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A surreal take on 20th-century Japan

During Japan’s tumultuous struggle to become a world power in the 20th century, Kansuke Yamamoto was taking notes.

The poet and artist created a journal in 1938: “Yoru no Funsui” or “The Night’s Fountain,” which promoted surrealist poems, literature, ideas and art in Japanese.

Yamamoto was taken into custody by the Tokkō, the “Thought Police,” in 1939 because of the journal. The avant-garde club he joined in 1937 was also dissolved around that time. Surreal artists risked imprisonment for their work.

“War was mounting, and he could have been prosecuted at any point,” said Amanda Maddox, who curated his work for a new exhibition at Los Angeles’ Getty Museum.

Yamamoto was lucky, she said. He was never imprisoned, but he was told to discontinue writing the journal.

From that point forward, Yamamoto could commentate on the country’s government only through his art, particularly his photocompositions. His photographs include straightforward gelatin prints, combination prints with multiple negatives and multimedia pieces with drawings on top.

Influenced by the surrealist movement in Europe, Yamamoto played a large role in the avant-garde photography movement in Japan in the 1930s. His works have a cryptic title or no title at all, but the year they were created hint at their meaning.

Birdcages appear often in his works. One work created after his questioning in 1940 (image 15) shows a phone inside a cage, likely symbolizing state censorship.

“He was criticizing the government, but it was under the skin of the works,” Maddox said.

Japan’s Shōwa period, referring to Emperor Hirohito’s enthronement from 1926 to 1989, is typically divided into two parts: prewar and postwar.

At the start of his reign, Hirohito pushed the country’s development and presence around the world with fascism. He led Japan to invade China in 1937 and get involved in World War II. After Japan was defeated, Allied Powers occupied the country from 1945 to 1952.

Yamamoto was a strict pacifist, Maddox said.  He was disheartened when his government agreed to allow U.S. military occupation by signing the Security Treaty Between the United States and Japan in 1951. The treaty was renewed in 1952.

The work’s title doesn’t say what it refers to, but Yamamoto’s “Sleepy Sea” (image 16), created in 1953, features a toy gun with “Japan” inscribed on it.

During post-war Shōwa, Japan struggled to recover and ultimately made a surprising turnaround. The boom during the “Golden ‘60s” launched the nation to an economic world power. At this time, the realism photography movement had taken hold, and avant-garde photographers were more overlooked.

Yamamoto was constantly creating new work but was not a self-promoter and wasn’t well-known in Japan during his lifetime, Maddox said. A retrospective exhibition of his work in 2001 in Tokyo helped show his talents and relevance to the photography movements of his time, though he is still relatively unknown in Japan and the rest of the world.

-  Lauren Russell, CNN

Yamamoto’s works are on display alongside the works of his contemporary Hiroshi Hamaya, a Japanese documentary photographer, at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The exhibition, “Japan’s Modern Divide,” runs until August.