PHOTOS: Realism meets Surrealism in Getty Japanese photography exhibit

Stapled Flesh, 1949, Kansuke Yamamoto, gelatin silver print. From the collection of Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck.

Kansuke Yamamoto/┬ęToshio Yamamoto

Stapled Flesh, 1949, Kansuke Yamamoto, gelatin silver print. From the collection of Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck. Marc Haefele writes, "Yamamoto seems to have disdained serenity for his entire working life and to always been involved in portraying the human psyche."

“Art work comes out of some disobedient spirit against the ready-made things in society.” (Kansuke Yamamoto, 1914—1987)

Photographer-montagist Kansuke Yamamoto was a singular and probably unique figure in the surrealist sector of 20th Century art and poetry.  He was also born in Japan—a nation most of whose 20th Century art, photographic or otherwise, is surprisingly unknown to many of us.

There’s a Getty show going on now featuring Yamamoto’s bewitching, provocative work. It also displays pictures taken by Yamamoto’s gifted but comparatively earthy contemporary, Hiroshi Hamaya.  They present a really odd, even jarring, juxtaposition. As if some major Asian museum were to mount a double show of the work of US realist Walker Evans and American near-Dada surrealist Man Ray.  Such a show would certainly prove to be pretty fascinating.  As this one  is.  Not just because it introduces to us two major yet unfamiliar artists, but because it gives us glimpses and panoramas of such unusual and unsuspected Japanese inner and outer landscapes.

(Left: A Chronicle of Drifting, 1949, Kansuke Yamamoto, © Toshio Yamamoto. Right: Man in a Traditional Minoboshi Raincoat, Niigata Prefecture, 1956, Hiroshi Hamaya, © Keisuke Katano)

For most of his career, Hiroshi Hamaya was something of a literalist. He literally began his career at the 8,000-foot level as a practicing aerial photographer.  In the decade before WW2,  he came down to earth as a magazine photographer of Tokyo street life. He then became fascinated by the customs and culture of Japan’s impoverished northernmost Niigata prefecture,  with its four months of snowdrifts and culture saturated with piety and rice farming. He spent 15 years chronicling Niigata. But in 1960, he literally found himself drawn to the politics of that time—providing a day-by-day and even hour by hour photo history of the massive 1960 protests against Japan’s renewed defense treaty with the US. These protests were the historic first risings of the protest-prone global unrest of the remainder of the 1960s,  so Hamaya’s chronicle is a magnificent record of the mass of people versus hordes of police, protesting what was truly an usurpation of democratic process.

But, according to Getty photo curator Judith Keller, his brief political experience turned him “away from the social landscape to an investigation of nature.” In effect, he returned to the serenity of the 8,000 foot level—now again portraying, but in color, seas, volcanoes and forests.  

Kansuke Yamamoto, in contrast, seems to have disdained serenity for his entire working life and to always been involved in portraying the human psyche. An avant-gardist from the start, he was blatantly influenced  by Western artists like Man Ray, Tanguy and Magritte—so much so that even some of his mature work, such as his skillful 1963 photomontage “My Bench,” seems to be almost a paraphrase of his major influences.  His  collages, however, still look  startlingly original.  The Getty’s catalog also includes translations of his spare, evocative poetry.  But unfortunately there’s no representation of his late 1960s Anti-Vietnam War work.

Unlike Hamaya, Yamamoto was always political to the core of his being. So much so that in the late 1930s, he was rigorously interrogated by the notorious  ToKo, the Imperial Thought Police, who forced the closure of his surrealist  arts magazine.

This encounter with authority seems to have resulted in one of his most striking collage images, called “Buddhist Temple Bird Cage.”  It’s of an old-fashioned upright dial telephone, shut away in a canary cage.  It both represents Yamamoto’s opinion of the military dictatorship and his courage in openly denouncing it.

He went on being avant-garde, employing his art as rebellion, through WW2 and for the rest of his life.

Japan's Modern Divide: The Photographs of Hiroshi Hamaya and Kansuke Yamamoto, runs through August 25 at the Getty Center.

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