Coca Cola Plan by Ushio Shinohara
During World War II, the key figures of Surrealism, including Andre Breton, Marcel Duchamp, and Salvador Dali, fled Paris and sat out the war in New York. As art critic Martica Sawin pointed out, the influence they had on the local art scene, gave American artists, like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, the inspiration, confidence, and sophistication to successfully dethrone Paris as the art capital of the World.
Surrealism played a similar leavening effect on the postwar art scene in Japan. But whereas in America this influence was transmitted by a whole art movement in exile, in Japan it was all the work of one man, Shuzo Takiguchi (1903 – 1979), the poet, artist, and critic, who introduced Surrealism to Japan before World War II, and who nurtured the rise of young Japanese artists on the postwar international art scene. For many years, he exerted his influence and offered gentle guidance, through his writings and personal contacts, from his home in Tokyo's Nishi Ochiai area, where he also built up a vast and varied collection of artworks and related objects that turned his home into a veritable Aladdin's Cave of art.
These objects, which he referred to as "the drifting objects of dreams" are now on display at the Setagaya Museum in Tokyo. The essence of this collection, as exhibition curator Etsuko Sugiyama points out, is Takiguchi's definition of Surrealism.
"For him Surrealism was not just the French art movement of the 1920s and 1930s," she explains. "He believed that it was a kind of action or engagement with everyday life that released you from the conventional, and was free and full of love for the World."
This suggests that Takiguchi may have been something of a hippy or even a loved-up raver ahead of his time, but Sugiyama is keen to point out that he was a retiring, scholarly figure. Indeed, the impression the exhibition gives is of a studious man whose main pleasure was in maintaining his rich network of friendships. This is seen in the several books inscribed to him by Breton, the French poet, who was the leader and main propagandist of the Surrealist movement, and in the artworks from such greats as Dali, Duchamp, and Joan Miró, on whose art Takiguchi is reputed to have published the first monograph as early as 1940.
Despite this stunning array of names, the works are less impressive. Dali's main contribution is some drypoint engravings of illustrations for Les Chants de Maldoror, while Duchamp is represented by some papers, doodles, and other knick knacks.
The real value these objects have is in revealing the relationship and the influence that Surrealism had on Japanese art through Takiguchi, as such, there is an almost fetishistic quality to them. For example, one of the Miró's contributions, aside from some small, uninspired crayon works, is a dry gourd that the artist grew on his own land. Another exhibit in a similar vein is Souvenirs de Cadaques, which is nothing more than a box of stones that Takiguchi collected in 1958, when he visited Dali at his home at Cadaques in Catalonia.
Such objects suggest a fan, mesmerized by his idols, rather than an equal meeting of minds. However, what we see here is one of the great strengths of Japanese people, their incredible ability to first slavishly mimic, then master foreign ideas and techniques. This process can be traced in many of the artworks, which range from dull and derivative to original and interesting. Wataru Suzuki’s excellent Man Ray’s Lip & Carve Line (1974), sits somewhere in the middle. Although doubly derivative – it combines Man Ray with Duchamp – it is nevertheless a warmly felt visual and mental pun on of great wit.
Takiguchi’s own MAIN-A-RAIS Grand cru pour MAN RAY (1979) shows a similar wit but with greater originality. This work is made from a wine bottle filled with an unwound roll of film enclosed within a hinged bottle-shaped casket. When it is closed, the film is protected from light, but when it is opened the whole bottle acts as a kind of lens, letting the light through to the twisted roll of film, a truly surreal camera!
Separated from the heavy intellectualism and Gaulois smoke of Parisian cafes, Surrealism fed into a wide variety of postwar art movements from Abstract Expressionism to Pop Art. Many of the works at this exhibition, like Shin Kinoshita’s hilarious Eskimo Beer (undated) and Ushio Shinohara’s lyrically beautiful Coca Cola Plan (1964) fall into the latter category.
These works, and a few others from the many displayed, show that although Japanese artists continued to be inspired by Takiguchi’s sense of Surrealism, they succeeded, like him, in cutting the umbilical cord and applying the anarchic joy of Surrealism with their own originality and freedom.
International Herald Tribune Asahi Shimbun
18th March, 2005