Hisakatsu Hijikata: The Artist and the Island

Because of strong pressures to belong and conform in Japanese society, the country can be a difficult place for those otherwise inclined. One reaction to this is the hikikomori phenomenon, in which chiefly young males reduce contact with society to a minimum by staying in their rooms. A recently suggested variant is sotokomori — those who escape over-intense social interaction by choosing to live abroad.

Although 20th-century Japanese artists and writers had good professional reasons to study abroad, there is also the possibility that one of the attractions was the escape it offered these sensitive and original types. This motive is all the more apparent in "Two Lives in Palau: Literary Genius, Atsushi Nakajima; Japan's Gauguin, Hisakatsu Hijikata" at the Setagaya Art Museum till Jan. 27. The exhibition looks at Hijikata (1900-1977) and Nakajima (1909-1942), who were from Tokyo's Setagaya Ward, and their meeting on Palau, today a small independent island territory 3,200 km south of Tokyo, but in those days a territory administered by Japan.

Unlike artists who justified moving to Paris to "drink from the fount" of art, when Hijikata arrived in Palau in 1929, it was such an artistic backwater that he was enlisted in a government-sponsored program teaching the natives art skills. But such isolation may have suited Hijikata — in Japan, he’d been unable to find an artistic group to belong to.

Still, the exhibition's curator Yoshiya Hashimoto counters the idea that Hijikata’s move to Palau may have been the escape of an outsider from group pressures and artistic expectations. Hashimoto instead is keen to emphasize the positives: "Hijikata was disappointed at the Japanese old-fashioned cultural situation," he says. "He demanded the new world. He wanted to let Japanese art meet the art of the South Seas. I can see how Hijikata's action may appear to be an escape, but I think that it was actually an adventure in a new world."

This positive interpretation is most obvious in the decision to link Hijikata's name with that of Frenchman Paul Gauguin, the painter most famously associated with the South Seas. While such a comparison is superficially convincing, there are also significant differences. Hijikata went to Palau at the start of his artistic career; for Gauguin, Tahiti represented a culmination as he painted the Tahitian islanders with techniques and a style he had largely evolved in Europe. In a sense, he brought his "artistic camera" with him. Hijikata, by contrast, had still to build his.

The content of the exhibition, almost all of which dates from long after Hijikata had returned to Japan — forced back in 1942 by the war, he never revisited the island — show that the island-themed art of Hijikata was essentially dictated from memory. The only items at the exhibition actually produced on Palau are a series of wooden masks done in "tribal" styles.

These are remarkable for their playful diversification and express a sense of humor that also can also be found in his mature bronze sculptures, such as Two People (Comical Fight) (1956) or Island Showoff (1965).

The subject for Island Showoff, a young native with a feather comically adorning his head, also appears in two other media favored by Hijikata — watercolors and wood reliefs. Both his watercolors, all from the 1970s, and his wood reliefs, from the '50s and '60s, depict island scenes and people that are full of a sense of the idyllic.

Perhaps Hijikata found it easier to explore his memories removed from Palau rather than with the subjects themselves eyeing his progress. This suggest he was a shy, voyeuristic proto-sotokomori — and to stretch it further, raises the possibility that his failure to return to Palau could be read as an escape from yet another society he had become part of. Hashimoto points out that Hijikata became fluent in the local language, but is less forthcoming about his relationships with local people, yet another difference with Gauguin, whose relationships with the women on Tahiti are well known.

Though Hijikata's art is the main interest, the writer Nakajima, who came to the islands for about a year in 1941 and struck up a friendship with Hijikata, is given equal prominence. Letters, postcards, photos and video flesh out this part of the show. Nakajima died soon after returning to Japan and achieved a posthumous fame through the subsequent popularity of his short story Sangetuski and his novel Light, Wind and Dreams, which was based on the life of author Robert Louis Stevenson, another famous visitor to the South Seas.

Both Nakajima and Hijikata looked outside Japan for inspiration. "Two Lives in Palau" sees this in purely positive terms — the "pull" factors of a quest for knowledge and experience. A potentially far more interesting story could have looked at the "push" factors — but that would have emphasized the endemic disjunction between a group-oriented society and sensitive creative types.

The Japan Times
3rd January, 2008

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