Japanese propaganda in British Museum
A scene in Tokyo right after the Asia Pacific War: shoe-cleaners are at work under an arch of Yurakuchō station. This harsh, rough, but yet beautiful black and white woodblock print was designed by Kitaoka Fumio (1918-2007). His monochrome black/white woodblock prints of the late 1940s depict the hardship after the war and they are among my favorites of twentieth century Japanese printmaking. Kitaoka has created raw and intense images, that express a whole different image of Japan than the sweet and exotic images of landscapes and beautiful women one often encounters in Japanese woodblock prints.
This particular print by Kitaoka Fumio, dating from 1948, is included in the exhibition The Art of Influence. Asian Propaganda, now on display in the British Museum. Situated in the gallery below the Japan galleries, The Art of Influence is a small, but very interesting exhibition. It covers the period from 1900 until 1976, the year that Mao Zedong died and North and South Vietnam were merged into one country. Naturally the Asia Pacific War period is treated extensively and in this section examples of Japanese propaganda and works reacting on Japan as a colonial power in Asia are shown.
According to Mary Ginsberg, guest-curator of the exhibition and author of the accompanying catalogue, the British Museum has been collecting propaganda art for a long time, but very actively since the late 1980s. The Chinese and Japanese works in these collections have until now hardly been exhibited and published.
The exhibition is arranged in more or less chronological order in the display cases facing the walls, with Vietnam, India, Bangladesh as the last examples of Asian propaganda. In the center of the gallery there are four display cases that have a thematic approach. Among the themes presented here are Daily Life; Heroes & Villains and Tradition & Propaganda.
When looking specifically at Japan in this exhibition, many more interesting works besides the Kitaoka Fumio print are on display. To name just a few: a lithograph of 1900 depicting the imperial family; a kimono decorated with war motifs; a photomontage of pilots and airplanes in FRONT magazine; sake cups with patriotic motifs, sugoroku games and a poster for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. It is a pity that not all of these exhibited works are included in the catalogue, but with 192 pages this publication still provides a fascinating and rich overview of what Asian propaganda is like.
Mary Ginsberg, The Art of Influence. Asian Propaganda, London: The British Museum Press /Boston: Hotei Publishing, 2013. 192 pages, 130 color illustrations. ISBN 9789004256316.