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    Eiko Oshima, Actress in the Film Shiiku in Shomei Tomatsu: Skin of the Nation
    "Eiko Oshima, Actress in the Film Shiiku"

    Cities of Japan, aprs-guerre

    Japan Society's 'Shomei Tomatsu: Skin of the Nation' is the first retrospective of Japan's foremost postwar fine art photographer outside of Japan.


    The A-bomb hit a smaller city in Hiroshima's shadow, Nagasaki, on August 9, 1945. Fifteen years afterward, the Japan Council Against Hydrogen and Atomic Bombs sent Shomei Tomatsu there to photograph its 'hibakusha' or survivors of the city's destruction. These would be his most iconic images. For the first twelve years, the Japanese government averted its eyes; welfare was unavailable for those who got sick and could no longer work. Already outsiders because of their Catholic beliefs, the hibakusha were ostracized as emblems of defeat. The scarred women were unmarriageable and many committed suicide. When Tomatsu photographed "Hibakusha, Tuyo Kataoka," she told him he was the only one ever to photograph the side of her face with the keloid scars. "Bottle Melted and Deformed by Radiation and Fire" is no easier, strangely resembling petrified muscle tissue. Tomatsu believed that "A photographer is someone who wagers everything on seeing." In "Shomei Tomatsu: Skin of the Nation" we have the opportunity to see also. In doing so we can, in co-curator Leo Rubinfien's words, "read the heart of the country."

    Exhibition: Skin of the Nation.
    Works by: Shomei Tomatsu.
    Curators: Sandra S. Phillips, Leo Rubinfien.
    224 page illustrated catalogue by Sandra S. Phillips, Leo Rubinfien, John W. Dower
    September 22, 2004 - January 2, 2005

    Gallery: Japan Society
    333 East 47th Street
    New York NY
    Hours: Tuesday through Thursday, 11 am - 6 pm, Friday, 11 am - 9 pm, Saturday & Sunday, 11 am - 5 pm
    Phone: (212) 832-1155

    Tomatsu's early photographs were published as 'essays' in widely circulated magazines. There were no galleries of fine art photography in Japan then. Collectors later found great art butted and cropped alongside amateur photos. Often the publishers destroyed the original prints. Tomatsu started the 'Vivo' agency and held exhibits of affiliated artist's photos. He saved the negatives cut from the large military reconnaissance sheets of film available to him early on. He printed some of the 250 images in the show as much as forty years after they were shot. At age 74, the photos that celebrate his work at Japan Society are largely from his own archive. They are creatively juxtaposed, within broad themes, and close together as if inexplicably bound to their original magazine 'essay' format.

    Card Game, Zushi, Kanagawa in Shomei Tomatsu: Skin of the Nation  
    "Card Game, Zushi, Kanagawa"
    His early work speaks for the 'beliefless'. Tomatsu rejected Journalism and did not strive for coherence, but instead for formal, poetic, visual language. The pictures track the spirit of upheaval and change in Japan. In an early series called "Chewing Gum and Chocolate," and another called "Americanization," the faces and compositions ask American viewers, "Was our occupation of Japan a blessing or a travesty?" He looks at both sides of the coin. He credits Americanization for "Card Game, Zushi, Kanagawa" (1964), a scene of relaxed children that would not be found in Imperial Japan. The memorable "Dance, Tokyo" (1963) foreshadows Tomatsu's later abstract compositions with a random pattern of young frogs swimming away. At the same time its cold sensation darkly remembers an earlier exodus. In "Ruinous Garden" (1964) color makes an appearance. The composition is a collage of lyric shapes that express the exuberance the '64 Tokyo Olympiad, symbol of rising Japan. "Olympic Capriccio" (1962) suggests the flying debris of disaster. "Untitled, Hateruma-jima, Okinawa" (1971) ominously recalls the mushroom cloud; while under a tilting horizon line water flows — moving on.

      The pictures track the spirit of upheaval and change in Japan.
    In his more uplifting work, the liberated spirit of the '60's is captured in the pure beauty of form and surrealistic experimentation in manipulated and double exposed images. Like Surrealism that dominated postwar Japanese art, Tomatsu's symbolism is open to interpretation. He said that he liked to discover what the camera knew that he did not. Two close ups, the expressionless "Eiko Oshima, Actress in the Film Shiiku" (1961), and the strongly contrasted form of a young woman's upturned face in "Untitled, Tokyo" (1969), are extraordinarily palpable portraits of a new generation of Japanese.

    Untitled, Hateruma-jima, Okinawa in Shomei Tomatsu: Skin of the Nation  
    "Untitled, Hateruma-jima, Okinawa"
    Tomatsu makes his home in Nagasaki, now one of the loveliest cities in Japan. Hibakusha Senji Yamaguchi, in a photo taken in 1998, looks out contemplatively over the water. One can feel the cool South Sea breeze in this latest work, an openness and clarity. It is as if Tomatsu (and Japan) let go of earlier questions and now asks, "Is it better to remember or forget?"

    OCTOBER 7, 2004

    Reader comments on Shomei Tomatsu: Skin of the Nation:

  • Shomei Tomatsu exhibit   from Robin Michals, Jan 8, 2005
  • Coool blog from Brazil!   from Annie, Oct 20, 2005

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