Tokyo: Art & Photography is a celebration of one of the world’s most dynamic cities. Artworks span the Edo period (1603-1868) to the contemporary photography of Daido Moriyama and Mika Ninagawa. The exhibition looks at a city which has undergone constant destruction and renewal, telling the stories of the people who have made Tokyo famous with their appetite for the new and innovative through the centuries. Including works on loan from Japan and new commissions by contemporary artists. The exhibition is curated by Dr Lena Fritsch, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art and Dr Claire Pollard, Curator of Japanese Art at the museum.
Mika Ninagawa’s Installation
The show opens with an immersive installation by Mika Ninagawa (b 1972), especially created for the Ashmolean, providing an introduction to Tokyo’s evolution from a small fishing village to the sprawling metropolis of the 21st century. The fascination with Edo comes to a height during the 19th century with a plethora of publishers producing printed material to record the rise of the densely populated urban city. Some of the most enduring impressions of the city are recorded in Hiroshige’s series, One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (1856-9). These hugely popular prints portray the beauty spots of Tokyo through the seasons – and was eagerly collected by the European and American markets through a new-found passion encouraged by the craze of Japonisme in the early part of the 20th century.
Printmakers and photographers have continued to respond to the changing city, creating Tokyo art, showing landmarks such as Tokyo Tower, or the networks of wires, roads, and railways that have multiplied as Japan has grown into an economic powerhouse. Tokyo’s artists have long offered alternative and personal views of their city, reflecting on the experience of living in a place under intense development. Yuko Mohri’s fieldwork photos for her Moré, Moré (Leaky, Leaky) project show the ingenious quick-fixes in the underground to plug holes and stop water leaking on commuters’ heads.
A Constant Need to Rebuild and Reinvent Itself
Perhaps more than any other city on earth, Tokyo has had the constant need to rebuild and reinvent itself. An extraordinary list of natural disasters and catastrophes has necessitated repeated regeneration, which has all been recorded by the city’s artists and architects. A whole genre of woodblock prints, namazu-e, depicts the mythological giant catfish thought to live under the islands of Japan who would shake the earth at times of social and political discord. Hundreds of prints were produced within days of the Great Ansei Earthquake of 1855. They express sympathy for the people affected, veiled social criticism and even humour in pictures of merchants and builders who stood to profit from the event. When another massive earthquake hit Tokyo in 1923, an outpouring of grief and nostalgia flowed from the artistic community.
Many works of Tokyo art highlighted the destruction of symbols of Japan’s recent industrialisation, while the print series One Hundred Views of New Tokyo (1928-32) celebrated the dynamism of the city as it recovered from the devastation. This need to rebuild has created social and cultural tensions throughout Tokyo’s history. In the early decades of the 20th century, the Edo period and its arts were celebrated as an era of peace, a better time when authentic Japanese culture flourished before Western influences had taken route.
Families who had lived in the city for generations were known as Edokko, living repositories of this history, analogous to London’s Cockneys. A sense of nostalgia for what was lost is entirely understandable following events like the firebombing of Tokyo in 1945 – the single most destructive bombing raid in history which, on one night (10 March) killed 83,000 people and left 1.5 million homeless with photographers such as Kimura Ihei and Hayashi Tadahiko recording the city’s devastating realities after the war.
Edo Becomes a Cultural Leader
The resilience and creativity of the people who have lived through these conflagrations have maintained Tokyo’s national and international importance since the early 17th century. By the 18th century, Edo had taken over as the nation’s cultural capital under the watchful and powerful eye of the Tokugawa shogunate. With over a million inhabitants it was one of the largest cities in the world, a bustling centre where regional feudal lords (daimyo) would congregate with their retainers. With no wars to fight, they were hungry for entertainment and expected to be patrons and masters of the ‘arts of peace’: calligraphy, painting, the tea ceremony and noh theatre all flourished under the shoguns. In the meantime, ordinary townspeople, merchants and artisans, became increasingly wealthy and began to generate new art forms that reflected their own interests.
When, in 1868, Emperor Meiji was restored as the as ruler of Japan, the policy of national isolation came to an end and rapid modernisation and westernisation swept the city. Students and artists who had travelled in Europe and America brought back fashions and ideas about modern art. In the Ginza shopping district Western-style department stores like Mitsukoshi became cultural hubs selling imported products and hosting exhibitions.
Prints from the 1930s represent a hybrid modernism, combining traditional artistic methods with modern palettes and contemporary scenes. Pictures of ‘moga’ – from modan garu or modern girl – show young women with bobbed hair, make-up, short dresses and bare legs. Expressive photographs by artists such as Eikoh Hosoe and Masatoshi Naito present a highly subjective view on people’s lives in the city. Naito’s Tokyo: A Vision of its Other Side (1970–85) shows a dark face of the mega-city, focusing on the homeless and street entertainers. An installation by one of Japan’s greatest photographers, Daido Moriyama, includes a moving projection and atmospheric sounds of the city. And Mika Ninagawa’s recent photographs of Tokyo (2018-19) offer a diaristic and personal look at the city, showing her friends and family and her experiences out clubbing.
A rich artistic tradition helped form Tokyo art and the city is now famous the world over, is also found in Tokyo’s entertainment and sex culture. From the Edo period up to the 20th century, bijin-ga (beauties) and shunga (erotic ‘spring pictures’) were among the most popular and sought-after subjects by ukiyo-e artists. Scrolls and prints were hotly traded in the tea-houses, theatres and bars of the Yoshiwara pleasure district.
Women in Japanese Prints
Although depictions of women by male artists were diverse, ranging from courtesans to female samurai, ghosts, and monsters, it was not until the 20th century that women were able to exert more agency in depictions of female sexuality. Tokyo Rumando’s Rest 3000, Stay 5000 (2012) is a series of self-portraits where the artist imagines herself as different women who go to love hotels. Kyoichi Tsuzuki’s 2001 photobook, Satellite of Love, explores the phenomenon of love hotels, focusing on their fantastical interior design.
With so many creative and cultural forces intersecting in Tokyo, the city has become a world-renowned centre of avant-garde art. Experimentation can be traced from Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s Courtesan Usugumo printed with newly imported Prussian Blue pigment in 1835; the creative print (sosaku-hanga) artists of the 1920/30s; to the painters and designers who combined bright colours with traditional motifs in Tokyo Pop.
Japanese Contemporary Art
Particular innovation was made by 20th-century performance and protest artists. Minoru Hirata’s photos document works by the Hi Red Center artist collective like Cleaning Event (1964), a ‘happening’ which reacted to the government’s ‘cleansing’ of neighbourhoods before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. More recently one of Japan’s best-known artists, Takashi Murakami, has blurred the lines between popular sub-culture and ‘high art’, creating unique Pop Art paintings that he has defined as ‘super flat’. Daido Moriyama has dramatically captured life in Tokyo in his dynamic black and white photographs and Aida Makoto provocatively links traditional painting techniques with contemporary manga styles to illustrate problems in Japanese society. All showing that artists never tire of documenting the dynamic life of Tokyo and its residents.
Tokyo: Art & Photography, until 3 January, 2022, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, ashmolean.org. A catalogue accompanies the exhibition.