Taro Okamoto (1911-96) is perhaps Japan’s most famous post-war artist. With his trademark artistic style, his eccentric, media-friendly personality and ready catchphrases, he presented the perfect picture of the inspired artist brimming with original ideas.

Taro Okamoto’s “Face,” 1952“Animal,” 1983“Jomon Man,” 1982
Taro Okamoto Museum of Art photos

It may seem surprising, therefore, that the Taro Okamoto Museum of Art is holding an exhibition that seeks to connect Okamoto’s inspiration to Japan’s ancient Jomon Period (ca. 10,000 – 300 B.C.).

Okamoto’s early career may present some clues to this intriguing alliance. A resident of Paris from 1929 to 1940, his early works attracted some attention in Surrealist circles, and the artist also studied ethnology and philosophy at the University of Paris. There he struck up a long-standing friendship with anthropology pioneer Claude Levi-Strauss.

Initially including representational elements, Okamoto’s work became progressively more abstract, and characteristic curved and spiky shapes began to appear. It was only after his return to Japan, however, that his grounding in ethnology and anthropology began to make itself felt in his art.

In 1951, he was deeply struck by the mystery and beauty of Jomon Period artifacts he encountered when visiting the Tokyo National Museum. Believed by some to be the oldest pottery in the world, Jomon means literally “rope-pattern,” and looking at the complex coils and flamelike shapes that adorn Jomon pottery, it’s easy to understand why they caught his artist-anthropologist’s eye.

The exhibition title makes the rather bloated claim that Okamoto was the “The Discoverer of Jomon Art.” While this significantly overstates the case, Okamoto undoubtedly did much to bring the period and its style to the public’s attention through writings such as his 1952 essay “Thoughts on Jomon Earthenware” published in the art magazine Mizue, his interviews and, of course, his artwork.

In the early 20th century, Japanese art was divided into two main streams: yoga, modeled on Western techniques and subjects, and nihonga, a self-consciously Japanese traditional art that looked back to the Edo Period (1603-1857). What is less well recognized is that even the nihonga school owes a debt overseas, having received much of its initial impetus from earlier Chinese influence.

Jomon art, however, represented a purely indigenous source of Japanese inspiration. This fact, along with the primitive beauty and abstract patterns of Jomon ware, had a profound impact on Okamoto, who began to incorporate flamelike shapes in his own compositions.

One of the most distinctive aspects of Jomon pottery is the complex coiled patterns that bring to mind Maori or even Celtic designs. Although Okamoto’s explosive painting style lacked the patience and focus to recreate these in their full intricacy, works such as “Black Beast” (1961) are vivid attempts to evoke their curvilinear quality. Yet Okamoto’s paintings show Jomon influence only intermittently; some, such as “Gladiator” (1962), seem more influenced by Japanese brush calligraphy.

It was sculpture that enabled Okamoto to express his interest in Jomon art more explicitly. His first work in this form, “Face” (1952), produced soon after he saw the Jomon artifacts, shows the influence of flat-faced Jomon figurines, several examples of which are displayed alongside.

While “Face” is a revealing early work, paintings and sculptures from the pivotal years immediately following Okamoto’s exposure to Jomon art are under-represented at this exhibition — a significant weakness that leaves the visitor in the dark about the exact trajectory of its subsequent influence.

Although the artist managed to capture much of the charming naivete of the ancient craftsmen in “Face,” the effect is uneven. Often, his striving after simplicity seems self-conscious, giving sculptures like “Animal” (1983) a cartoonish quality.

Complex abstract works — such as “Jomon Man” (1982) and the fiendish-looking “Warrior” (1970) — best succeed in paying tribute to Japan’s aboriginal civilization while equally expressing the artist’s powerful originality.

Okamoto’s fascination with the Jomon Period suggests that art is a constant process of rediscovery of forms and elements from the past, but the eccentricity and inspiration of the best of the works manifest also the artist’s own inimitable personality.

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