Art

Toshiko Okanoue gives us pieces of her mind

by Jeff Michael Hammond

Contributing Writer

Bizarre photo collages are foremost in the oeuvre of Toshiko Okanoue, an avant-garde artist who enjoyed a peak of activity in the 1950s before she gave art a backseat to her family life.

“Toshiko Okanoue, Photo Collage: The Miracle of Silence” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum provides a thorough introduction to Okanoue’s various areas of creativity. This is only the artist’s second solo show in a major public museum in Japan. It follows, but is more complete than, an exhibition last year at the Museum of Art Kochi, in her hometown.

Okanoue was interested in fashion as a child and later went on to study design at Bunka Gakuin, a Tokyo college, in 1950. She stumbled upon the creative potential of collage when she noticed the cut-out shape of a woman’s head on her desk, after snipping out pictures of dresses from models in magazines. In some works the human face, usually a woman’s, is kept intact, but other parts of the body, particularly legs, are invariably fragmented and transformed. In “A Rut” (1951), a woman’s torso merges with a wheel, and her leg transforms into that of an animal, perhaps a horse. Early works of this type are strikingly graphic and stark, with various photographic elements from magazines (often Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue and Life) pasted against a plain backdrop.

The affinity of Okanoue’s photo collages with aspects of European surrealism was initially coincidental, as she had no knowledge of the artistic development. From around 1952, she began to utilize photos to form backgrounds to her images — buildings, landscapes and other elements come together to create bizarre and mysterious spaces where various dramas unfold. This charge was partly due to meeting Shuzo Takiguchi, the leader of the surrealist movement in Japan, who introduced her to the collages of Max Ernst, and began to organize some solo exhibitions for Okanoue in Tokyo galleries. Some of the smaller rooms of the Teien museum introduce items related to these two figures.

In other works, the human body — often a woman in a gorgeous evening gown — is left largely intact, but the head replaced with that of an animal, skull or an inanimate object, such as a water jug in “Aquarium” (1952), or a pile of machinery in “Noblewoman” (1954). What seems to be a deep sense of anxiety over the human body is evident in many of these images.

Also apparent in many of Okanoue’s works is her keen sensitivity to shape. In “Visit in Night” (1951), a model in white dress stands out against the dark, grainy image of a church or cathedral. Here, she deftly plays the verticals of the building against various triangle shapes — the way in which the woman’s dress splays out, the fan where the model’s head should be. These shapes are faintly echoed by the umbrellas floating in the sky beneath her, and even the pointed spires behind her.

The bulk of Okanoue’s photo collages are displayed in the Teien’s annex. Many of these were made in response to Japan’s immediate situation after World War II and its efforts to modernize after it moved out of the postwar period. In the late 1950s, Okanoue moved on to photography, and some of those works are also included.

The exhibition does a good job at providing context to Okanoue’s artistic production. Mannequins stand attired in the kind of evening gowns that provided Okanoue with inspiration, and original copies of magazines show where some her images were taken from. Also on display are various journals and other media that contained reproductions of her works.

In one of her images from 1955, a man in a raincoat stands across the road from what looks like a church, gun in hand, and a woman in a white evening dress stands with a dinosaur or bird skull as her head. The title, “Woman’s Mind,” virtually sums up the exhibition — at a time when men not only dominated the art world, but society in general, the show provides rare insight into this woman’s dynamic imagination.

“Toshiko Okanoue, Photo Collage: The Miracle of Silence” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum runs until April 7; ¥900. For more information, visit www.teien-art-museum.ne.jp/en/exhibition.