EIKOH HOSOEOrdeal by Roses #15, 1961, gelatin silver print. Copyright the artist. Courtesy Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich. 

Masters of Japanese Photography

Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts
Japan United Kingdom

NOBUYOSHI ARAKI, Colourscapes, 1991, chromogenic print, 125.8 x 101.6 cm. Copyright the aritst. Courtesy Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich. 

EIKOH HOSOEOrdeal by Roses #29, 1961, gelatin silver print, 25.4 × 20.3 cm. Copyright the artist. Courtesy Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich.

Photographs by three of Japan’s most prolific living artists from the 20th century were recently on view in “Masters of Japanese Photography,” at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts (SCVA) in Norwich, England. This was the first time Nobuyoshi Araki, Eikoh Hosoe and Kikuji Kawada had their works displayed in the east of England, although all three contemporaries are revered, both in Japan and worldwide, as artists who have documented and expressed Japan’s evolution from a post-war industrial society to a rapidly modernizing one.

“Masters” was a pared-down curation of their works spanning almost 50 years, curated by SCVA’s curator Monserrat Pis Marcos. The exhibition walked viewers through a series of central ideas on life, death and sex, which recurred throughout. This clear overlap of subjects in these artists’ works was no accident, as they all influenced each other. Hosoe and Kawada were both founding members of the VIVO agency (1959–61), an artists’ cooperative that cultivated Japan’s post-war photography movement, taking documentary photography in a radical new direction, while Araki and Kawada both started out with careers in commercial photography, which they later abandoned to become professional artists.

Each selection was intentionally separated, hung in horizontal rows on temporary interior walls. In this way, SCVA and Marcos seemed to comment on the artists’ legacies: yes, they are contemporaries, but they are also distinct in their practices. To muddle them together would have made the viewing experience problematic and labyrinthine.

Erotica, a recurring theme in traditional Japanese art and culture, was present throughout. Where Araki photographs women tied up in ropes in Kaori (2004), referencing the Japanese tradition of rope bondage, Hosoe shows us the male body locked in masochistic sexual performance in his “Ordeal by Roses” series, taken throughout the 1960s. The exhibition finished with a collection of Kawada’s silver gelatin prints of solar eclipses and lunar cycles, where erotic symbolism is a little more enigmatically located and entwined with the idea of fertility. Here, Kawada quietly draws viewers back to a shared sense of cosmic origins. 

Themes of sexuality and gender roles were subtly ushered in with Araki’s Colourscapes (1991)—the exhibition’s opening piece that met viewers as they walked from the staircase to the upper mezzanine at SCVA. This large color print depicts a young Japanese woman dressed in a kimono crouching behind a corrugated iron shutter, which appeared incongruously industrial against her traditional dress. The remains of a smashed watermelon, broken into womblike halves, are at her feet as she crams its flesh into her mouth. Here, the camera is an intrusive eye invading a profoundly private moment and corrupting the image of female servility. Even geishas, whose primary role is to serve, need to eat.

The resurrection of Japan seems fundamental to all three artists’ works, but it is in Hosoe’s photographs, and life, that this theme appears most prominently. As a young man he changed his name from Toshihio to Eikoh in acknowledgement of the period of rebirth Japan entered after the end of the Second World War. Selections of his work appeared to have been chosen in recognition of this name change and its intent: Renaissance iconography repeated itself throughout his surreal compositions, such as in Ordeal by Roses #19 (1961) where Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (1484–86) painting was seen, opaque and hovering, in the dark pupil of a man’s eye.

Kawada’s images also touch on resurrection but stood out as they were eerily unpopulated by figures. The silhouette of a helicopter was the closest Kawada came to referencing human life in the black-and-white image Helio-spot and a Helicopter (1990); here, the craft appears as a tiny black spot next to a full and luminous moon, making humanity appear inconsequential against the vastness of the universe.

The title of the exhibition is intriguing. “Masters of Japanese Photography” connotes founding fathers of an enduring tradition. It smacks of the ancient. Yet Araki, Hosoe and Kawada are products of a Japan that changed exponentially within their lifetimes and it is the interface between old and new which unites all three artists in this careful curation of their prolific works.

KIKUJI KAWADA, Helio-spot and a Helicopter, 1990, gelatin silver print, 45.7 × 55.8 cm. Copyright the artist. Courtesy Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich.