Masters of Japanese Photography

Masters of Japanese Photography (SCVA Exhibition)


Exhibition Schedule: Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia, Norwich. November 11, 2016 – March 19, 2017. £7 Entry. The exhibition contains images of nudity and explores adult themes.

Masters of Japanese Photography

Masters of Japanese Photography
Nobuyoshi Araki, Kinbaku, 1980-2000/2013 RP Direct print, 101 x 76 cm. Edition of 10

Masters of Japanese Photography is an exhibition that teaches us about Japanese Culture through the eyes of three photographers who grew up in the aftermath of the Second World War, Nobuyoshi Araki, Eikoe Hosoe, and Kikuji Kawada. The pictures depict personal and cultural experiences, and attempts to educate us in both the ‘natural beauty and social complexity’ of Japan. With this context in mind, it certainly delivers, but to get the full experience of this retrospective, and to understand it, the viewer needs to be open minded.

The exhibition is the first of its kind that the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Art (SCVA) has displayed. Never before have they explored contemporary Japanese photography, and therefore this offers a unique opportunity for its visitors. The exhibition has around sixty images on display, in a simple installation on the mezzanine. SCVA, together with support from Simon Blakely, the Michael Hoppen Gallery in London, Judith S. Novak, and Eikoh Hosoe himself, have brought a little bit of Japanese culture to Norfolk.

Unless by a famous name, photography exhibitions can be a hard sell because it’s difficult to convince general viewers that photographs can be art; this is why the context of this exhibition is important to understand. After the Second World War, Japanese photography went through several stages of reconstruction, much like the country, and leaned on inspiration from Europe and the United States. The photographs of these three photographers followed both the approach of the ‘documentary’  and of ‘personal expression’. Personal expression allowed the photographers to push the boundaries, and as the decades progressed beyond the war, the lure of international response to photography became a enticement for the Japanese photographers, but equally, they did not want to lose sight of their cultural and national identity.

The exhibition describes what ties these three artists together: ‘tradition, sensuality, eroticism, lyricism, and the fleetingness of life are concepts that feature in many of these images’.

The exhibition starts with Araki and ends with Kawada. From the explicit to the natural.

Nobuyoshi Araki

Masters of Japanese Photography - Araki
Nobuyoshi Araki. Untitled (Watermelon), 1991. Fuji Crystal RP print, 50 x 60 cm. Signed in silver ink by the artist © Nobuyoshi Araki

Nobuyoshi Araki is the accidental artist. He started his career as a photographer for the advertising agency, Dentu in the early-60s, after graduating from Chiba University. He left Dentu nearly ten years later to become and independent professional photographer. He was, in his own words, ‘a rogue getting up to mischief’ (qtd. in Philippe: 2014, 7).

For Araki, he photographed what he knew and what he loved. By taking a photograph it allowed his feelings and emotions to ‘survive’, the image is then eternal (Philippe: 2014, 6). Many of his photographs are black and white, and those that are in colour often contain red. Araki believes that ‘red expresses the complexity of life and death’ (qtd. in Philippi: 2014, 6), although he prefers to focus on life as death brings too much sadness.

The image of the exhibition, ‘Untitled’ (aka ‘Watermelon’) is the first image you see when you arrive on the mezzanine. It is as striking as you would expect it to be and is, from what I can recall, the only print which was signed by Araki himself: a silver scrawl on the bottom right of the image.

The mezzanine allows only for a simple installation starting on one wall and forcing you back and forth along three double-sided free standing walls, which always reminds me of da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’ and her free-standing wall in the middle of room 6, in the Denon Wing of the Louvre.

Following the ‘Watermelon’ image the exhibition guides you through about a dozen floral images, which are photographic representations of the female genitalia, in the same way that Georgia O’Keefe paints her flowers. Araki has a love affair with flowers.

Masters of Japanese Photography
Nobuyoshi Araki, Kaori, 2004 RP direct print, 76.200 x 101.60 cm. Edition of 10

It is not clear why Araki was chosen as the first artist to be viewed. His works are certainly the most challenging and therefore it acts as a lure for the viewer, equally it could be as simple as they chose to exhibit alphabetically.

Araki admitted to Jérôme Sans that he did initially view women as sex objects, something that he felt he could admit to in a publication that would only be read outside of Japan. That was until he met his wife, and at that point he appeared to capture emotion and feeling in an image. He favoured photographing women as he believed ‘women have all the charms of life itself … beauty, ugliness, obscenity, purity … much more so than nature’ (qtd. in Philippi: 2014, 7).

One of the themes Araki explores is that of kinbaku, which is a type of Japanese bondage. Araki considers the act of tying up the female body as that of putting your arm around her, and that only her body can be tied up as her soul cannot.

Masters of Japanese Photography - Araki
Nobuyoshi Araki, Untitled (Private Photography), 1993. RP direct print

In his print, ‘Kaori’, on a white table stand three dinosaurs, a Dimetrodon, a Dilophosaurus and what looks like a primitive representation of either an Allosaurus or Ceratosaurus or even Godzilla. Araki views these ‘monsters’ as an extension of himself, they are his alto ego. When he wants to be in a photograph, he will arrange these dinosaurs, each having a meaning only known to him.

The Araki section of the exhibition ends with an Untitled image from Private Photography. This image was one of the most emotionally charged print of the Araki collection. The blurred image, the woman’s look of anguish, loss, and resignation is palpable.

This leads perfectly into a selection of prints from Hosoe’s Ordeal by Roses series, featuring writer and political activist, Yukio Mishima.

Eikoh Hosoe

Eikoh Hosoe was born Toshihiro Hosoe but changed his name in response to the new era Japan was entering after the Second World War (‘Toshihiro’ means ‘wise’ while ‘Eikoh’ is usually translated as ‘child’ – perhaps he viewed himself as the child of the new era). After graduating from the Tokyo College of Photography, he became a professional photographer and film-maker, becoming one of the founding members of the VIVO agency, a ground-breaking collective that shaped photography in post-war Japan.

Masters of Japanese Photography - Hosoe
Eikoh Hosoe, Ordeal by Roses No. 32, 1961. Vintage silver gelatin print

Whilst many photographers, amateurs and professionals, were taking photos of Tokyo in ruins with nature budding between the cracks, Hosoe ‘carefully and precisely’ arranged the scene in the exact way he visualised (Hosoe: 2009). It is suggested that Hosoe’s considered structure to achieve his vision is precisely why Mishima collaborated with the Ordeal by Roses series. In Hosoe’s own words, ‘The theme that flows through the entire body of work was ultimately “Life and Death” through Yukio Mishima, borrowing his flesh and using a rose as a visible symbol of beauty and thorns’ (Hosoe: 2016). The series became eerily prophetic, as in 1970 Mishima took his own life by seppuku, a Japanese suicide ritual that involved stabbing himself in the abdomen. With this knowledge, the series takes on a new dark undertone, and it is the only one in the series to really provide a coherent narrative.

Masters of Japanese Photography - Hosoe
Eikoh Hosoe. Ordeal by Roses No. 19, 1961. Vintage silver gelatin print

The installation of this sequence was spread over three sides of the free-standing walls, with the prints in no defined order, although as they are numbered we can only presuppose a sequence. It certainly gives an overview and an insight into what the series must look like as a whole. However, at SCVA ‘Ordeal by Roses No.32’ came first, the most arresting of them all, then ‘No. 1’, and then ‘No. 28’ just to give you an idea.

Hosoe’s ‘Ordeal by Roses No. 19’, is an example of the photographer mixing mediums, and playing with Surrealism and Classicism. Several prints have a graphic feel to the finish, rather than photographic, adding another layer of depth to the series.

Masters of Japanese Photography - Hosoe
Eikoh Hosoe. Ordeal by Roses No. 0, 1961. Vintage silver gelatin print

What is exciting about this series is that you know you’re reading a narrative. Much like Araki, Hosoe tends to focus on the human body, but unlike Araki, Hosoe’s vision always put the subject in a dramatic setting, and are quite often gothic in tone. His references to sexuality also appeal much more to the aesthetic than the self-consciously erotic.

The Hosoe display ends with ‘No. 0’ – an intense image of a light source bouncing off Mishima’s bare back, his body and setting blanked in blackness – mirroring the first print of Kawada’s Cosmology series.

Kikuji Kawada

Masters of Japanese Photography - Kawada
The Last Eclipse of the Sun in 20th century Japan, 11.23am, 18 March 1988. 50.5 x 40.9 cm. Vintage silver gelatin print

Kikuji Kawada was an Economics graduate from Rikkyo University before joining a publishing company in 1955, where he began his photography career. Along with Hosoe, Kawada was one of the six founding members of the VIVO agency. He was enormously inspired by Alfred Stieglitz’s Clouds series, and Emil Nolde’s series of paintings of clouds and the sea (Kawada: 2015).

The series kicks off with ‘The Last Eclipse of the Sun in 20th Century Japan, 11.23am, 18 March 1988’. The original Cosmology series was printed in sections throughout the 80s, and then compiled and exhibited in the 90s. It chronicles the ties of the skies with the end of the ‘Shōwa’ era in Japan and the death of the Emperor Hirohito towards the end of the 20th Century.

Kawada is intrigued by how we are oblivious to the spectacle that is happening above our heads as we proceed through our own lives. Kawada manages to capture this beauty in images such as ‘Artificial Moon Trail’, whereby the scene captured becomes a cosmological chart and art. He invites you to see what he sees. He invites you to feel what he feels. He invites you to acknowledge something that is all around us but quite often ignored.

Masters of Japanese Photography - Kawada
Artificial Moon Trail. 1969. 50.5 x 40.9 cm. Vintage silver gelatin print

Overall, this exhibition touches on different Japanese traditions that evoke multiple emotions as you pass by Araki to Hosoe, and Hosoe to Kawada. All three photographers share images with us that demonstrate the cultural movement and response to the Second World War, and take us on a personal journey in to the minds of the three masters. The exhibition feels very much like an introduction to Araki, Hosoe and Kawada, sparking an interest to learn further. SCVA facilitate a seated area with literature about the artists on exhibition, which invites the viewer to understand the exhibition more by learning about the photographers. It is the overview style of this exhibition that makes it more challenging for the viewer, but a challenge that inspires one to continue your own journey once you leave.

When you take a photo at 1/1000 of a second, the moment can become an eternal fact, an eternal moment. – Eikoh Hosoe

Works Cited

Hosoe, Eikoh, et al. (2009) Kamaitachi. New York. Aperture

Hosoe, Eikoh. (2016) Masters of Japanese Photography.
Exhibition at : Sainsbury Centre for Visual Art
11 November 2016 – 19 March 2017

Kawada, Kikuji. (2015) The Last Cosmology. London. Mack

Philippe, Simone, et al. (2014) Araki. Köln. TASCHEN GmbH

Further Reading

Hosoe, Eikoh. (2009) Barakei. Special Ed. New York. Aperture

Szarkowski, John, et al. (1984) New Japanese Photography. New York. Museum of Modern Art

Wilkes Tucker, Anne. 2003) The History of Japanese Photography. London, Yale University Press

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