Hiroshi Nakamura’s signature works evoke the world of the otaku (obsessive fan). His frequent use of the high-school sailor uniform — often slightly disheveled — combined with his trainspotting obsession with trains and other forms of locomotion, creates the same kind of atmosphere you can encounter in the back streets of Akihabara.
These recurring motifs dominate “Hiroshi Nakamura: Pictorial Disturbances,” a major retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo of the 75-year-old artist’s career.
One ink drawing, “F601” (1970), brings it all together in one succinct surreal image. A high-school girl transforms into both a plane and a train, giving the impression that here was someone who spent too much time in his room playing with model kits between making occasional peeks through the curtains at sailor-suited high-school girls walking by outside.
“I’m too old to be an otaku,” Nakamura says, looking remarkably good for his age. “But I can understand why they are that way. Society doesn’t value the individual. The otaku make their own society and I hope that my art can help them make their world.”
Endorsements of such solipsisms are a long way from where Nakamura started his artistic journey 54 years ago, when Japan was just emerging from the under the heel of the Allied Occupation. Back then, Nakamura admits, the individual was the last thing he was concerned about, including whatever the personal impulses were that led him to become involved in leftwing, anti-American political activism of the day.
“When I started as an artist, the existing art groups favored the subjective view. I wanted to do something different,” he says. “At the time, the social reality was more interesting than representing my subjective views. Additionally, objectivity was prevalent in other media — in photography and movies — but not in art.”
Nakamura became part of the “reportage” art movement, in which he investigated and sought to record political incidents and social problems. His early paintings, such as “Sunagawa No.5” (1955) and “The Base” (1957), both critiques of the continued U.S. military presence in Japan, have an angst-filled intensity reminiscent of the political paintings by artists such as Otto Dix and George Grosz during the New Objectivity movement in prewar Weimar Germany. Like those artists’ works, these paintings seek to expose reality by focusing on and emphasizing the ugly truth as seen by the artist.
“Reportage allowed me to represent the age rather than representing my inner view,” Nakamura says.
But the raw emotionalism in these politically loaded works reveals them to be highly subjective rather than simply objective statements about social and political issues. In the light of this irrepressible subjectivity, the transition to Nakamura’s signature Surrealist style seems natural.
“Later, my interest moved away from reportage,” he says. “I wanted to use familiar motifs to represent something about universal human feelings, like the erotic and mechanical.”
Like many artists, Nakamura decided that the road to universal truth lay through the dark, cluttered obsessions of his own inner self and thus allowed them to emerge in his paintings. The recurring one-eyed high-school girls reflect a childhood spent in a house on the grounds of a girl’s school that was founded by his grandfather.
Nakamura’s masterpiece is “Circular Train A — Telescope Train” (1966), in which a surreal railway carriage is crowded with one-eyed, sailor-suited high-school girls. The car is bent round a large circular lens that represents the singular, Cyclopslike view of the passengers: the roiling sea. Champions of individualism can see this as yet another critique of the traditional regimentation of Japanese society, where individuals are encouraged to view things from a single perspective.
Though the theme is perhaps trite, the painting has a strange charisma and mesmeric quality. What makes it truly astounding is that it uses Surrealism to sum up something very real about modernity: the overcrowded alienation in which one’s natural sympathy toward others is switched off. The scene depicted seems pleasant, even enticing, but because each girl only has one eye, there is a sense of horror that evokes the distance from others that we typically experience in the crowded scenes of our daily lives.
Fetishistic and Surrealistic elements are normally associated with artistic subjectivity, but the constant thread that unites all Nakamura’s work is a sometimes confused search for objectivity. In the strident messages of his reportage art, it seems to elude him, but in later works, like “Circular Train A,” it makes an unexpected, unscheduled arrival.
“Hiroshi Nakamura: Pictorial Disturbances 1953-2007” till April 1. Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, (03) 5245-4111, 4-1-1 Miyoshi, Koto-ku. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. 1,000 yen. Closed Mon., Feb. 13; open Feb. 12.