Propaganda and art highlighted as forms of war

The enemy is held in contempt.

August 17, 2019 19:46
3 minute read.
Propaganda and art highlighted as forms of war

‘WINDS OF WAR’ Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art, Haifa Until December 2019; Works donated by Yoel Shagan in memory of his wife, Tzvia Shagan, and his daughter Oranit (Shagan) Talmor. (photo credit: Courtesy)

The Winds of War exhibition at the Tikonin Museum of Japanese Art in Haifa consists of propaganda prints from the first Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), along with humor and satire in prints from that period. During both campaigns the Japanese Army fought on various fronts in Korea and in Manchuria, China. Working in the tradition of Japanese woodblock prints known as ukiyo-e dating back to the 17th century, they can be considered part of the war effort.

What strikes the viewer is the consistent style. The works are clearly illustrative and caricature-like. They were not based on direct observation, though they were often inspired by photographs. They are marked by accurate outlines, flat color areas, characteristic open areas of space, the use of writing, calligraphy and symbols that conspire to impart a specific narrative. That narrative is literal and easy to decode: Undermine the enemy; depict Japanese soldiers as courageous and brave; mock, critique and even laugh at the adversary.

This is achieved with maximum effect using specific strategies: War is romanticized, as explosions, bombs, guns, swords and war machinery are almost comically rendered. Theatrical poses demonstrate the ease with which the war was supposedly being fought. There is no sense of blood and guts, of pain and suffering. Instead, the recurring motif of the Japanese flag, the very aestheticization of war – making the war look visually pleasing – through compositional order, the patterning of blues, red and white; the ease with which landscape, architectural structures and horses are rendered suggest that Japan’s war was justified, and its victory assured.

The enemy is held in contempt. As any historian of war will tell you, the extent to which the other is demonized secures one’s own position and strengthens the cause, particularly through art and culture as it galvanizes the public in patriotic and nationalist sentiment. The power of popular culture should thus not be underestimated in forging public opinion and justifying whatever a government, and by extension an army, sets out to do.

From a purely artistic point of view, one can marvel at the ability of these artists to conjure a sense of action and movement. One can almost hear the sounds or winds of war; one gets a sense of the clamor and cacophony of sound as the space conveys a narrative. In essence, the works seek to promulgate Japanese victory and triumph. It is this visual beautifying of war that renders the heart cold to the real stuff of deadly conflict: loss, suffering, chaos and destruction. In fact, the bombs and fireworks are neatly described in a signature style (one can barely distinguish between different artists). Therefore, there is little sense of the loss of humanity that characterizes war and struggle.

One may rightly ask whether such work is in fact fine art or whether simply a commercial propaganda effort? Certainly the artistic style of Japan and the East began to have an influence on Western art. One can clearly see that Gauguin was influenced by the flat areas of color; that Matisse would have been influenced by the pretty design and accurate use of outline; and its confluence of realism and simplified abstraction would have found its way into the canon of Western art. However, to the discerning eye, and beyond the retinal flutter, one might question the use to which such art was put, and ask whether art needs to serve other functions. Or is art simply in accord with the “arts for art’s sake” dictum, serving only itself and formal awareness, rather than being tied to other extra-aesthetic concerns and as such motivated by other institutions and powers of the day – the political, the economic and the military. However, to divorce the aesthetic from the extra-aesthetic is equally dangerous.

Tikotin Museum
of Japanese Art, Haifa
Until December 2019
Works donated by Yoel Shagan in memory of his wife,
Tzvia Shagan, and his daughter Oranit (Shagan) Talmor 

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