TOKYO 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde, edited by Doryun Chong. The Museum of Modern Art, 2012, 216 pp., $55 (hardcover)

Like Britain, Japan is subject to the polarizing forces of the orthodox and radical, the two balancing the flabby middle.

The images of a mutantlike head and amputated torso featured on the front and back covers of this book, suggest identities that have altered their form for the worse. In another scene, an etching by Chimei Hamada, a headless corpse lies naked and pregnant on a battlefield, a stick jammed upright into its genitalia. Such brutal images reflect the postwar sense of deformity and violation experienced by artists resident in a still mutilated city.

The book, a catalog with essays by art specialists, presents the contents of a major exhibition of the same name at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which ran from Nov. 18, 2012, to Feb. 25. The best exhibitions and editorial compilations are often retrospectives like this because the curators and authors, with the hindsight provided by the long view of time, are able to cherry-pick the most representative work from a period in art and identify particularities of style and meaning not immediately apparent at the time.

It is easy to forget these days in Japan, where art seems to be predicated on the idea of simply pleasing the senses, that the works of artists belonging to postwar movements like Reportage Painting and Social Realism were often fiercely outspoken, voicing troubled consciences and opposition to injustice.

In this climate of surprising tolerance, an artist like Shigeo Ishii, could cast an acerbic eye over Japan’s postwar landscape and judge it the “perfect crime committed by contemporary Imperialism.”

Surrealism, Marxist dialectics and the slightly later Neo-Dadaism movement re-emerged in painting and other mediums with renewed force thanks to the relative freedoms of the postwar era. This was apparent during the Allied Occupation period and in the immediate years following it. One painting featured here, by Hiroshi Nakamura, depicts a violent confrontation between farmers and the police over U.S. bases and land appropriation. Trampling a map underfoot, a policeman armed with a revolver and truncheon is seen manhandling a protestor while the indifferent faces of fellow officers look on.

In another painting, “Rooster and Steel Construction” by Hiroshi Katsuragawa, the artist places a caged bird in the foreground against the backdrop of a new structure being put up near Tokyo Station, questioning in the process the wisdom of Japan’s ill-considered postwar development. Tokyo-centered art movements may have changed over time, but the message of the image is as pithy today as it was in 1957.

Some of the works from the 1960s fall into the category of the radical avant-garde. One image from the book shows the notorious Zero Jigen collective performing a public “ritual” at the Kashima Shrine in Tokyo, one involving several men lying supine and quite naked in front of its altar. The group’s sudden, highly corporeal appearances “among the complacent populace” were, as Doryun Chong, MoMA’s associate curator of painting and sculpture, writes, “at once scandalous and familiar on the most primal level.”

It was a period of shared experiences, of discussion and collaboration between figures such as architect Isozaki Arata, filmmaker Hiroshi Teshigahara and composers Toshiro Mayuzumi and Toru Takemitsu. The international art world was curious enough about these goings on for the likes of photographer William Klein, choreographer Merce Cunningham, the artist Robert Rauschenberg and the composer John Cage to visit Tokyo.

If art underwent a radical transformation, so did the artists. Who would guess from a 1956 photograph taken at Tokyo’s Muramatsu Gallery that the young avant-garde artist Tatsuo Ikeda, in fashionably long hair and the kind of raincoat worn by film noir actors, was trained as a kamikaze pilot toward the end of the war.

The era ended in 1970 with the gruesome ritual self-disembowelment of Yukio Mishima, a brilliant exhibitionist in his own right. In this last performance, calling for the restoration of the Imperial system to its prewar glory, the writer, in an impassioned rant from the balcony of the Self-Defense Forces building in Tokyo’s Ichigaya district, failed to sway his audience. In a press photo included in the book, the camera angle renders the figure of Mishima in attenuated form, a man being shrunk by his own fury.

This amply illustrated and scrupulously designed volume reminds us of what we already know, but tend to forget: namely, books can also be sublime works of art.

Stephen Mansfield is a British photo-journalist based in Japan. He is the author of several books on Japanese and Asian subjects.

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