Japanese Photography at SFMOMA

image shomei tomatsu

I was recently at SFMOMA, my first visit since it reopened last summer after a big three-year renovation project. My eye was drawn to this exhibition of Japanese photography, a thematic presentation, over many rooms, of works drawn entirely from the museum’s collections. It was a powerful and eye-opening exhibit, to which I gladly devoted most of my visit.

Postwar Japan saw the rise of many important photographers, whose work charts their response to contemporary themes such as urbanisation, industrialisation, or Japan’s relationship with America. For instance, Shomei Tomatsu (1930-2012) produced a series called Protest, Tokyo, in which he tackled protests against the American military presence in Japan, and its involvement in the Vietnam War.

Others have focused on the atomic explosion in Hiroshima. Takashi Arai (b.1978) presents a daguerreotype of a piano that survived the Hiroshima explosion in his work Misako’s Hibaku Piano, Daigo Fukuryu Main Exhibition Hall, Tokyo. The use of this technique from the 19th century heightens the ghostly quality of the image: this instrument is something that survived when so much was lost. Miyako Ishiuchi (b. 1947) makes pictures of garments from the victims of the Hiroshima bombing, and they too co-opt the viewer in an act of quiet mourning or remembrance.

Later on, the show explores how photographers have responded to disasters, including the Fukushima nuclear power plant explosion in 2011. For example, Shimpei Takeda (b.1982) travelled around the Fukushima region, collecting soil samples which he packed in unexposed photographic paper for one month. The resulting papers reveal traces of radiation and are displayed as photographic prints.

The show does of course include many images that are not concerned with these headline, soul-shaking events: the natural world, portraits of people and places, cityscapes. These too are of great interest, yet for me it was the inclusion of the more provocative, context-driven material that elevated this exhibition to something well above the ordinary. Highly recommended.

Japanese Photography from Postwar to Now
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA
15 October 2016 to 12 March 2017

Above: Shomei Tomatsu, Untitled, from the series Protest, Tokyo, 1969, printed 1974. Gelatin silver print. Height 20.64cm; width 30.96cm. SFMOMA. Image: Shomei Tomatsu – Interface, at https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/2006.192.A

Below: Takashi Arai, Misako’s Hibaku Piano, Daigo Fukuryu Main Exhibition Hall, Tokyo, from the series Exposed in a Hundred Suns, 2012. Daguerreotype. Height 25.2cm; width 19.3cm. SFMOMA. Image: Takashi Arai, at https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/PH14.046

image takashi arai

Below: Miyako Ishiuchi, hiroshima #71, 2007, printed 2016. SFMOMA. Image: Miyako Ishiuchi, at https://www.sfmoma.org/exhibition/japanese-photography-postwar-now/

image miyako ishiuchi

Below: Shimpei Takeda, Trace #10, Iwase General Hospital, 2012. Gelatin silver print. Height 40.32cm; width 50.17cm. SFMOMA. Image: Shimpei Takeda, at https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/2015.146

image shimpei takeda

Architecture of Life at BAMPFA

bampfa hall

We made a family visit recently to BAMPFA, the newly reopened arts centre for the University of California, Berkeley. The acronym stands for Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, and while the focus is on both art and film, we went to see the inaugural exhibition, entitled Architecture of Life.

I found this a hugely energising show to explore, and I would love to go back. It takes the twin themes of architecture in the human world and architecture in the natural world, and interprets them in an open and unstructured way. It brings together works from different cultures and different periods, so that you abandon all thoughts of context and give yourself up to the visual ride, just focusing on the objects in front of you. Several exhibits are drawn from scientific projects, increasing the sense of an inter-disciplinary, trans-boundary adventure.

Given how the format emboldens you to look at things together and make unexpected connections, it seems counter-intuitive to zero in on objects with an Asian link, which is my usual practice here. However, those I find myself highlighting are as mixed a selection as any I might have chosen, so in that sense it is representative.

“Home-for-All” in Rikuzentakata is a series of five models by Japanese architects, seeking to create a new structure in the wake of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. The final version was constructed by volunteers, using cedar logs damaged by the sea.

Photographer Yuji Obata (b.1962) pays homage to an early photographer of snowflakes, Wilson Bentley (1865-1931), through his photographs of snowflakes in freefall. He uses a technique perfected over years in the snowy mountains of Hokkaido.

Noriko Ambe (b.1967) creates sculptures made from hundreds of small sheets of flat, synthetic paper, individually hand cut then stacked to create abstract forms in organic shapes.

Hyun-Sook Song (b.1952) is a painter whose work I first encountered on my visit to ART14 London. I was a little blown away to find three big canvases, more sombre though than those I saw previously. 21 Brushstrokes shows the shrouded body of the artist’s mother prior to burial, resting alone on a bier, and  has a particular bleakness.

These are just a few examples, however. The whole experience is diverse, stimulating and highly recommended.

Architecture of Life
BAMPFA, Berkeley, CA
31 January to 29 May 2016

Above: Atrium at BAMPFA. Photo: SF.

Below: Toyo Ito (b.1941) and others, “Home-for-All” in Rikuzentakata, 2012. 1:20 scale model; wood, styrene board, styrol, plastic. Photo: SF.

toyo ito home for all scale model

Below: Noriko Ambe, A piece of Flat Globe, Vol 12 and Vol 22, 2010-12. Cut YUPO. Photos: SF.

noriko ambe a piece of flat globe A

noriko ambe a piece of flat globe B

Below: Hyun-Sook Song, 21 Brushstrokes, 2007. Egg tempera on canvas. Photo: SF.

hyun sook song 21 brushstrokes

Below: Hyun-Sook Song, 4 Brushstrokes over Figure, 2012. Egg tempera on canvas. Photo: SF.

hyun sook song 4 brushstrokes over figure

Bonnard at the Legion of Honor

Following on from my last post on Japanese porcelains, another highlight at the Legion of Honor museum is their current temporary exhibition on Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947). This runs to several galleries, featuring over 70 works, and covering all the themes you would hope to find in a Bonnard show, from bathing nudes to still lifes to domestic interiors. There are also tiny prints of his photographic work, which I had not seen before.

This is not Asian art, of course, but I wanted to include it here because several works show the influence of Japanese prints, an aspect of the Nabis movement of the 1890s. This is especially apparent in the scenes showing women in decorative costumes with bold patterning.

For instance, the group of four panels called Women in the Garden features a series of single women in eye-catching dresses, possibly intended to represent the four seasons, a favourite theme in Japanese art. The atmospheric garden scene Twilight likewise offers a celebration of colour and pattern on the women’s dresses. I think some of the audience will be primed to make these links after visiting the show Looking East at the Asian Art Museum, discussed in this previous post.

Pierre Bonnard: Painting Arcadia
Legion of Honor, San Francisco, CA
6 February to 15 May 2016

Below: Pierre Bonnard, Woman in Dress with White Dots, from Women in the Garden. 1891. Distemper on paper mounted on canvas. Height 160.3cm; width 48cm. Musee d’Orsay. Image at http://www.musee-orsay.fr/en/collections/index-of-works/

bonnard women in the garden woman in dress with white dots

Below: Pierre Bonnard, Woman in Checkered Dress, from Women in the Garden. 1891. Distemper on paper mounted on canvas. Height 160.5cm; width 48cm. Musee d’Orsay. Image at http://www.musee-orsay.fr/en/collections/index-of-works/

bonnard women in the garden woman in checkered dress

Below: Bonnard, Twilight: The Croquet Game, 1892. Oil on canvas. Height 130.5cm; length 162.2cm. Musee d’Orsay. Image at http://www.musee-orsay.fr/en/collections/index-of-works/

bonnard twilight the croquet game

Books: Shanghai Art of the City

pic cover shanghai

This lavish hardback gives a fascinating account of Shanghai’s visual culture in the 20th century, starting with the China Trade paintings of the 1850s (topographical works that showed the premises of important companies) and finishing with video material from the early 2000s. Published to accompany the 2010 exhibition “Shanghai” at the Asian Art Museum, it still works very well as a stand-alone guide.

This was of course a hugely turbulent phase in Shanghai’s history. The Japanese occupied the city during the Sino-Japanese war, first the Chinese sector in 1937, then the foreign concessions in 1941. After the Communist Party took power in 1949, Shanghai artists were not initially too much affected. However, this changed as the authorities relocated art academies away from Shanghai in the early 1950s, and later instigated the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), with devastating effects on artists and artistic practice.

The book presents material from every decade and in a variety of media: traditional ink painting, Western-inspired painting by artists such as Lin Fengmian (1900-1991) and Xu Beihong (1895-1953), propaganda posters, woodcuts and more.

I especially enjoyed the selections from the 1930s, including photographs of 1930s buildings, Shanghai Deco furniture, wool rugs, magazine covers and posters of 1930s beauties. I was also curious to read up on contemporary artists featured in the Saatchi Gallery’s recent “Post Pop” show, such as Zhou Tiehai (b. 1966) and Liu Dahong (b. 1962).

I felt that the essays varied somewhat in quality, and that there was repetition of the historical material – perhaps unavoidable with art that is politically charged. But this volume is bursting with pictures and definitely recommended.

Shanghai Art of the City
Michael Knight & Dany Chan, 2010.
Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, 284 pp.

This book was received as a gift from family!

Wildlife Photographer of the Year show

minghui yuan natural harmony

The Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition, featuring the best photography from the 2014 competition, is touring several venues around the UK. These include the Natural History Museum at Tring, which I explored on a family visit last weekend.

This arresting image Natural Harmony is by Chinese photographer Minghui Yuan, a finalist in the category “Plants and Fungi”. It depicts wild vines seen after rain, on the outskirts of Wuhan city in Hubei Province. The curling stems reminded him of treble clefs on a sheet of music, so he sought to highlight the connection between the beauty of nature (both visual and auditory), and of music.  The disc of light behind the stems suggests the disc of the full moon, a frequent motif in Chinese and Japanese art, although in fact the shot was taken in daylight.

The almost abstract quality of this photograph differentiates it from other works in the display. It is less obviously wildlife photography – I’m not sure you could even tell what species this was, though the label said pumpkin – but it holds your gaze as you wait, indefinitely, for that droplet to fall.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition
Natural History Museum at Tring
29 November 2014 to 19 April 2015

The exhibition is also showing at the Natural History Museum in London, and making a tour of UK venues.

There is an online gallery of the images.

Above: Minghui Yuan, Natural Harmony, 2014. Image: Minghui Yuan, at http://www.nhm.ac.uk/visit-us/wpy/gallery/2014/images/plants-and-fungi/4858/natural-harmony.html.