Japanese artist Taro Okamoto died in 1996 at the age of 84, but his ever-young artworks and attitude toward life are gathering new attention 100 years since his birth in 1911. What would have been his 100th birthday on Feb. 26 was commemorated with a Google-logo homage to Okamoto, original music at an event at Roppongi Hills, and the first episode of a four-part NHK drama on his life, “Taro’s Tower” (Taro no to).
Okamoto was born into an artistic household. His father Ippei was a famous newspaper cartoonist and his mother Kanoko, a talented poet and novelist. In December 1929 the three of them traveled to Europe. Taro stayed on in Paris for a decade, studying painting, philosophy, and ethnology until his return to Japan after the Germans invaded France in 1940. Drafted, he served as a soldier in the Imperial Japanese Army in China, finally coming back to Japan in 1946 to start again from zero.
Based on his intimate knowledge of the European avant-garde art scene — Picasso was a particular influence — Okamoto in the postwar period battled the closed art establishment in Japan and the austere wabi-sabi traditional culture, finding new inspiration in prehistoric Jomon pottery.
His famous tower for the 1970 Expo in Osaka, Tower of the Sun, was a repudiation of the organizers’ banal slogan affirming the progress and harmony of the human race. His best-known saying was “Art is an explosion.” He continued to urge Japanese to be open not only to the world outside of Japan but to the mysteries of the universe.
Treated as an eccentric by the media, and granted a retrospective exhibition at a national museum only this spring, through May 8, at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, Okamoto has a new appeal for many young people — not only for his energy and vitality but for the fact that he unswervingly followed his own compass regardless of the opinion of others.
Okamoto, who never chose the easy course, battled the empty consumer culture of postwar Japan. Today his courageous example is a reproach to the post-bubble retreat into timid and inward-looking conformity.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.