When followers outdo the master

by C.B. Liddell

R. D. Laing, the leading light of the 1960s anti-psychiatry movement, believed that mental illnesses were natural responses to the unnatural stresses and strains of modern life. Something similar can be said about Surrealist art, which, at times, seems like an artistic reaction to a world that throws images and ideas at us faster than we can handle. But Surrealism is not just a wild retort to modernity. Its styles and organization as a movement also owe a debt to traditional culture and society, as the exhibition “Ichiro Fukuzawa and his Disciples” shows.

Held at the Itabashi Art Museum, Tokyo, the show presents over 60 paintings and other works by a group of artists active before and after World War II. Although Fukuzawa’s name leads the way, only about 10 of the canvases are his. The vast majority of the works are by his so-called “disciples.”

“Disciples” is an extremely ambiguous term, especially in the context of Japanese art, where the social dynamics of art groups and movements have always been important in an artist’s career. How strongly these followers were moved by the artistic side of Fukuzawa is open to question, as, on the evidence presented here, most of them were more technically gifted than their “master,” and show a variety of styles that can be better linked to famous foreign Surrealists.

For example, Shoichi Shiraki’s canvases, with their strange forms set in pseudo-real landscapes, owe a clear debt to the paintings of Yves Tanguy; while the dense organic spread of Hideo Manabe’s “Waterside” (1941) brings to mind the frottage-generated landscapes of Max Ernst.

In addition, the non-artistic sources of Fukuzawa’s elevated status were clearly important. Unlike most of the artists he associated with, he came from a wealthy banking background. This also allowed him to gain the kudos of studying in Paris for seven years between the ages of 26 and 33, where he first fell under the influence of Surrealism. Following his return to Japan he became a noted writer on Surrealism, penning articles and books, so that his main influence, it seems, was through his words.

According to the show’s curator, Satoko Hironaka, one of his key concepts was that Surrealism suited the Japanese mind.

“Fukuzawa said Surrealism is natural to the Japanese because there are similarities between it and haiku and koan,” Hironaka explains. “The words of a haiku are very small but can be used to create a big image. Surrealism has a similar power to suggest things wider than the canvas.”

This power, however, is more evident in the canvases of the “disciples.” Apart from the comical panache of “Oxen” (1936), Fukuzawa’s paintings fall short of his reputation. This is especially true of early works, including some that were painted in Paris and sent to the first exhibition of the Dokuritsu Bijutsu Kyokai (Independent Art Society), shortly before he returned home in 1931. The fact that these works, which are extremely mediocre, are said to have caused a sensation is, ironically, further evidence that his status did not stem directly from his art. “Another’s Love” (1930), a typical example, is a sketchily- painted canvas that shows several figurative elements randomly juxtaposed without any wit or aesthetic charm.

For these reasons, it is best not to focus too much — as the title of the exhibition does — on Fukuzawa, but rather to view the show as an interesting and enjoyable collection of Japanese Surrealism.

One of the most striking paintings is the Surrealist self-portrait “Self Ridicule” (1951) by Tatsue Hayase. This work, clearly influenced by Salvador Dali, shows the artist sitting with her back to us in front of a large plate containing her head, which she is apparently eating. This is just one of many paintings here that mesmerize through sheer oddness, which is, after all, what Surrealism is really about.

Other works, however, mix a message into their madness, most notably Kikuji Yamashita’s “Season of Change” (1968). Painted at a time of heightened political consciousness, it is, according to Hironaka, a direct comment on America’s failed military adventure in Vietnam. Blending together iconography from Japanese culture and symbols of American power — including a Coca-Cola bottle — the artist reveals the haiku-like power of Surrealism to suggest, creating his own one-framed version of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.”

“Ichiro Fukuzawa and his Disciples” at the Itabashi Art Museum runs till Jan. 10; admission ¥600; open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Mon. and from Dec. 28-Jan. 4. For more information, visit www.