Japanese Surrealist Photography
[Image: Kansuke Yamamoto, “Buddhist Temple’s Bird Cage”, 1940 , gelatin silver print, mage and paper size: 25.6 x 17.7 cm © Toshio Yamamoto, the Estate of Kansuke Yamamoto]
This event has ended.
Taka Ishii Gallery is pleased to present the group exhibition “Japanese Surrealist Photography” from January 14 to February 4. The exhibition focuses on the trajectory of avant-garde photography, which has long been marginalized in the history of Japanese photography and features 28 works by Iwata Nakayama, Toshiko Okanoue, Osamu Shiihara, Kansuke Yamamoto, and Nakaji Yasui.
In 1930, editor in chief Senichi Kimura at Photo Times and others introduced the latest trends of Western European photography to Japanese photographic milieu. Shinko Shashin or New Photography, which employed techniques such as snapshots, close-ups, photograms, and photo montage to distance photography from painting, consequently spread nationwide. The 1932 publication of the photography magazine Koga represents the peak of Shinko Shashin in Japan. Iwata Nakayama, who was involved in the magazine’s establishment, pursued modernist photography, aiming to “fundamentally deconstruct the beauty and feel of photographs” and proceeded to create fantastic photo montages and sensual portraits. Stating that he wanted “to create beautiful things, even if they are fabricated,” his anti-naturalist work differed significantly from the dominant photographic culture in Japan, which emphasized the “naturalness” of the photographic medium. In and after the late 1930s, Shinko Shashin would bifurcate into socially driven journalistic photography and modernist avant-garde photography. Kansuke Yamamoto, who began writing poetry in 1930, began making photographs in 1931, already with the explicit goal of producing “surrealist results in photography” prior to the establishment of avant-garde photography in Japan. His works, which embody his unique poetic sensibility as well as sharp eye for social critique, brilliantly combine Japanese motifs with Western European Surrealist iconography.
Although Surrealism in Japan began with the publication in translation of Andre Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto/Soluble Fish (1924), it was interpreted and received in a way that made Surrealism spread in Japan as a unique movement, distinguished from the European movement’s original ideas of freedom and liberation of the unconscious. In the field of photography, new groups were founded in various regions of Japan after avant-garde photography arose through an alignment of forms and styles with the techniques of Shinko Shashin. Here too, these new groups were quite distanced from the European Surrealism’s founding aims of recovering and restoring humanity against the society of rationalism, which had been exposed as bankrupt. In the Kansai region, where such new photographers’ groups especially thrived, amateur photographers’ associations such as the Naniwa Photography Club and Tanpei Photography Club became the centers of the Shinko Shashin movement. While photographers in Tokyo quickly became aware of the social role of photography and shifted to photojournalism, their counterparts in Kansai continued to pursue experiments in expression. The absence in Kansai of theoretical leaders equivalent to figures such as Shuzo Takiguchi, who played an essential role in avant-garde practices in Tokyo, helped create a relatively relaxed understanding of the “avant-garde” in Kansai as a material with which to enjoy art production. As a result, multivalent art practices that cannot be summarized as simply Surrealist were carried out in Kansai. Nakaji Yasui, who pioneered the frontlines of photographic expression as a core member of both Naniwa and Tanpei Photography Clubs, aggressively incorporated Shinko Shashin techniques, but simultaneously pushed the possibilities of photography as an expressive medium. “Displaced Jew” (1941), made collaboratively by the six members of the Tanpei Photography Club, embodies an unflinching gaze seeking to accurately document social conditions. Osamu Shiihara, who was also a member of the Tanpei Photography Club, produced a body of work displaying superior compositional skills derived from his academic roots. His works differ slightly from the explosive Surrealist expression which arguably reflected the oppressive climate of the times as Japanese society was rapidly organized in preparation for the Pacific War.
Toshiko Okanoue, who appeared like a comet in the art world in the 1950s, made photo collages during Japan’s recovery period, which was marked ambivalently by senses of freedom and lack resulting from material shortage. Her works symbolically express the artist’s and women’s emotions. That she was not explicitly self-conscious about being an artist is corroborated by Shuzo Takiguchi, who commented, “Ms. Okanoue is not a painter; she is a young lady,” on the occasion of her first solo exhibition in 1953. Her images were made sincerely and purely creatively according to her heart’s desire, without involvement in the art movements or world of the era. In this sense, they are marked by automatism in the purest sense.
This exhibition is made possible with support from MEM and The Third Gallery Aya.