The many portraits of an artist as a young, and older, man

by Matthew Larking

Special To The Japan Times

As photographer Yasumasa Morimura has predominantly made his name since 1985 in eccentric self-portraiture involving impersonations of famous people, his current exhibition is conceptually and structurally all autobiography. It is a tale serially told through chapters with a beginning, middle-stage developments and a seemingly violent climax — all the bit players he dresses as meet their ends while the main protagonist lives on. Rather than simply fact or fiction, the exhibition is Morimura’s imaginative interweaving of the two as his art story of birth, death and what might live on in the aftermath.

Beginning with a natal chapter zero, black-and-white snaps show the artist from boyhood through to the emergence of his initial impersonations of luminary Western painters. The first of these were shown in a photography group exhibition, “Smile with Radical Will,” with Tomoaki Ishihara and Hiroshi Kimura at Kyoto’s Gallerie 16 in 1985. Photographing himself in the guise of Vincent van Gogh after the artist had cut off his ear, and as one of van Gogh’s portrait sitters, Camille Roulin, these works catapulted Morimura to fame and inaugurated his performative explorations of himself as others.

Chapter one comprises mostly new works, with Morimura dressed as the Western old masters, beginning with Leonardo da Vinci. Born in the early postwar years, Morimura’s fundamental art education began with what he calls the first “Art” which, in addition to Van Gogh’s work, included Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa.” Other portraits include Morimura as Jan van Eyck, Gustave Courbet and the surrealist Rene Magritte.

Rembrandt van Rijn, arguably the most important old master to turn the self-portrait into an independent genre, has always held a special place for Morimura. This is evident in the range of 1994 photographs in a chapter that shows Morimura as Rembrandt at a number of ages in life. Morimura emulates this elsewhere. His 1985 van Gogh, for example, is youthful, romantically and physically pained, pictured roughly in violent color contrasts. The 2016 Van Gogh, in comparison, has matured and is bearded, somber and color-harmonized.

As a Japanese who enthusiastically and theatrically performs the Western painting past, Morimura’s imagery ties into how Western art took root in Japan during the Meiji Era (1868-1912) and how Japanese art attempted to situate itself in relation to it. One early oil painter, Nakagawa Kigen, for example, secretly believed he could become the most prominent painter in Japan by adopting Henri Matisse’s style.

But if this was what Morimura is simply focusing on, his later chapter-five photographs picturing him as modern Japanese painters Shigeru Aoki and Yorozu Tetsugoro, and the postwar Shunsuke Matsumoto, would prove problematic as they are unrecognized outside (and often within) Japan. Arguably these represent Morimura enacting modern Japanese explorations of selfhood. Notably his chosen artists here are representative painters of the Taisho (1912-1926) and early postwar eras, times when the concept of the “individual” and “individuality” were more prominently celebrated in contrast to the relative suppression of preceding eras when Japan followed Western precedents in its modernization.

In chapter eight, absence is dealt with as much as presence via Morimura’s interpretation of the famous art-historical image “Las Meninas” by Diego Velazquez. The original painting’s fame largely lies not so much in the marginalized self-portraiture of the original (Velasquez paints himself standing behind a canvas behind the foreground subjects of his image), but in the complex interplay of the “looking” and “looked at” cast of characters, and the depiction of reflections in mirrors, which all imply the inclusion of an onlooker. Morimura’s series of “Las Meninas” photographs is like a conceptual game of musical chairs that revels in and multiplies the confusions of Velazquez’ painting.

Titled “The Disappearance of ‘Me,’ ” chapter nine sees the disappearance of paintings as a theme. Morimura photographs feature empty picture frames left on the walls of Russia’s Hermitage Museum, alluding to an episode in World War II when the pictures were stripped from their frames for evacuation upon the imminent threat of German invasion.

With literally only a frame of reference remaining in chapter nine, chapter 10 then brings images back for Morimura’s “parting manifesto” to Western art. This draws together diverse and complex imagery deserving more than a chapter of textual explanation. Morimura is pictured here as Marilyn Monroe, but inside a room on the University of Tokyo campus where, 25 years before the photograph was taken, a symposium on the writer Yukio Mishima was held. Mishima, another important subject of Morimura’s impersonations, committed ritual suicide a year after the symposium.

Morimura is also depicted naked as Rembrandt, campily posed in high heels standing beside the artist’s slaughtered ox imagery. Dressed as the novelist Franz Kafka at age 5, he reveals himself as a youth in a Morimura family portrait, and finally, he appears as his own childhood teddy bear — apparently symbolic of the self or its recovery.

As an epilogue, titled “When the End Meets the Beginning,” Morimura presents his inaugural long-format video work. Eleven of Morimura’s impersonations of Western self-portrait painters (with himself being himself as the 12th) meet at a Leonardo-style “Last Supper” table in a modern-day warehouse. Morimura pulls a gun on them and they each vanish. Such an ending compels a sequel.

“The Self-Portraits of Yasumasa Morimura: My Art, My Story, My Art History” at The National Museum of Art, Osaka runs until June 19; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (Fri. until 7 p.m.) ¥1,300. Closed Mon. www.nmao.go.jp/en/exhibition/index.html