Aesthetic Language

MoMA ignores the traditional stereotypes surrounding Japanese art as it takes a look at the burgeoning contemporary art scene during the 20th Century in Tokyo 1955 – 1970: A New Avant-Garde.

Tokyo, though TETSUMI a major metropolis, has been unfortunately neglected within the modern art historical canon. The traditional arts (such as ink-wash painting (Suibokuga), porcelain and ceramics) have been emphasised whereas modern and contemporary art has taken a back seat to these more famous methods of artistic production. Since the early 20th century, Tokyo has had a vibrant, prolific and evolving art scene, which this exhibition takes as a starting point, focusing in on artists working from the mid-1950s until 1970.

Having transformed itself from the capital of a war-torn nation into an international centre for arts, culture, and commerce, Tokyo became home to some of the most important art being made at the time. Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde provides a focused look at the extraordinary concentration and network of creative individuals and practices in the city during these turbulent years, with nearly 300 works by around 60 artists on show in a of variety of media – painting, sculpture, photography, drawings, and graphic design, as well as video and documentary film.

Doryun Chong, Associate Curator of Painting and Sculpture at MoMA, argues that the work being produced during this time was much more international, with key figures creating relationships and exchanges with other artists working abroad in New York, Berlin and Paris: “The Tokyo scene was not isolated or hermetically sealed … in the 1960s it was especially interesting because the most important figures in the American avant-garde were all in Japan – Cage, Cunningham etc.” The exhibition, which encompasses a 15-year period, includes the work of Yoko Ono and Daido Moriyama as well as lesser-known figures such as Yokoo Tadanori (b. 1936), whose work is recognisable though perhaps his name is not. Building upon previous exhibitions, such as the 2007 exhibition Art, Anti-Art, Non-Art: Experimentations in the Public Sphere in Postwar Japan, 1950-1970 at the Getty Museum, this show focuses more explicitly on the recalibration of the relationship between Japanese artists and the outside world. Artists including Minoru Kawabata (b. 1911), the grandson of Kawabata Gyokusho (1842-1913), a well-known painter of the traditional Japanese school, merged traditional training with modern styles such as Abstract Expressionism to create a new aesthetic language pertinent to their own country.

The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki left an indelible mark on Japanese society and culture, but it was not just those specific destructive acts that permeated through the varying strata of the country. The uncertainty connected to the ending of the Allied occupation in 1952, combined with the wide-spread fear and concern about the escalating arms race (with America testing the first hydrogen (thermo-nuclear) bomb in 1952), also caused much anxiety. The implications of the arms race impacted directly upon Japan in 1954, when the fishing boat Lucky Dragon No. 5 was exposed to radioactive fallout in the Marshall Islands as a result of hydrogen bomb testing. This brought home quite explicitly the chilling fact that perhaps Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not just one-off incidents; that they could happen again. Japan had not dealt visually and artistically with the impact of the war and bombings, because during the allied occupation, images that depicted the damage to the human and natural environment were banned. It was not until the early 1950s that Japan truly embraced the arts as a means of dealing with the atrocities.

Hiroshima mon Amour, Alain Resnais’ film of 1959, is perhaps one of the more critically acclaimed films of the 1950s that dealt with the bombings, but that film came as a result of the Hiroshima-born filmmaker Kaneto Shindo’s 1952 film Children of Hiroshima. Commissioned by the Japanese Teachers’ Union, it was the first film that dealt directly with the atomic bombings in Japan. Shindo saw first hand the reality of war, being drafted into the Japanese army during World War II, and his sympathetic handling and treatment of those realities gave rise to the cinema of Hibakusha (films with a direct focus on the victims of the two atomic bombings). Lucky Dragon No 5 (1959), a compelling examination of the aftermath of the tuna-fishing boat disaster, is defined by its emphasis on the effects of the war and bombings upon those on the fringes of society.

Tokyo artists, architects and filmographers, like Shindo, realised rapidly that the traditional methods of artistic production were inferior to the task required of them – to depict and articulate visually the dynamic and invariably chaotic post-war reality. Artists recognised that, as Chong states: “Straightforward, naturalism or social realism style cannot capture the complex psychology and collective trauma that the Japanese experienced.” Shindo’s films evolved out of this collective consciousness and were marked heavily by the implications and effects of war. Like many of the artists practising during this time, he utilised the events occurring around him as a springboard of creativity; this was not confined to Tokyo as a whole, but spread to the rest of the country, with the Gutai group in Osaka (one of the most famous movements and artist collectives of avant-garde Japan) emerging out of this environment.

The Gutai group, though based in Osaka, was directly connected with, and shared many of the same concerns, interests and experimentations of the artists and groups working in Tokyo during the period. Jirô Yoshihara (1905-1972) wrote in the Gutai Manifesto (1956) of the “beauty of decay” to be found in art and architecture which has been affected by time and ravaged by disasters. Yoshihara, and the Gutai group as a whole, found this to be both aesthetically and intellectually inspiring, and argues that “the fact that the ruins receive us warmly and kindly after all, and that they attract us with their cracks and flaking surfaces, could this not really be a sign of the material taking revenge, having recaptured its original life?” The urban environment as they knew it had been altered permanently, not just by war, but by the architectural and technological development of the city-scape, and the differences between the new-builds and more traditional architecture became glaringly obvious. There was a widespread feeling of opportunity; the sense that a complete re-evaluation was not just necessary but occurring, and that, through a return to base materials and “original life”, a new language and discourse could flourish.

Artists such as Shigeo Ishii (1933-1962) felt that realism in art was inadequate in expressing the angst, devastation and fear that defined post-war Japan; abstraction was instrumental in allowing this depiction. Ishii’s Violence (1955-1957) series, specifically The State of Martial Law (1956), was a statement on the political reality that existed. Japan has not been under martial law since 1936, but Ishii felt that the American military presence in Japan was tantamount to it. The complex relationship between Japan and America, especially after the bombing of Pearl Harbor during the war, was eased somewhat by those artists practising between New York and Tokyo such as Yoko Ono and Nam June Paik. Chong is quick to point out that it was not a matter of the “west” influencing and leading Japan, but that it was very much a discursive, symbiotic relationship.

Japan had been affected severely, not just by World War II, but by the previous period of military fascism, and the practising artists looked to earlier styles and movements for inspiration and information. Chong states: “One huge and collective task for the artists in the 1950s and into the 1960s, is to learn, rediscover and reconsider what came before them … for instance Surrealism and Constructivism came back as very important influences for them.” One group, the artists collective Jikken Kōbō (Experimental Workshop), looked to the Bauhaus for inspiration; others, such as architects Arata Isozaki and Kenzo Tange, turned to Modernism and “non-architecture” fields of production for post-war design inspiration.

The metabolist movement in architecture is a prime example of this return to the natural environment, and to the utopian ideals of “nature” as well as the ideal city. Metabolism, the biological act of growth, reproduction and transformation, was precisely the way that the architects envisaged their practice. Tange and Kisho Kurokawa were the two main proponents of this movement, with Kenzo’s Master Plan for Hiroshima and Hiroshima Peace Center Complex (1953) in particular having a major influence. There is an almost sci-fi feel to metabolist architecture, with its emphasis on organic forms combined with innovative, technologically advanced architectonic constructions.

This return to a more organic art, embracing nature and concrete forms as stimulation, was very much tied to the emerging influence of George Maciunas and the Fluxus movement out of New York in the early 1960s, and was integral to the development of the Tokyo artists’ ideas and work. Maciunas rallied against the developing separation that existed between life and art, and argued in his 1962 manifesto, Neo-Dada in Music, Theatre, Poetry, Art, that everything in the natural world was beautiful and worthy of consideration: “Rainfall is anti-art, a babble of a crowd is anti-art, a sneeze is anti-art, a flight of a butterfly, or movements of microbes are anti-art. They are as beautiful and as worth to be aware of as art itself.”

This emphasis on the everyday, play and the natural world is seen in Shigeko Kubota’s (b. 1937) film, performance and video work. Kubota, who moved to New York in 1964 to enter the world of Fluxus, trained as a sculptor at the Tokyo University of Education and her work exhibits her training through her structural interest in form and the performative aspects of the human body. Kubota’s Vagina Painting (1965), performed in New York as part of the Perpetual Fluxus Festival, precedes the work of artists such as Carolee Schneemann (Interior Scroll, 1975) in its use of her body as a site of production. The Fluxus movement was integral to the development of “female” art, expanding the parameters of material and subject that previously they had been stifled by.

The importance of literature, with photo-books such as Takuma Nakahira’s (b. 1938) For a Language to Come (1970), and magazines such as Provoke, in the dissemination of new ideas and movements from abroad and internally was incredibly important. Provoke, founded in 1968 by a collective of artists, photographers and critics, had a brief existence, but its influence was far-reaching, especially for photographers. Nakahira, and others who worked for and with Provoke, propounded the idea that photography could never be realistic; photographic images reflect a decisive moment chosen by a particular person from a specific viewpoint, and are thus inherently subjective.

The often grainy, blurry quality of the Provoke artists’ images reveals the inadequacy of the camera to depict reality without the direct, individual hand of the artist in focusing the camera. Edward Steichen’s 1955 curated exhibition The Family of Man at MoMA, described by UNESCO as an exhibition that “reflect[s] the subjects’ joys and sadnesses, their satisfactions and their unhappinesses, and their longing for peace, but also the reality of bloody conflict”, revealed to Tokyo artists the power of the camera in expressing and describing post-war everyday existence. Daido Moriyama (b. 1938) was introduced to Nakahira in 1964 and was one of the group’s biggest proponents and supporters, continuing in the vein and tradition of are, bure, boke (rough, blurry, and out of focus) images that the Provoke group had made its defining visual aesthetic. Work such as Midnight Accident (1969), depicting the aftermath and debris of a car accident, has a hazy, surreal quality reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s “car crashes” from his Death and Disaster series (in which he adopted tabloid images and reproduced them in quick succession, thereby reducing their inherent sensationalist quality).

This exhibition comes at a key moment, opening up a new discourse around the extensive artistic network that existed worldwide during the 1950s and 1960s. Contextualising the Tokyo-based artists within the larger global community, the show probes into the motivations and stimuli particular to Tokyo as an urban metropolis and, by doing so, enables the viewer to gain a broader understanding of what is the avant-garde.

Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde ran at MoMA until 25 February 2013. Visit for further information.

Niamh Coghlan