Kawabe Masahisa Mechanism Itabashi Art Museum

August 25, 2017

Using the example of collage and montage artworks by Kawabe Masahisa (1901–1990), Murayama Tomoyoshi (1901–1977) and Shibuya Osamu (1900–1963), Olga Isaeva of the University of Bonn, Germany, illustrates how found everyday objects and fragments of reality provided 1920s Japanese avant-garde artists with tools to grasp the modern time and the role of art, the artist, and, most significantly, of the audience, in an article based on research presented at The Asian Conference on Arts & Humanities 2017.

The critic Kawaji Ryūkō (1888–1959) argued in his review of the first Sanka exhibition in May 1925 in favor of the montage art works and constructions made of fragments and found materials. Sanka zōkei bijutsu kyōkai (“Third Division of the Cooperation for Plastic Art”, also shortened to Sanka) was founded in 1924 after the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923 as an art association with the main aim of offering space for artists and art groups of progressive and radical thinking beyond the official academic exhibitions. On the one hand, Kawaji expressed difficulties in approaching this kind of art: “How and why should one understand these works?” (Kawaji, 2011, p. 123). However, on the other hand, he introduced the concept of seikatsu geijutsu (everyday life art), where art replaced an illusionistic depiction of space or imitation of reality with assembled real objects. Outstanding also is Kawaji’s description of the performative interaction between the art work and the audience. It seemed almost as if the montage pieces jumped out of their frames and “hit the viewer from behind” by the directness of their expression (Kawaji, 2011, p. 129).

“The avant-garde phenomenon is defined primarily as an international artistic and literary network and project which started in the early twentieth century.”

This article focuses on one striking and prominent characteristic within the aesthetic avant-garde: transgression of boundaries between art and everyday life. The avant-garde phenomenon is defined primarily as an international artistic and literary network and project which started in the early twentieth century (van den Berg & Fähnders, 2009). The heterogeneous nature of avant-garde denies a static or closed system due to its endless variety in art styles, genres, single artists, art groups, movements, tendencies, ideologies and theories. As examples, I will introduce collage and montage art works of the early avant-garde movement in Japan during the Taishō era (1912–1926) that raise fundamental questions concerning the definitions of Japanese (modern) art.

The subtle collage technique

The artist Kawabe Masahisa (1901–1990) depicted a human head surrounded by various machinery in his 1924 work Mekanizumu (“Mechanism”). The functions of the tools, pipes, screws, bolts and gears are difficult to guess, as one’s perception is limited and thus not able to contextualize the individual elements. The cold and grey-colored impression of the machinery is placed in contrast to the skin-coloured head of the human and the red of his dissected throat. The human parts blend almost naturally with the mechanical surroundings and vanish gradually while screws and gears are being assembled around them. A few mysterious objects such as a small typewriter and a piece of a map beneath the head, and the writing “L’Esprit Nouveau” in capital letters on the upper left side, attract one’s attention. On closer observation one will notice that these elements are made of actual paper, and they are not the only ones. Kawabe inserted further collage parts, such as small pipes, screws, and bolts, very precisely and with careful regard to the oil paint. By creating this illusionistic atmosphere the boundaries between the painted and collage elements merge naturally. The striking writing is a reference to the artists’ knowledge and awareness of avant-garde tendencies and movements in Europe; L’Esprit Nouveau was a magazine by the architect Le Corbusier (1887–1965) and the painter Amédée Ozenfant (1886–1966) published between 1920 and 1925 in Paris.

Kawabe Masahisa Mechanism

Kawabe Masahisa ‘Mechanism’ (courtesy of Itabashi Art Museum).

Collage, as the French-origin colle indicates, is an artistic method emphasizing paper as its main source. Cubists Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) and Georges Braque (1882–1963) were the first artists experimenting with the collage method around 1910. Picasso added everyday objects as fragments of reality in his paintings and in doing so he deconstructed the unity in the painting as something created exclusively by the subjectivity of the artist. In the case of Kawabe’s work, the illusionistic and organic atmosphere are far more important than the used materials. However, the artists’ particular usage of paper evokes a high level of authenticity. For instance, the human parts are all painted without adding any collage elements. This method of replacing only certain parts of paint with collage elements increases the level of reality and materiality.

The illusionistic and demonstrative montage method

The theoretical leader of the avant-garde group MAVO (1923–1925) from Tokyo, Murayama Tomoyoshi (1901–1977), assembled in his constructivist montage pieces fabric scraps, wood, shoes, artificial flowers, hair, photographs, magazine articles and language. In some of his works he inserted the fragments of reality as he found them in everyday life, but in other pieces he transformed the materials beyond any visible recognition, as seen, for instance, in the montage work “Construction” from 1925. Kawabe’s subtle practice of collage elements is modified in Murayama’s technique of radical plastic and three dimensional experiences, as well as to tactile works, which literally reach out to the viewer.

“The engagement in dialogues with European artists, the study of artworks in original and the intellectual discourse with ideological writings enforced Murayama to create his own theory and develop his artistic language after his return to Japan.”

The abstract and non-objective piece Utsukushiki shōjo ni sasagu; Schönen Mädchen Gewidmet (“Dedicated to Beautiful Young Girls”) from ca. 1922 surprises with a title in Japanese and German. The search for an illusionistic depiction of the mentioned “Beautiful Young Girls” is futile as the work depicts only non-mimetic and geometric objects. These forms are encircled and shaded, creating an impression of space and spatial depth. The German title appears inside the work itself on the left side as well as the German words Nummer (“number”) and Mädchen (“young girls”), and numeric characters, which all interact in a mutual dialog with the geometric elements. If one were to observe this art piece in the form of a printed image, one would probably overlook a crucial part, namely a geometric object made of found fabric located right next to the German title. This piece is overpainted and shaded similar to the parts in oil paint, thus creating the illusive unity in material. The usage in the variety of expressions through oil paint, numbers, writings in a foreign language and the assembling of fragments was a new language for the Japanese critics and the audience. In the case of Murayama, however, this language was clearly related to the contemporary environment. One crucial reference is Murayama’s one-year stay in Berlin in 1922 and his experiences of the vividly artistic and avant-garde atmosphere in this German city. The engagement in dialogues with European artists, the study of artworks in original and the intellectual discourse with ideological writings enforced Murayama to create his own theory and develop his artistic language after his return to Japan (Weisenfeld, 2002; Omuka, 1995).

The first MAVO exhibition in 1923 included Murayama’s montage piece Hana to kutsu no tsukatte aru sakuhin (“Work Employing Flower and Shoe”) from ca. 1923. Here, in comparison to the previous introduced works, found fragments and everyday objects such as a women’s shoe, artificial flowers in a transparent bin, a wooden box and magazine or newspaper articles do not hide behind an illusionistic depiction of space or causality represented through the unity in materials. They are neither painted over to simulate an oil painting nor transferred to decrease their three-dimensional nature. The montage technique itself becomes the main motif of this work since the construction is visible.

The term “montage” originated from the French word monter (“mont” – lift, mount) and was applied first in the context of industry and craft. In the early twentieth century the artists John Heartfield (1891–1968) and George Grosz (1893–1959) called themselves provocatively “Monteure” (“assemblers” in German) and took “montage” from its industrial and mechanical space and applied it to the artistic world, challenging the myth of an artist as a genius (Möbius, 2000, p. 16f). The montage method appeared in Japan increasingly during the 1920s, especially after Murayama’s return from Germany. As the critics and the audience were still not used to experiencing the fragmentary character of collage/montage art as well as the demanding participation it requires of the viewer, which goes hand in hand with this kind of art, the reviewers were critical of MAVO’s constructions (Asaeda, 1923).

How can the confused and shocked viewer try to grasp this new language?

The viewer could first question the origin of the materials as an indicator or a metaphor, and second explore the invisible or unconscious ideas represented by the tactical experience in the montage technique.

In the case of MAVO the mass media and consumerism were one of the topics for inspiration. The artists used magazine and newspaper articles as sources, which possessed their own reality as historical documents and as reflections about everyday life. One of the examples are the representations of women, or to be precise, modern women in mass media, starting in the late Meiji era (1868–1912). During the rapid process of industrialization and modernization Japan followed in economic, political, military, and cultural aspects the western concepts. Alongside this Westernization, the numbers of working women increased and Japanese women were seeking independency embodied prominently by Western fashion and cosmetics. Some magazines included special issues focusing on one particular part of women’s bodies, with various illustrations (Silverberg, 1991).

Shibuya Osamu Construction of Artificial Flowers Lacking in Sympathy

Shibuya Osamu, “Construction of Artificial Flowers Lacking in Sympathy”. (Original work is presumed lost. Photograph taken from the magazine Mizue nr. 245 p. 38, 1925.)

Shibuya Osamu (1900–1963), a member of the MAVO group, assembled images of women’s legs and shoes in his montage work Kyōkansei no toboshii zōka no aru konsutorakushon (“Construction of Artificial Flowers Lacking in Sympathy”) from ca. 1925. Besides the appearance of mass media, the materiality is an essential topic in this piece. The artist constructed his montage works by referring to theories of the Italian Futurism and to Sigmund Freud’s theory of the unconscious and his model of psychic structure, or the Pleasure Principle and Reality Principle (Marinetti, 1995). According to Shibuya, it is possible to represent hidden pleasures and unconscious ideas while applying the tactile sense as a tool. Wire, wood, artificial flowers, or the cut-out magazine images, depending on their glossy, rough or sharp surface, cause unconscious impulses, emotions and reactions. These invisible elements are part of everyday life and should be, as Shibuya explained in his theory, represented in art (Shibuya, 1925).

“The practice of collage and montage art is only one aspect of the transgressional flourishment of artistic expression during the 1920s in Japan.”

The practice of collage and montage art is only one aspect of the transgressional flourishment of artistic expression during the 1920s in Japan. Discourses about industrialization, Westernization, the spreading consumerism and the mass media found their expression in paintings, collages, constructions, three dimensional objects, happening-like performances, theater pieces, and design as well as architectural models. With the help of the pluralistic use within all this variety of media and materials the Japanese artists passed the limits of artistic expression and paved the way for the next generation of avant-garde artists.

The Japanese naming convention of “Surname” “First Name” is used in this article.

Olga Isaeva first presented this research at The Asian Conference on Arts & Humanities 2017 in Kobe, Japan.



Kawabe Masahisa
Mekanizumu (“Mechanism”), 1924, collage and oil on canvas, 65.2 x 53.0 cm, Itabashi Art Museum, Tokyo.

Murayama Tomoyoshi
Utsukushiki shōjo ni sasagu; Schönen Mädchen Gewidmet (“Dedicated to Beautiful Young Girls”), ca. 1922, mixed media and oil on canvas, 93.5 x 80.0 cm, Private collection.
Hana to kutsu no tsukatte aru sakuhin (“Work Employing Flower and Shoe”), ca. 1923, mixed media, presumed lost, Photograph in the catalogue of the first MAVO exhibition: Odagiri, S. (Ed.). (1991). Mavo dai ikkai tenrankai [Special issue]. Mavo fukkokuban furoku. Tokyo: Nihon kindai bungakkan.

Shibuya Osamu
Kyōkansei no toboshii zōka no aru konsutorakushon (“Construction of Artificial Flowers Lacking in Sympathy”), ca. 1925, mixed media, presumed lost, Photograph in: Okada, T. (1925). Sankaten endokuhyō. Mizue. (245), 32–39.


Asaeda, J. (1923, August 2). Mavo tenrankai wo hyō su. Yomiuri Shinbun, p. 7.

Kawaji, R. (2011). Hyōgen geijutsu yori seikatsu geijutsu e. In T. Omuka (Ed.), Bijutsu hihyōka chosaku senshū: Vol. 6. Kawaji Ryūkō (pp. 122–132). Tokyo: Yumani shobō.

Marinetti, F. T. (1995). Der Taktilismus. Futuristisches Manifest. In W. Asholt & W. Fähnders (Eds.), Manifeste und Proklamationen der europäischen Avantgarde. (1909–1938) (pp. 219–223). Stuttgart: Metzler.

Möbius, H. (2000). Montage und Collage: Literatur, bildende Künste, Film, Fotografie, Musik, Theater bis 1933. München: Fink.

Omuka, T. (1995). Taishō ki shinkō bijutsu undō no kenkyū. The Japanese modern art movement and the avant-garde 1920–1927. Tokyo: Sukaidoa.

Shibuya, O. (1925). Takutora oyobi fakutora. Mizue. (237), 33–38.

Silverberg, M. (1991). The Modern Girl as Militant. In G. L. Bernstein (Ed.), Recreating Japanese Women, 1600–1945 (pp. 239–266). University of California Press.

van den Berg, H., & Fähnders, W. (2009). Die künstlerische Avantgarde im 20. Jahrhundert – Einleitung. In H. van den Berg (Ed.), Metzler-Lexikon Avantgarde (pp. 1–19). Stuttgart: Metzler.

Weisenfeld, G. S. (2002). Mavo: Japanese artists and the avant-garde, 1905–1931. Twentieth-century Japan: Vol. 11. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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About Olga Isaeva

Olga Isaeva has a Bachelor’s degree in art history and archaeology, German language and literature studies from the University of Bonn, Germany (2007–2010). During 2012–2013 she studied abroad at Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan. From 2010 to 2014 she undertook a Master’s degree in art history, German language and literature studies at the University of Bonn, and in 2015 she became a PhD candidate in Art History at the University of Bonn. Since 2016 she has been a JSPS Postdoctoral Fellow (Short-term) at the University of Tsukuba, Japan, focusing on the Japanese Avant-Garde.

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