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October 21, 2020

A sophisticated lesson of photographic art

After touring three continents, the itinerating exhibition `Metamorphosis of Japan After the War` arrived at Cluj, in the halls of the Art Museum. Perceived rather as a sample of far-eastern exoticism, the exhibition enjoyed less publicity than it deserved, although it was a unique chance for the public to study several absolute masters of the photographic art. What can be more suggestive for the catastrophic defeat, not only military, of Japan in 1945 than the granulated spot of a light implosion, of a hysterical artificiousness, against a seamless intense black background. This `Sun on the Day of Defeat` seems a tenebrous variant of the national flag, like a pyre of expiation in the abyss of an inferno or the stubbornness of a foggy lantern in a dark night. It is a unique sample of an abstract expressionism, apparently unique for a photographer fascinated by the formal beauty of the world. In fact, his eye also seeks the poetic geometry of plastic art and the symbolic density of the representation.
In the Olympus of photographic art, Hiroshi Hamaya stands, because of this, alongside Henri Cartier-Bresson. Let’s look at the `Woman planting rice`: a body completely covered with mud (the head is not visible, which partly deprives it of the human identity), knee-deep, carrying a vegetal bundle in a hand. The women herself seems planted in a fertile ground, like the rice, or molded like clay in a still wet clay. The feeling is of an originary event, like a Venus rising from mud, a result of the hierogamy of water and earth. The suggested movement, cumbersome, is specifically statuary: a slightly unstable balance, a metaphysical motivation of intention, a concentrated trajectory. In the same registry, `Harvesting rice`: two women in the forefront, protected by several layers of clothes (so only eyes are visible), gather bundles in a field with parallel furrows. They seem caught in a delicate choreography, with sophisticated vestments, in a geometrised screenplay. The same game of composition with bodies, clothes, natural elements and the geometry of spaces is found in `Woman in a bathroom`.
Nudes with their heads and hips covered by white towels, sitting or lying under jets of water, on the edge of a rectangular pool in steps. The improvised hoods, the shining wet bodies, the inform poodles of water diluting the strict order of the floor planks, but especially the ‘undulated’ row of women, like under the impact of an ineffable breeze, imbue the image with a more than delicate eroticism – a metaphysic of bodies. `Bathing in a hot mountain spring` illustrates a collective bath in a small pool. It is a human microcosm, with crowded bodies surprised like in any other tight place: an elevator, a cabin, a carriage, vehicles of a fortuitous common journey.The excessive proximity partly covers the bodies, reducing the communication codes to faces that are rather interiorised, neurotically focused upon themselves, even intimidated. But there is also an improvised system of communicating vessels, with potential for a unique ludic expression. Eikoh Hosoe uses another aesthetic, more baroque: theatrical, artificious, with a taste for collage. `Man and woman` shows a naked male torso (the head is not visible), keeping under his arm the head of a woman. It looks like an object, a female mask without a body, an expression carried by man as a trophy or a war capture.
The suggestion of gender relations is overwhelming through its minimalism. Ken Domon is the far-eastern variant of photographic neorealism. Hungry children, curious, bald or with school-like fringes, in the streets or at school (where those without food parcels stoically sift through magazines at dinner time), with infantile grimaces or inexpressive in a confusing world – expression of a Japan that took a long time to be reborn.
Many photographs in the exhibition speak precisely of this: an occupied country (an American soldier directs the traffic in town, from a small pedestal in the middle of the street marked with Japanese posters; an American planes flies at low altitude above a protest rally; a soldier accompanied by a girl passes by a poor soul who had fallen asleep while standing, reclining against a shutter; a local suspiciously glances at two American sailors on leave, one with a girl at his arm), the chaos of reconstruction (an old man building a makeshift shelter among ruins; a soldier returning home only finds rubble; a man impersonating Charlot the Tramp amidst people queuing at a work office, a despairing figure), the new prosperity (compact crowds of employees; businessmen at the airport; a fashion show in a store, with hundreds of spectators). But also the complexity of the social tissue: old and new (young women looking with contempt and envy at fellow youths in traditional kimonos; a carpenter’s workshop at home, with Christian symbols – a cross and an icon of Saint Therese of Lisieux – naturally integrated among the other objects; the testament of a kamikaze; traditional wedding rituals; topless dancers), proletarian (a mother with children in a hyper-industrial landscape with smokestacks and a dense metal trellis) and bourgeois (with western costumes), crowded (masses of heads belonging to a group of people alongside brick walls) and discreet (`Garden of silence n. 52`, by Ikko Narahara, seems an old stamp: a man looking down, preceded by his shadow, passes under a poster with ideograms – the minimalism of the image of a rare expressiveness). The other authors of these photographic jewels: Ihee Kimura, Tadahiko Hayashi, Yasuhiro Ishimoto, Shigeichi Nagano, Takeyoshi Tanuma, Shomei Tomatsu, Kikuji Kawada. A unique exhibition, a window to an essential universe for te history of photographic aesthetics. And an essentialised perspective of the recent history of Japan.

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