Since the 1960s, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has assembled one of the world’s finest collections of Japanese photography. Approximately 50 photographs from SFMOMA’s world-renowned collection are on view at the Crocker Art Museum through Feb. 1.
The presentation at the Crocker is part of an unprecedented statewide tour of works from SFMOMA’s photography collection to communities throughout California while its building is closed for expansion through early 2016.
Organized by Sandra Phillips, curator of photography at SFMOMA, the Crocker show includes works by such internationally recognized artists as Masahisa Fukase, Eikoh Hosoe, Daido Moriyama and Shomei Tomatsu, who responded to the tumultuous period after World War II by creating a new visual language dubbed “Are, Bure, Boke” – rough, blurred and out of focus. The group of loosely associated photographers, named for the avant-garde magazine Provoke, which departed from the rules of traditional photography, responded to Japan’s shifting social and political atmosphere with images that caught the tense and unsettled spirit of postwar Japan.
In the aftermath of the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Japan’s defeat in the war, the country sought to both forget and transcend the past, turning from a historic empire to a democratic and capitalistic society patterned after those of its Western occupiers. Photography was ideally suited to capture elements of the rapidly changing society.
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Among the earliest works in the show are several images by Tomatsu that stand as reminders of the horrors of the bombing at Nagasaki. A teen during the war, Tomatsu was deeply affected by the bombings and created images that are memorials to the war’s effects 15 years later.
In one, we see a bottle melted and deformed by the atomic bomb at Nagasaki. The warped, misshapen bottle resembles flesh, a deformed internal organ or a deformed body. In another image he gives us a pocket watch stopped at 11:02, the time of the bombing, floating in an ominous cloud.
A third is hard to look at but tremendously moving. It is an image of a woman whose face is covered with scars from having turned to face the explosion of the bomb. It’s an in-your-face reminder of the horrors of war.
More enigmatic is his image of an actress in a Japanese film, her face in extreme close-up with eyes partially closed. Blown up to wall size in the hallway outside the gallery, it is presented as an introduction to the exhibition.
Moriyama’s photographs are compositionally claustrophobic and anxiety-provoking, and they present images caught on the fly, said Crocker Asian Art curator Amelia Chau. Walking about carrying a hand-held automatic camera, not even looking through the viewfinder, he would click, capturing the moment.
His most famous photo is of a stray dog, close cropped, the dog at eye level, staring at the viewer, Chau said, like an emblem of the lost soul of Japan.
Fukase’s images from his series “The Solitude of Ravens” focuses on grainy images of blurry crows, a traditional Japanese creature of ill omen. In one stark, powerful shot, a girl’s hair blowing in the wind takes on the shape of a raven rising up in the air.
Hosoe’s Kamaitachi series captures the violent upheaval of the war and his attempt to find what is most Japanese about Japan. Using images of a modern dancer of the Butoh school, he gives us stark, expressionistic photographs that document the spontaneous, instinctual, awkward movements that tell the story of a terrifying legendary weasel-like creature with sickle-like claws. One, framed in a shape that suggests an eye, is as evocative and artful as a still from a Kurosawa film.
These are only a few of the stunning works in the show, which appears at the Crocker by virtue of a grant from the James Irvine Foundation and major support from the Bank of America.
The Provoke Era: Contemporary Japanese Photography from the Collection of SFMOMA
Where: Crocker Art Museum, 216 O St., Sacramento
When: Through Feb. 1; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday
Cost: $10-$5, free for members and children 6 and under