The art of war
Patriotic, dramatic and sometimes violent, prints and paintings recall the two Sino-Japanese conflicts
Two sides, two wars face each other from opposite museum walls. Years of troubled history are remembered in woodblock prints and ink on paper: explosions, a warship sinking, the wounded carried away in blankets.
Even in a small gallery corner, battles can be fierce. In the new exhibition "Divided Visions: Reportage from the Sino-Japanese Wars," Stanford's Cantor Arts Center has placed Japanese prints from the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) across from Chinese ink paintings from the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), which was fought during World War II. Despite their differences in tone and style, both the prints by Kiyochika Kobayashi and the paintings by Zhang Wenyuan are powerful portraits of the patriotism, violence and heightened — and often easily manipulated — emotions of wartime art.
Also included are a few photos shot in China by German-born American journalist John Gutmann, who worked for an American propaganda unit in southwestern China during World War II.
Art is indeed a tool here, building and swaying emotions. Kobayashi's prints depicted the Japanese soldier as a stalwart-faced hero: the noble, strong-profiled officer standing on the edge of a battered ship in the 1894 print "The Great Victory of Our Forces in the Yellow Sea," for example, or the wise scout gazing down from a hilltop in "Our Scout Reconnoiters the Enemy Encampment near the Yalu River," from the same year.
In contrast, Kobayashi depersonalizes the Chinese enemy, making its troops weak and faceless, almost insignificant. In his sweeping 1894 print "Sinking of a Chinese Ship," he depicts the sinking of the Chinese warship Zhiyuan after a five-hour sea battle. The subject matter is terribly violent, yet Kobayashi chooses to depict the loss of the Zhiyuan as an almost quiet moment. While the fighting continues to rage above in explosions of red, the focus of the print is the warship slipping beneath the waves, the tiny "Chinese sailors abandoning ship, depicted as though they are floating like insubstantial bubbles," an exhibit card reads.
Across the gallery, Wenyuan's paintings from the following Sino-Japanese war are more subtle and monochromatic. In the 1944 drawing "Bombing," men rush to aid victims and put out fires. All is bustle and determination, almost reassuring in its activity. The artist commonly pictured wartime havoc "in a dispassionate manner, selecting scenes of rebuilding efforts, free trucks organized to transport refugees, and other attempts to regain normalcy," according to an exhibit card.
In another series of paintings from the 1940s, the artist incorporates rhymes by the general Feng Yuxiang, every one concluding with an entreaty to resist the Japanese. "Contribute effort and money to the War of Resistance, defeat little Japan, so that everyone may live peaceful years," one reads.
Underneath is a calm depiction of everyday life in a teahouse, the ink complemented by peaceful pale-blue pigment on the men's clothing. The piece does not seem like it would be out of place hanging in a family room.
Indeed, these forms of wartime art found homes far outside the art gallery. They were meant for mass audiences, to drum up popular support for repeated wars, and the patriotism of the war effort helped them find their audiences. Wenyuan created many of his drawings and cartoons while part of the National Salvation Propaganda Manua (Cartoon) Corps in Shanghai, and Kiyochika found widespread popularity for his prints when his art turned political at the start of the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894, according to the exhibit.
In finding these audiences, the creations also succeeded in widely disseminating new forms of art, such as photography or new types of printing. The print became not just a form of fine art but a type of mass media.
When artwork was as violent and dramatic as Kobayashi's, that might have helped broaden its appeal when emotions and tensions were high.
And other artists were watching. According to the exhibit, the popularity of the print during the First Sino-Japanese War led to another surge in printmaking during the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-05. The growing art of photography played a role, too, an exhibit card reads: "Printmakers attempted to approximate the realistic effects of black-and-white photography and expanded to more impressive panoramic views to appeal to audiences."
Info: "Divided Visions" is on display through Jan. 13, Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Thursdays until 8 p.m., at the Cantor Arts Center, Lomita Drive at Museum Way, Stanford University. Admission is free. Call 650-723-4177 or go to museum.stanford.edu .