Yamashita Kikuji

Deification of a Soldier

1967

Artist
Yamashita Kikuji 1919–1986
Original title
Matsurawareru senshi
Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 1310 x 1950 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased with funds provided by the Asia Pacific Acquisitions Committee 2018
Reference
T15021

Summary

Deification of a Soldier (Matsurawareru senshi) 1967 is a large-scale oil painting in a mostly grey palette from which spectral forms emerge. The composition is dominated by the almost symmetrical apparition of a two-headed horse, one of which bears the stripes of a zebra; the other wears a bridle, indicating, in contrast, domestication and oppression by mankind. Out of this creature protrude various limbs and ghoulish faces. The motif of disembodied teeth repeats itself across the bottom of this complex configuration, creating an overall impression of a hallucinatory vision or a nightmare. The paint has been applied in thin, translucent layers, enhancing the ethereal themes of the work. This quality, and the imagery of the painting, signifies the beginning of a departure from the hard, graphic style for which Yamashita was best known, and a turn towards abstraction and psychologically darker themes.

Yamashita was a key artist within ‘Reportage painting’ (Ruporutaju kaiga), a genre that flourished in Japan in the 1950s and 1960s in response to the global Cold War and its devastating impact on the civilian population of Japan. Alongside Nakamura Hiroshi, Ikeda Tatsuo and Ishii Shigeo, Yamashita drew upon his first-hand experiences of war to create dramatic narrative tableaux depicting suffering and interpersonal conflict. Despite the suggestions of fantasy in Deification of a Soldier, various elements root the image in the reality of war – a musket protrudes from the ear of one of the horse’s heads and is directed at a man in a generic red uniform with gold trim, and a skull and a dove wear military helmets. The shape of the latter recalls the distinctive ‘M1’ helmet worn by US Army personnel during the American occupation of Vietnam in the 1950s and 1960s. It is notable that this conflict was experienced by many abroad via photographic reportage, which was used by left-leaning journalists to communicate to the outside world the atrocities committed against Vietnamese civilians, and the vain efforts of the men who been conscripted on both sides. At the time the painting was made, a three-year bombing campaign of North Vietnam was underway. Titled ‘Operation Rolling Thunder’, it resulted in the loss of over 180,000 lives – not including over one thousand servicemen. The title Deification of a Soldier suggests an homage to one who has lost his life in battle, his transmogrification symbolised by the presence of a red butterfly and an egg on the right of the composition.

Yamashita’s abhorrence of political and social inequality was stimulated from a young age – brought up in a remote village in northern Tokushima, he witnessed first-hand the discrimination of the Burakumin, or ‘outcast’ people, who resided nearby. In 1939, at the age of twenty, Yamashita was conscripted into the Imperial Japanese Army and stationed in China, where he was forced to participate in the execution of a prisoner of war. He later reflected in an article, ‘A Peephole into Discrimination’ (1970), that the trauma of this experience and the inhumanity of war left him with a feeling of deep remorse and helplessness. As a consequence, he was compelled to protest via painting the injustices inflicted by totalitarian regimes.

Stylistically, Yamashita’s paintings draw upon art historical sources as diverse as Early Netherlandish painting, Japanese Noh theatre and twentieth-century social realism. An interest in surrealism, and specifically the work of Salvador Dalí (1904–1989), is also discernible and can be accounted for by Yamashita’s training under Fukuzawa Ichiro (1898–1992), who had travelled to Paris in the 1920s to study sculpture. Fukuzawa was profoundly inspired by European artists such as Dalí, Max Ernst and Giorgio de Chirico, and evidently passed on this enthusiasm to Yamashita in whose paintings absurd and dreamlike imagery frequently appear.

Further reading
Doryun Chong, ‘Tokyo 1955–1970: A New Avant-Garde’, in Tokyo 1955–1970: A New Avant-Garde, exhibition catalogue, The Museum of Modern Art, New York 2012, pp.26–93.
Linda Hoaglund, ‘The Lost Art of Resistance’, Impressions, no.33, 2012, pp.30–41.

Katy Wan
July 2017

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Display caption

The title of this work suggests that a soldier is being worshipped as if he were a god. However, the imagery is chaotic and violent. With screaming mouths, distorted animal forms and disembodied limbs it captures the absurdity of war. The painting was made at the height of the Vietnam War, when there were extensive protests about the United States’ military presence in Japan. It also looks back to Kikuji’s traumatic memories of the Second World War. As a conscript in the Imperial Japanese army, he witnessed many atrocities and took part in the killing of a Chinese prisoner.

Gallery label, January 2019

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