Place is something that exists only in time. Scholars engaged in spatial humanities “…understand space and place as the product of interrelationships, coexistence, and process, always changing and always in the state of becoming” (Bodenhamer, Corrigan, and Harris 2015, 15, 22 ). Mapping out the circulation of art-related knowledge in the Japanese empire allowed me to locate the imperial art world in the 1930s. To identify it in art exhibition spaces, libraries, artists' ateliers, and newspaper pages. We can also find it in the pages of Japan Art Yearbook (Nihon Bijutsu Nenkan), which included Korea Fine Arts Exhibition, the Taiwan Fine Arts Exhibition as well as museums in the colonies in its annual calendar (Asahi shinbunsha ed. 1929). This art world enticed aspiring artists with its celebrity press coverage and a promise of a career path. Access varied based on factors like gender, class, ethnicity, generation, language, and personal networks.
Many painters from Korea and Taiwan of the first generation to grow up under colonial rule attended art schools in Japan and participated in art exhibitions in the metropole. By the late 1930s and early 1940s, some of them would become well known figures in the imperial art world. At the same time, young writers, dancers, and sportsmen from the colonies began to appear on the pages of metropolitan newspapers. In 1933 Korean writer Chang Hyŏkchu (Cho Kakuchu, 1905-1997) received a literary award for his writing in Japanese. The following year, Taiwanese Chinese writer Yang Kui's (1906-1985) short story was awarded a literary prize (Kleeman 2003, 160). In 1936, Son Kijŏng (1912-2002), a Korean marathon runner, won the golden medal for the Japanese team at the Summer Olympics in Berlin. As a result of assimilation policies, colonial subjects were given Japanese citizenship (kokuseki), yet were differentiated on the basis of their origins (koseki); they had to meet the obligations of imperial subjects, yet were denied many of the rights (Ching 2001; Morris-Suzuki 1998; Suh 2013).
In 1933, the first government-sponsored permanent display of Japanese modern art in the Japanese empire opened at Seokjojeon, a building belonging to the Tŏksugung Palace compound in Seoul. And so, after many years of artists in Japan petitioning for a modern art museum in Tokyo, their demands were realized in a colonial metropole instead. In 1938, this permanent display became part of the Yi Royal Fine Arts Museum and a new building has been added to display premodern Korean art. The two buildings juxtaposed premodern Korean ceramics and art, with contemporary Japanese painting, sculpture, and crafts. This display embodied the new imperial art history in the making (Kolodziej 2018, 173-191; Aso 2014, 115-123).
Japan's imperial art world expanded further. Manchukuo, with its annual Manchukuo Fine Arts Exhibition (J. Manshūkoku bijutsu tenrankai, 1938-1944), came into its orbit by the mid 1930s. In the early 1940s, the eyes of artists and art critics turned to the Southern Islands in the Pacific and the South East Asia, propelled by the idea of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere (Culver 2013; Eubanks 2019).
The concept of the imperial art world is useful for rethinking Japanese modern art history. It highlights how the boundaries between the arts of Japan, Korea, and Taiwan were being policed in new ways. It points to Japan's claims to the mantle of “East Asian Art World.” It gestures to cultural imperialism at home that helped Japanese artists see their art as a worthy match to Western art.
Furthermore, this concept invites us to challenge art historical notions of place in relation to art that tend to situate art within the timeless and fixed space of the nation. Nation state building has profoundly shaped how we study art. Yet, our global artistic imagination and reality has been equally, if not more, impacted by imperial formations and cultural imperialism. If we want to pay heed to these multiple dynamics at play, we need to develop more place-conscious approaches to art historical scholarship.