Postwar Japan and Contemporary Art

Although Japan had been open to the rest of the world since the 1870s, the country did retained its traditional forms of art and aesthetics. It was not until after World War II that the culture itself underwent a massive change, allowing a new generation of artists to explore the world of contemporary design.

Before the end of World War II, dating back through the Edo Period, Japanese art was created on commissions from merchants, much like how European artists historically relied on patronage from the aristocracy. However, in the postwar era, Japan was open to new inspirations from the West, including art and popular entertainment. The introduction of Western cartoons led to the growth of anime studios and famous animators like Hayao Miyazaki. Catching up on European avant-garde led to Japan's own version with the Gutai group, a network of radical artists who explored decaying materials as a form of creative expression. Finally, the postwar economic boom in Japan resulted in a shift toward commercial art and mass consumption, leading to new styles and forms for consumer products.

One key difference between historical Japanese art and its modern form is the cultural emphasis on cuteness. This concept is known in Japanese as "kawaii." Kawaii takes the form of youth and bright colors, drawing attention to innocent forms like cartoon characters, feminine beauty, and pastel-colored products, ranging from airplanes to notebooks to advertising. While most Japanese art and architecture still follows classic styles of minimalism and harmony, kawaii has become the most significant development in the contemporary visual arts.

Of all the artists to emerge in postwar Japan, one of the most prolific is the painter and sculptor Takashi Murakami. In 2000, he became known for his "superflat" theory about two-dimensional images and flat planes of color as being a continuous theme in Japanese art history, apparent even in modern animation (anime) and comics (manga). Murakami's style draws upon traditional influences like Buddhist icons and popular media like anime styles.

In public spaces like Versailles in France, Murakami has created massive sculptures out of materials like gold leaf, using the kawaii design of round-faced and smiling characters as his inspiration. Not only do these works of art highlight Murakami's skill, but they help introduce the rest of the world to Japanese aesthetics and culture, acting as ambassadors of the nation.

Image by Bosc d'Anjou on Flickr

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