A ‘subversive’ finally brought in from the cold

by Taylor Mignon

In 1953, Kansuke Yamamoto wrote: “The surreal exists within the real. Tireless experimentation with new photography leads to the creation of a new beauty.”

“Variation of ‘Buddhist Temple’s Birdcage’ ” from 1940

Just what Yamamoto (1914-87), one of Japan’s most devoted experimental artists, meant by this will come clearer to anyone visiting “Yamamoto Kansuke: Conveyor of the Impossible,” an exhibition that goes beyond its subject’s photography to demonstrate the breadth and depth of his remarkable talents.

In the 350-page bilingual catalog for the show (at Tokyo Station Gallery from next week) co-curator John Solt contributes an essay titled “Perception Misperception Nonperception.” His far-ranging analysis (with translations of Yamamoto’s poetry), is indicated by its chapter headings: “Surrealism in France and Japan”; “Japanese Surrealists and Western Noh Actors”; “Kansuke’s Techniques and Contributions,” to name a few.

“Title Unknown” from 1938

The catalog is also the first major collection of Yamamoto’s photos. Until now, he has been largely ignored by Japanese critics, and, in his lifetime, a one-week, one-man exhibition in Tokyo’s Ginza district in 1956 was the unlikely pinnacle of his popular acclaim.

The French forerunner of Surrealism, Comte de Lautremont, likened beauty to “the unexpected meeting, on a dissection table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella.” Such beauty occurs often in Yamamoto’s photos, as in one showing a telephone, a bird cage and a bed. Yamamoto created his photos to take off on wings of poesy, as Man Ray did, by positioning objects wholly out of context.

“A Forgotten Person” from 1958

Given his experimentation with objects, the eroticism of Yamamoto’s women — often more subtle than that of his Western counterparts — surprises viewers. However, unexpected juxtapositions are here, too, as the photographer bends dimensions and perspectives by propping items out of scale.

Widely respected in the Japanese avant-garde establishment, Yamamoto was a leading member of the Tokyo-based VOU Club run by Katsue Kitasono (1902-78), who, in long-running correspondence with Ezra Pound, quaintly referred to the American as “Ez Po.” Kitasono, in return, attracted the Poundian appellation “Kit-Kat.” It was the VOU Club, which Solt calls “one of the most prestigious independent poetry and arts clubs in Japan,” that provided Yamamoto with a major artistic outlet through its 31 shows between 1956 and 1976.

However, Solt rejects using merely the term “surreal” to describe Yamamoto’s style, as many VOU poets and artists were also influenced by Bauhaus and other creative “isms,” among them Futurism, Dadaism, Fauvism and Dolorism (concerned with suffering, sorrow and grief). Hence the critic concludes that the club’s “esprit nouveau” embraced all things avant-garde and opts to use “experimental” as an appropriate descriptive term.

The French poet and art critic Andre Breton (1896-1966), often regarded as the founder of Surrealism, placed importance on Freud’s psychology, while the movement’s Japanese counterparts were more interested in imagery. In this sense, Solt writes, Japanese artists are a kind of “second-generation reaction to the initial experimentation of the Westerners . . .”

As such, Yamamoto’s work may be regarded as “dialogues” with artists like Salvador Dali, Man Ray and Rene Magritte. His photo of a nude descending a spiral staircase is thus described as a “translation” of Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2.” Interestingly, this highlights how critics are consistently impressed by van Gogh and other Impressionists’ inclusion of ukiyo-e elements in their work, whereas Japanese artists who incorporate Western influences tend to be labeled derivative or imitative.

Since Surrealism is a movement whose origins are foreign to Japan, Surrealists here are often regarded as needing “endorsement” from the Western establishment. However, Japan wasn’t even included in the “Surrealist Map of the World, 1929″ published in Brussels in the magazine Varietes. Later, in 1936, Breton was shocked to learn from a Japanese artist visiting Paris that there were 500 poets and painters in Tokyo who considered themselves “Surrealists.”

In his essay, Solt argues that, although Breton did not conceive the purely aesthetic to be a “site of resistance,” Japan’s prewar police undoubtedly found surreal imagery subversive. This became clear in 1939, a year after Yamamoto began publishing Western Surrealists’ work in his journal Yoru no Funsui (Night’s Fountain). He was made to close the journal and was subjected to severe interrogation and persecution by that era’s “thought police,” correctly known as the Tokubetsu Koto Keisatsu (Special Higher Police).

Solt is to be thanked for spearheading this exhibit and catalog, which should help bridge the gap he refers to between “the production of surreal imagery [here] and its acceptance by the critical establishment.”