In the act of appropriating the political voice and thematic structure of European Surrealism and melding it with uniquely Japanese subjects, Kansuke Yamamoto (1914 – 1987) deeply influenced the development of Japanese Surrealism, and became a singularly important figure in the history of Japanese photography. Yamamoto’s images offer a fascinating insight into an isolationist culture that was at the time largely inaccessible to Western inquiry, and while his elaborate and poetic images can inspire an emotional response even in the absence of context, in order to critically appreciate his work it is important to understand the cultural and political climate of Japan during his lifetime.
Born on March 30 1914 in the Aichi prefecture of Nagoya, Kansuke Yamamoto began his life just after the end of the repressive and industrialist Meiji Restoration in Japan. The resultant brief but vibrant Taisho Era (1912-1926) encompassed his entire childhood. Due to the weak and chronically infirm state of reigning emperor Taisho, political influence shifted suddenly towards the more liberal parties of Japan. The Taisho period therefore represented an almost revolutionary era, in which experimental ideas about art and politics flourished in popular culture. It was toward the close of this era that Surrealism was first introduced to Japan. Yamamoto, however, would not discover Surrealism for another few years.
Yamamoto spent much of his youth in his father’s small photography supply store and studio. Goro Yamamoto was an avid photographer who embraced the pictorialist aesthetic. While western audiences had largely moved on from Pictorialism by this time, the permissive Taisho Era encouraged the popularity of the genre in Japan. Although Kansuke was immersed in the mechanics and principles of photography, he was completely unimpressed with Pictorialism; as such, he was far more interested in writing poetry than taking photographs during his youth.
In 1931 Yamamoto moved from Nagoya to Tokyo to study French literature at Meiji University. While it is unknown precisely how he first encountered Surrealism, Yamamoto attended many art exhibitions during this period, and was introduced to the works of several famous European artists as they debuted in Japanese popular culture. He was also an avid reader of the surrealist poetry magazine Cine. It was also around this time that Yamamoto co-founded Dokuritsu Shashin Kenkyukai (Independent Photography Research Association), a group of photographers similarly dissatisfied with the limits of Pictorialism. The group met regularly for discussion and published the photo magazine Dokuritsu (Independent). It was in the pages of Dorikitsu that Yamamoto first published his work.
By the early 1930s two divergent schools of photography had emerged from the fading popularity of Pictorialism. One, a documentary style focused on frank depictions of modern everyday life, and the other a deeply subjective, abstract Surrealism which rejected the concept of a dichotomy between thought and reality. The photojournalistic style was promptly co-opted in the mid 1930s by the Japanese government to produce pro-war propaganda. Surrealism however, because of its inherently anti-establishment nature, was always viewed as incendiary. Surrealist artists were threatened with imprisonment for publishing their work.
Yet it was through Surrealism that Yamamoto realized and refined his artistic vision. Much of Yamamoto’s early photography and collage indicates a precocious aptitude for composition and style. His earliest known work, and one of his most famous, Aru Ningen no Shinsou no Hatten…Moya to Shinshitsu (Developing Thought of a Human, Mist and Bedroom and), was completed and published in Dorikitsu in 1932 when the artist was only seventeen-years-old. It still stands as a prime example of Yamamoto’s style: the stark composition and muted color tones, the subtly pointed political commentary of the newspaper clippings, and the abstract, metaphorical imagery. Birdcages are a recurring theme in Yamamoto’s work, metaphors for stifled expression and imprisonment with the illusion of freedom. These dark and dreamlike motifs carried across his entire body of work, evoking the eerie disconnection of Japan’s culture from the Western world, even as its society began to mirror the fascism emerging elsewhere in Europe. Yamamoto was enchanted with Surrealism for both its liberal, anti-war political stance and its bizarre representations of the human subconscious. The artist politically and aesthetically embraced the concepts of Surrealism for the rest of his life.
On February 24, 1933, Japan officially withdrew from the League of Nations. Aligning itself with the Axis powers, the nation entered WWII. The repressive rules of the Meiji Era were again being strictly enforced, particularly a series of “Peace Preservation” laws established between 1894 and 1925. These laws restricted freedoms of press, speech, assembly and association. The laws were collectively intended to crush any public dissent, and grant a special police force, the Tokko (colloquially known as the “Thought Police”) authority to harass, intimidate, and indefinitely imprison those the government deemed seditious. Nevertheless, throughout the 1930s Yamamoto and many of his fellow surrealists quietly continued to produce subversive work. In 1940 Yamamoto published Premonition of Genocide, a visually abstract but boldly titled work. Its grid of anonymous numbered drawers, with one empty chair and one opened drawer grimly awaiting unknown occupants, seemed to directly address the events unfolding across Europe.
In 1939, Yamamoto was forced by the Tokko to stop printing his Surrealist poetry magazine Yoru no Funsui (The Night’s Fountain) after only four issues. However he continued to cultivate a broad, experimental oeuvre which varied in technique between traditional photographs, combination printing, photograms and collages. As before, Yamamoto used metaphor as dissent, focusing on motifs of stifled expression and the erasure of human forms by blending them into landscapes. He was deeply inspired by the works of Rene Magritte and Andre Breton, which he first encountered at the Tokyo Exhibition of Surrealist Works in 1937. Much of his work, including Madam Q. (1950) and most expressly My Thin-Aired Room (1956) (closely following Magritte’s Man With Newspaper ) was inspired by these and other contemporary European artists. By maintaining membership in a number of photography associations, he was able to continue distributing his work and participating in Japanese photographic culture.
Yamamoto was able to avoid the fates of some other artists and political dissenters of the era. In 1945, After Japan’s defeat in WWII, the country adopted a less repressively militaristic style of government. Yamamoto became newly involved with even more photography and surrealist groups and formed several of his own, including VIVI (1948–1950), Mado (Windows) (1953–1958), and the Subjective Photography Federation of Japan (1956). From 1965 to 1975, he mentored young members of the Chubu Photography Federation of Students. He maintained a lifelong devotion to writing poetry, and even took up painting in his later years. As he aged, the dark and heavily metaphorical tone of his work increased, and the relationship of each piece to its respective title grew even more bizarre, as in Magnifying Glass Rendezvous (1970).
Yamamoto died in his home town of Nagoya in 1987. His works are exhibited in the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and the J Paul Getty Museum, and he has come to be regarded as one of the most influential Japanese artists of the 20th century. Yamamoto achieved a unique mastery over both photographic and poetic forms during his career, producing haunting images at once erotic and eerie (Work, 1956), complex visual metaphors (Reminiscence, 1953), and potent, compelling titles as in the 1975 photo collage:
The silver platter and the pigeon in the cage,
We suddenly have spring rain like typefaces today
I may talk to you again someday.
“Japan’s Modern Divide (Getty Center Exhibitions).” The Getty. January 1, 2013. Accessed September 8, 2014.
“Japanese History: Millitarism and WWII (1912-1945).” Japan Guide. Accessed August 29, 2014.
“Kansuke Yamamoto (artist).” Wikipedia. Accessed September 11, 2014
“Taisho Period.” Wikipedia. Accessed September 10, 2014
“The Realist and the Surrealist.” The Wall Street Journal. April 3, 2013. Accessed September 11, 2014.
Hamaya, Hiroshi. Japan’s modern divide: the photographs of Hiroshi Hamaya and Kansuke Yamamoto. Los Angeles, California: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2013. Accessed September 11, 2014.
Hoffman, Michael. “The Taisho Era: When Modernity Ruled Japan’s Masses.” Japan Times. July 29, 2012. Accessed September 11, 2014.
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Written by Meghan Maloney