Shinzo Fukuhara: Shiseido’s patron of beauty

by John L. Tran

Contributing Writer

Shinzo Fukuhara’s dreamy, sentimental photography is something of a sidebar in the history of photography. As the inheritor of the Shiseido Corporation, Fukuhara (1883-1948) was a notable society figure, and he was also a well-known driver of the photography scene in Tokyo in the 1920s and ’30s. However, as a photographic artist, he does not have much name recognition outside of Japan.

This may change, as the history of art continues to be less Euro- and U.S.-centered and Asian art gets to tell its story more widely, but it has to be said that the gentleman amateur’s work will probably never be considered “great.” His photographs of urban and rural landscapes are too neat and genteel. However, Fukuhara did contribute in other significant ways to the development of photography in Japan; overseeing a photography circle, producing a magazine, founding the Shiseido Gallery and writing on the aesthetics of photography and the relationship between life, art and beauty.

His gallery’s centenary exhibition “Going Beyond and Participating in Beauty: Shinzo Fukuhara’s Aesthetics,” curated by Kenichiro Ito, picks up on the variegated nature of Fukuhara’s legacy. Rather than just pulling out some vintage photography from the archives, the exhibition is a provocative collaboration with the British multidisciplinary collective Assemble and the Tokyo-based The Eugene Studio, founded by U.S.-born Japanese Eugene Kangawa, and it aims to follow Fukuhara’s philosophy of thinking about beauty as something to aspire to beyond just the creation of art objects.

The exhibition is in two parts, with the current first installment having been devised by Assemble. The predominantly architecture-trained group, who won the 2015 Turner Prize (the U.K.’s most prestigious art accolade) with a project renovating a rundown area of Liverpool, has turned the gallery into a hybrid library/museum/communal space. It doesn’t really work, but fails in a very interesting way that resonates with problematic aspects in Fukuhara’s life and work.

The space is filled with tables and chairs, while handouts with information about Fukuhara and the exhibition are stacked on the tables for visitors to read (very meta). Free, and extremely good, coffee is served from a structure of wooden shelves that show off individual cups like craft pieces or objects for sale. There are a few vintage prints and books on display, including some of Fukuhara’s early pictorial work that, in the style of the time, was made to look like oil painting, and some later prints from the ’30s that show his rejection of painterliness and embrace of light, the aesthetic principles of haiku, and photographic clarity.

In an email exchange, I asked curator Ito about how he envisioned Fukuhara’s aesthetics updated for the 21st century. He replied: “In the ’20s and ’30s, Fukuhara made work as an individual, while expressing arguments about the big themes common to the times in Japan or the Asian region. With the scenery of West Lake (Hangzhou), Matsue, Taiwan, Hawaii. Fukuhara was thinking about the beauty peculiar to the area, within the nationalistic bias of the times.”

In relation to the value of Fukuhara’s role as a facilitator of photographic practice in others, Ito explained the format of the exhibition as an international collaboration and creation of a communal space: “Of course, in today’s artwork, the theme of nationalistic beauty or local beauty exists, and its significance is also important. In the great change of individual ties — with social media, internet and the values of globalization — to decide the beauty of the future era, I think it is important (to think about) beauty brought about in the reality of individual ties, rather than by a specific individual. In this case, the reality of individual ties is a community, a place, a workspace, like a platform, but in such an environment, I think it becomes more interesting for contemporary art — (that) beauty that emerges collectively, cooperatively, not individually.”

Despite the layout of the space and the outstandingly charismatic and friendly gallery manager, who is on hand to welcome visitors to the exhibition, it’s unlikely people will actually talk freely to each other about life, art and beauty. This is very poignant in the context of Fukuhara having been a man intent on cultivating a sense of beauty in art and life, but may have been, according to some accounts, a fairly difficult, anxiety-inducing person to be around.

As an attempt to bring people together, the exhibition is bound to fail. This has an intellectually provocative resonance with Fukuhara’s picturesque but somehow unengaged images of nature, Paris or Tokyo; always looking from a distance, hoping for connection, and perhaps transcendence, but never quite succeeding. At the same time, this is an excellent and inadvertently telling frame for reintroducing Fukuhara’s work to generations that are having trouble looking up from their smartphones; not because it helps connect people, but because it exposes how difficult this is to do.

“Going Beyond and Participating in Beauty: Shinzo Fukuhara’s Aesthetics” at Shiseido Gallery runs until Dec. 26 and is followed by part two, “Shinzo Fukuhara / Assemble, The Eugene Studio” from Jan. 16 to March 17.