SFMOMA’s First Postwar Japanese Photography Exhibit Charts the Evolution of Japanese Art and Society

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NAOYA HATAKEYAMA, UNTITLED, OSAKA, 1998–99; two chromographic prints on aluminum; each 35 x 71 in.; Collection SFMOMA, fractional and promised gift of anonymous donors; © Naoya Hatakeyama

A young woman sitting in a garden, her kimono pulled back defiantly to reveal a single naked breast. A stray dog, glaring menacingly, teeth bared. A woman’s head, eyes gaping, jammed beneath the armpit of a muscular man, seemingly detached from her body but very much alive.

These are images from postwar Japan as seen through the lenses of photographers — in stark black and white, often grainy — part of a new exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. “The Provoke Era: Postwar Japanese Photography” includes nearly 100 works from the 1960s to the 1990s and charts, through the images’ evolving themes and styles, the Japanese psyche in a changing cultural landscape.

The exhibit, the museum’s first survey of its large collection of postwar Japanese photography, will run through Dec. 20, along with another related collection of modern Japanese, Chinese and Korean works.

Organized roughly in chronological order, the exhibit starts in the years after World War II. Shattered by defeat, Japan struggled with poverty, the tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the American Occupation, adapting to a new way of life that forced citizens to question their national identity.

Photography, which grew popular in Japan in the 1930s, emerged as a way for artists to document and interpret their changing society, said Lisa Sutcliffe, curator of the exhibition.

“After the war, there was this real change in society, all of these huge, traumatic events and the change from a traditional culture to an economic superpower and a democracy, these things they didn’t ask for,” Sutcliffe said.

One of the earliest and most haunting images in the collection, taken in 1961 by Shomei Tomatsu, is a close-up of a victim of the Nagasaki bombing, her pain reflected in her knitted eyebrows, tight mouth and, more literally, in her horribly scarred skin, an inescapable mark of the war’s devastation.

Most of the photographs come from the late 1960s and 70s, as does the title of the exhibition, taken from the name of a cutting-edge photography magazine, Provoke: shiso no tame no chohatsuteki shiryo (Provoke: Provocative Materials for Thought). Founded in 1968 by a group of photographers who adopted a style they called “are-bure-boke” (rough, blurred, out of focus), the magazine catalyzed artistic reaction to political turmoil of the times.

“The Provoke generation was really trying to test the boundaries of the photographic medium,” Sutcliffe said, partly by creating images that are “dark and grainy.”

A number of works by Daido Moriyama, for example, depict regular items — a dirty tire, a payphone, a single white shoe — bathed in harsh or fading light, lending them an eerie, unreal quality. Katsumi Watanabe’s series of photographs depict the starkness of seedy late-night city streets, prostitutes and gangsters strutting on dark corners.

An adjacent gallery holds the related exhibition “Photography Now: China, Japan, Korea,” which features about 60 pieces, many on view for the first time. The Japanese photographs from the modern era often depict images of buildings and construction, evidencing the isolation of the modern city. Two large photographs by Naoya Hatakeyama that show the same location in Osaka, occupy one wall. On the left, we see an aging stadium being used as a venue to show model homes, a mock community that welcomes potential buyers into a dreamy suburban neighborhood in the middle of a big city. On the right is its aftermath — dust, debris and a fleet of orange cranes that have torn down the pleasant scene when no longer necessary — calling attention to the fleeting and false nature of “home” in a metropolis.

Taken as a whole, the series of photographs offers a glimpse into Japanese society over the last several decades, navigating the path from its postwar devastation through the turmoil of the 1960s, periods of economic success and failure, and into a modern, globalized era where themes in photography have become more universal and less about a single nation.

With the museum celebrating its 75th anniversary next year, Sutcliffe said the curators decided to showcase for the first time the collection of Japanese photography they have been amassing since the 1970s to highlight its importance to the museum.

SFMOMA is located at 151 Third St. (between Mission and Howard), in San Francisco. Hours are from 11 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays and Fridays through Sundays; from 11 a.m. to 8:45 p.m. Thursdays and closed Wednesdays. For additional information, including cost of admission, visit sfmoma.org or call (415) 357-4000.

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