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“A Well-Watched War:
Images From the
Russo-Japanese Front 1904-5″
At the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
to Nov. 26
These days, everyone knows what war looks like. It’s chaotic, overwhelming, and shot with a handheld camera—the Tet Offensive as depicted on the CBS Evening News and later codified as the combat-experience paradigm by Oliver Stone’s Platoon. Subsequently, filmmakers revisualized other wars in the same terms, culminating in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. World War II was long known as a black-and-white, still-image conflict, but it turns out that it, too, looked like Vietnam.
Although there are photographs and films of the Russo-Japanese War, its principal portrayals belong to another age. Two ages, actually—while the British artists covering the battles produced black-and-white, crypto-photographic gouaches suitable for modern popular magazines, the Japanese ones crafted woodblock prints of the sort that became popular after the Meiji restoration of 1868 created something Japan had never had before: middle-class consumers. The British strove for crisp, up-to-date realism, but the rapidly modernizing Japanese still preferred the stylization that had characterized their art for a millennium.
The two styles contrast each other intriguingly in “A Well-Watched War: Images From the Russo-Japanese Front 1904-5,” an exhibition of contemporaneous representations of the first 20th-century war to presage the new world order. (There are 38 pieces in total, but only 21 are on display now; they will be replaced by the others in mid-August.) The conflict marked the first time a modern Asian nation had successfully challenged a European one—a development whose full significance wouldn’t be understood until Japanese forces attacked British and American territories almost 40 years later.
By 1900, the British and the Russians had been squabbling over Central Asia for decades—which is one reason Russia decided to move east in its search for warm-water ports. The czar’s plans for access to what is now China and Korea put Russia in direct conflict with Japan’s own territorial ambitions. The British no doubt enjoyed seeing their old rivals confounded on and around the Yellow Sea, which may explain why the illustrations for the U.K.’s Black and White Magazine and the book Japan’s Fight for Freedom: The Story of the War Between Russia and Japan depict Japanese fighters as worthy and even heroic. This is quite unlike Western imagery from World War II, which often renders the emperor’s troops as subhuman and demonic.
The British illustrations don’t ennoble so much as document. The drawings are dramatic but sober, offering a selection of gritty (if idealized) vignettes that a modern war photographer would understand: brave soldiers in danger balanced by the figure of a sober Russian priest burying the dead. (By comparison, the only Japanese image of post-conflict reflection features a young wife who, though tearfully reading a letter about her husband’s fate, is portrayed with the same erotically charged visual conventions as the lustful courtesans of popular prints; Japanese artists had not yet mastered the depiction of domestic respectability.) In style, the British sketch artists were photorealists before their time.
The Japanese prints differ from the British gouaches in many ways. Most elementally, they are in color instead of black and white and usually horizontal instead of vertical. (Most were printed as three-sheet triptychs.) They depict such sensational events as a Russian ship about to be torpedoed and a train crashing through the ice of Lake Baikal—an event that may have happened, although certainly not as shown here—yet in format they are landscapes. The British drawings capture a localized instant; the Japanese reveal an entire vista, with vast possibilities for scenery, mood, and narrative. In Japanese art, life is not a snapshot but rather a scroll of ongoing events. Indeed, some prints in the exhibition include a framed inset depicting a related incident; Japanese draftsmen, apparently, are just natural-born comic-book artists.
The themes are sometimes as traditional as the format. One print depicts Hirose Takeo, a classically conflicted (and classically doomed) Japanese hero. Educated in Russia, Takeo appreciated that country’s culture and opposed the war that duty required him to fight. Such a range of emotions comes naturally to Japanese heroes, who are usually depicted off-center in an ambiguous world of muted, misty grays, browns, and blues—the occasional red explosion of fire or blood aside. And, although the pieces’ perspective and realism show that Japanese artists had learned a lot from the West in the 50 years since Admiral Perry arrived in Tokyo Bay, the compositions remain characteristically Japanese.
Thus Britisher Ernest Prater’s Japanese Infantry Advances depicts a soldier in the central foreground, surrounded by less important figures as if in a Renaissance canvas of Jesus and his disciples. But the Japanese prints place the main pictorial event to the side, whether depicting a single hero or a group. In Yasuda Hampo’s The Eighth Attack on Port Arthur: Sinking of Russian Flagship by Japanese Mine and Death of Admiral Makarov—the only vertical among the large Japanese prints now on display—two-thirds of the image of a sinking ship is underwater, with battle above and tranquility below. It’s a striking image, not simply because of the action, but because of the contrast of violence and serenity. Unlike the British illustrations, the Japanese prints accept that the world is bigger and more enduring than whatever strife currently fascinates journalists.
This is not because these prints are sublime works of art, although in their way they’re pretty great (unlike the British drawings, which are merely historical). Still, these prints remind us that the Japan that vigorously emulated Western technology and imperialism had a worldview that has since infiltrated—and enriched—the cultures of its former enemies. The prints in this show were made to both document and glorify a naked land grab, yet they had space for obliqueness, serendipity, and contradiction. You may go to “A Well-Watched War” looking for Platoon; instead you’ll find everything that The Thin Red Line hoped to be. CP