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

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.

2020 Japanese Culture Guide

2020 Japanese Culture Guide

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