Japanese Modernism Across Media

Juxtaposition and Shock Value: The Evolution of Japanese Surreal Art

"Since I am tired of painting portraits of people of this world, I will paint portraits of the King of hell and the devils. -Toyohara Kunichika, woodblock painter, 1835-1900

Japanese surreal art surfaced and gained prominance at the end of the Meiji era, but its roots lay further back in Japanese woodblock prints and European avant-garde influences. The overwhelming, unnatural effect of surrealism is comparable to a visual version of haiku poetry: the total is greater than the sum of its parts.

Surrealism gained prominence and following at the beginning of the twentieth century, expanding into an imaginative and individualistic style. The manic, over-stimulating nature of the works draws inspiration from the complex nature of woodblock prints.

Contact with the French avant garde movement kick-started the growth of surrealism, as Japanese artists were studying abroad in Europe with much more frequency.

With the advent of the Pacific War, however, attitudes toward the growing movement changed. Prominent artist Ichiro Fukuzawa was arrested for his surrealist works, on the grounds that surrealism andd communism were linked. He was released after six months and resumed his art career.

In the past century, the introduction of photography has slightly swayed the tendencies of surreal artists. Painting (both digital and traditional) are vital media, however, as it allows for the artist to freely and openly expand on their myriad ideas. Surrealism allows for clear, uninterrupted communication, even if it seems overwhelming and nonsensical at first.

This exhibition gives a general overview of the surrealist movements origins, followed by a sampling of several modern surrealists' works. This exhibition concludes with a visual essay that links the works of surrealist painter Tetsuya Ishida to the history of a specific motif that spans the movement: the artistic distortion of the human body.

As surrealism is unbridled by convention or boundaries, general comments on the nature of the works are near impossible. By examining distinct approaches to the movement, we form a clear picture of the scope and possibility of a movement that is more real than reality.


Christina Ulowetz, Bryn Mawr '17