A night traveler crossing the border of art and literature

For many Japanese writers and artists of the 1920s and ’30s, Surrealism was simply a stylistic novelty. Poet Shuzo Takiguchi, however, produced Surrealist writings whose message was lent conviction by the risks he took — at the time, artistic and political freedoms were restricted.

Largely thanks to his efforts, Surrealist influences spread through all artistic spheres in Japan. Indeed, Takiguchi (1903-79) was a polymath. Though best known today as a critic of art, the writer created art as well. An exhibition currently at the Shoto Museum of Art, “Shuzo Takiguchi: Plastic Experiments,” gives us the rare opportunity to view more than 300 of his works, including sketches, paintings and objets.

In the mid-1930s, Takiguchi composed seven poems, each dedicated to an artist, that show the incredible literary and political synthesis he had achieved as a Surrealist thinker. This exhibition shows that Takiguchi’s artwork was also fully integrated into this belief system.

In the first stanza of the poem “Max Ernst” (published in Japanese in “L’exchange surrealiste,” 1936), he wrote:

A night traveler
Chomps bit by bit
On the incomprehensible
handcuffs of night
As if they were scraps of meat.

(Translated by Miryam Sas in her excellent new study, “Fault Lines: Cultural Memory and Japanese Surrealism.”)

At the time these poems were written, Japan had signed an anti-Communist pact with Germany in November 1936, while the previous February, on the 26th, Emperor Showa had put down an attempted coup d’etat. Curfews were enforced and freedoms stifled. In this setting, the “night traveler” takes on criminal overtones and the shedding of bonds, the handcuffs of night, appears rebelliously liberating.

Art, too, could be about rebellion. Takiguchi believed that the desire for freedom is strong, but that outside forces — imprisonment, censorship, and criticism — are hindrances to free creation. Automatism, the spontaneous creation of artworks without thought to aesthetic or moral concern, would be a method used to break down conditioned patterns of thinking.

This concept of “free” creation underlies the majority of Takiguchi’s artistic techniques as displayed in this seven-part exhibition. Decalcomanie is one example, in which an image is formed by pressing a piece of paper onto a painted surface and peeling it off, the resulting effect being the product of chance, not method.

Another group of artworks are made simply by holding a piece of paper over a flame, resulting in burn holes and smoke stains — a process in which, as critic Yuri Mitsuda notes in the accompanying catalog, “the burned paper is not only an image but a material.”

Another weapon in the arsenal of automatism, picked up from Marcel Duchamp, was roto-dessin — “drawings” composed of multiple circles traced by a revolving machine. Takiguchi viewed all three methods as something akin to scientific experiments, with little interference from the hand of the creator.

Takiguchi’s imagination never ceased to cross-fertilize literature and the visual arts. Late in life, he created “Liberty Passports,” books containing fragments of Japanese, French, English and German, written by himself and other poets. Containing the names of the recipients, an “issue date” and stamps bearing such authorization as “valid permanently,” these attempted to transcend national as well as genre boundaries. There aren’t any liberty passports on display here, but the items at this inspiring exhibition amply testify to Takiguchi’s belief in art as a means to freedom — and freedom as the highest good.

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