kimonos. “It is art you can both play with and wear,” he says. “The single most important artist is Kobayashi Kiyochika, and we have many works by him.” Artworks that have never been duplicated also will be on display, with sketchbooks featuring distinctive creations by various artists.
“People will be surprised for a number of reasons,” Hu promises. “A lot of this material has never been seen by the general public. Some items are rare to have survived. [The collection shows] to what degree the Japanese were able to aestheticize the idea of conflict and battle – of war. Normally when we think of these situations, we think deep and dark. This will be quite unexpected. Woodblock and painting techniques show bright colors in [surprising] ways.”
The museum’s newest exhibition builds upon a theme seen in some of the current collections, including “Impressions of War.” “You can see the notion of war from a European point of view through the famous artist Goya. There also is an exhibition called ‘Textiles: Politics and Patriotism,’” Hu says. “All of these tie into a larger theme of art and war, and how artists show difficult points of time in history using different materials.”
An artist’s perception of pivotal times can extract a deeper meaning of how warfare is ingrained into our very fiber as human beings. “We want to convey that art doesn’t stop during difficult times. It has an important part to play in history,” Hu says. “The artists choosing to convey these events are trying to [share] messages that aren’t necessarily about beauty but about the human condition. They challenge us to think about our past, present and future.” This inspired collection from the Far East further investigates the universality of war and its inherent part in the world.
One Fine Arts Drive, Forest Park, 314-721-0072, slam.org
“Conflicts of Interest: Art and War in Modern Japan” Symposium
Fri., Oct. 21, from 5 to 9 p.m. | Sat., Oct. 22, from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
General Admission $45, Members $35, Students $15
“We’re bringing in scholars, professors and specialists from different parts of the world,” Philip Hu, the associate curator of Asian art at the Saint Louis Art Museum, says. “Canadians, Japanese and Americans will speak on [various] aspects of [the exhibit] to deliver a deeper understanding.” Register online at slam.org/exhibitions/conflicts.