Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 2, 2021
Izumi Nakajima Anti-Action: Post-War Japanese Art and Women Artists (アンチ・アクション: 日本戦後絵画と女性画家) Tokyo: Brücke, 2019. 362 pp.; 152 b/w ills. Cloth ¥3800.00 (9784434264696)

In this groundbreaking book, Izumi Nakajima defines “anti-action” as Japanese women artists’ counterapproach to “action” painting by male artists, emphasizing their creation in the 1950s and 1960s. The volume is not just about how gender shaped women’s artistic practice in the period, however; as indicated by its subtitle, another subject is postwar Japanese art itself. Nakajima aims to reinterpret the field as a whole by examining how gender colored contemporaneous art criticism and the subsequent narrative on the subject (by targeting discursive practices in Japan). This book is an ambitious undertaking—practically the first of its kind—as there have been few, if any, introductory textbooks on postwar Japanese art, except for a series of critical writings that have vaguely formed a “mainstream” discourse centered on male artists’ practices. Nakajima has thus usurped the standard narrative before it even existed. As such, Anti-Action is a milestone in both postwar Japanese and feminist art history.

The book starts with a simple question: what happened to a number of young women artists who flourished and constituted a “postwar women’s art movement” in the years following World War II? Why are they mostly forgotten today and absent from major discourses on the period? It is generally understood that the movement arose with Japan’s postwar constitution, which legislated gender equality and women’s suffrage. Following its enforcement, the Women Artists Association was founded in 1947, while art universities started accepting women students. (Before that, Women’s College of Fine Art, founded in 1900—today Joshibi University of Art and Design—was the only institution where they could receive art education.) Encouraged by the new era’s tolerant spirit, women artists actively showed their work in numerous exhibitions and were frequently featured in art journals and popular magazines as “new women” enjoying postwar liberation.

Nakajima offers several reasons for their current oblivion, most notably: a) many women artists ended their careers as Japan’s postwar nuclear family model repositioned women as stay-at-home wives by the 1960s; b) Japanese art critics, who in the 1950s and 1960s were basically all male, did not write about their art after the “movement”—in effect just a “boom”—was over; and c) when postwar Japanese art became a subject of critical writing (again, mostly by male critics, such as Shigeo Chiba and Noi Sawaragi, both the authors of influential books on the topic) in the 1980s and 1990s, the women’s art movement of the 1950s was not included.

Anti-Action does not aim to rescue all forgotten women artists from obscurity, though. (That would be an equally worthwhile but a different book project.) Instead, it examines what it meant for a woman to continue being an artist in the male-dominated art world in those days. What strategies did this require, and how did they negotiate their being and creation with their surroundings? To answer this question, Nakajima focuses on three artists, relatively well known both then and now: Yayoi Kusama, now a global star; Atsuko Tanaka, who belonged to the Gutai Art Association; and Hideko Fukushima, who was a member of the artist collective Experimental Workshop. By discussing their careers not as separate from the mainstream art scene but in relation to it—because they were indeed active participants in their art communities—the book puts postwar Japanese art history as previously narrated into a bracket and opens up the discourse to a new, more diversifying perspective.

Notably, none of the three artists saw herself as feminist. In fact, it remains questionable whether the postwar women’s art movement was feminist in nature, because most of these artists did not challenge women’s position or representation in the male-dominated art world. If feminism should involve women’s political consciousness and problematize what is coded as “femininity” within the existing gender order—as Nakajima thinks it should, following the renowned feminist scholar Chizuko Ueno—then this was not a feminist movement. Yet, Nakajima considers this paradox a “historical and structural problem” for postwar Japanese art and its discourse, arguing:

Gender in art emerges at the very moment when women’s creation conflicts with feminism. We should therefore not be so quick to dismiss their attitudes as opportunistic or their work as a naive expression unaware of sociohistorical issues. Politics appeared around those women artists in both direct and indirect ways, and I believe their creation served as a space in which these complicated modes of politics took a concrete form as a work of art. (13–14, translation mine)

The book is outstanding for its theoretical rigorousness. After explaining her choice of three artists to feature, Nakajima defines the concept of anti-action in her introduction, “Toward a Feminist Art History.” According to the author, the function of the term is twofold. First, it serves as her analytical device to examine these artists’ abstraction, which they developed in different ways, as a self-conscious alternative to male artists’ action painting. Second, it refers to Nakajima’s own scholarly objective as a feminist art historian to weave a counternarrative to the existing male-dominated discourse, hitherto written with much emphasis on action art.

The book consists of five chapters, the first two largely theoretical and discursive and the remaining three each devoted to one artist. My summary mainly concerns the first part, as it has a broader theoretical relevance for post-1945 art discourse in general. Chapter 1 reconsiders the phenomenon of the “informel whirlwind,” a craze of gestural abstraction in Japan around 1956–57, in terms of a relationship between gender and art criticism. Nakajima points out that the phenomenon, although often dismissed as a fad induced by the French critic Michel Tapié, caused an important shift in Japanese art critics’ vocabularies. The universalism of international abstraction, which temporarily suspended artists’ social attribution of race and gender, prompted critics to discuss the formal rather than “feminine” quality of women artists’ work. This period did not last long, however, because Japanese critics quickly became disillusioned with Tapié’s Eurocentric agenda, which left no room for their intellectual participation as equal partners. Nakajima’s analysis reveals how this incident left an indelible stigma in male critics—one even described it with war-related terms such as “unconditional surrender” and “colonial state” (51). In an attempt to put this stigma behind them, they replaced informel with “action,” thus regendering their criticism as they tended to emphasize the latter’s masculine nature. In retrospect, this turn worked against women abstract artists, as their paintings did not fit “action” as redefined in terms of masculinity.

The second chapter examines how Kusama, Tanaka, and Fukushima experienced the postwar abstraction movement. Because they gained early success with support from senior males—respectively the renowned critic Shūzō Takiguchi, the Gutai leader Jirō Yoshihara, and the painter Nobuya Abe—Nakajima insightfully calls them “postwar daughters” mentored by “prewar fathers” (96). Importantly, these mentors put them in touch with the international art world, which was disconnected from the Japanese gender system. There they received recognition they could not expect in their home country because their “postwar brothers” (107) did not discuss their work in earnest after the “informel whirlwind.” Male critics’ regendered, sometimes openly sexist writing coincided with Japan’s return to the traditional gender order, as if following the governmental policy that shifted “from liberation to conservatism” (126). Nakajima’s critical analysis of their writing is eye-opening, not because it reveals gender bias (which is obvious) but because it treats the value system of the Japanese art world at the time as a sociohistorical construct, thereby expanding the subject of postwar Japanese art for a more comprehensive understanding.

The remaining three chapters are devoted to the careers and work of each artist: a political reading of Kusama’s “net paintings” in chapter 3 coincides with an analysis of the artist’s artistic and intellectual strategies to gain recognition in the competitive New York art scene. Chapter 4 offers a new reading of Tanaka’s “paintings of circles and lines” as inspired by postwar new industrial materials, which she used both as a consumer and an artist, and lastly, the fifth chapter examines abstract paintings Fukushima created by “pressing” objects onto the canvas, which nonetheless included figuration—another neglected factor in the previous discussion on postwar abstraction in Japan. Nakajima painstakingly conducts a close formal analysis of the artists’ work while carefully reading their own words and writings as well as criticism on their creations. Notably, she also situates their artistic practices within an international context by discussing their overseas activities and comparing their works with those by artists (both male and female) in the United States and Europe.

Tightly theorized and based on extensive research of artworks and documents, Nakajima’s book provides a convincing argument that the three artists’ anti-action work manifested an alternative mode of abstract expression with which they established their own style, resisting the male-dominated action painting and its discourse. Their artistic negotiation and strategies could thus be seen as feministic from today’s vantage point. Toward the end, Nakajima points out that their varying recognition today—Kusama’s global stardom as opposed to Fukushima’s anonymity outside Japan, for instance—is proportionate to the degree with which they willfully “betrayed” their “prewar fathers” and the patriarchy that such patronage symbolized (358). This is a keen insight that I know still rings true today, at least in Japan.

In fall 2020 Nakajima’s achievement was recognized when she received two important awards: the Aoyama Nao Prize, given for excellent scholarship in women’s studies, and the Suntory Prize for Social Science and Humanities, the most prestigious academic award in Japan given to emerging scholars. There is every reason to believe Anti-Action should be translated into English at the earliest opportunity so readers beyond the Japanese-language community can share in her splendid argument.

Hiroko Ikegami
Professor at Kobe University