Shomei Tomatsu: Skin of the Nation
Cameras and film were invented in Europe and America, and for a century Japanese photographers learned their styles from the West. It was only after World War II—when their country was absorbing Western fashions and ideas more hungrily than ever—that they began to develop their own unique ways of seeing. The best Japanese photographers of the 1950s and 1960s combined an intensely emotional realism with aspects of Surrealism and classical Japanese art, developing one of the most distinct photographic cultures in the world.
Shomei Tomatsu was born in 1930 in Nagoya, the center of Japan’s automobile and aircraft industries. He was a schoolboy in the decade when his country embraced right-wing nationalism, conquered much of East Asia, and then suffered catastrophic destruction during World War II. Too young to be drafted, he watched up close as Nagoya was incinerated by bombs; he came of age in the cosmopolitan air of postwar Japan, where the foreign and new mixed incessantly with the native and old.
Tomatsu has worked as a photographer for more than fifty years. This retrospective follows the majority of his principal themes, but his oeuvre covers an even greater range. His pictures insist fiercely upon freedom—the freedom to leap from one subject to another without concern for conventional categories; to turn from the deeply serious to pure whimsy and back again; to desecrate and celebrate the symbols of Japan. He often says that his immediate contemporaries believed in nothing—that they saw Japan’s old beliefs crumble, yet had known such violence that they had little confidence in the future. Tomatsu’s photographs are emphatic in their conviction that one’s personal experience of wounds, earth, detritus, sunlight, and skin contains more truth than grand ideas, and that one ought to trust one’s own eyes before the voice of any authority.
Tomatsu’s era saw Japan rebuild itself headlong, as individual men and women took charge more than at any time in memory. Responsive, mobile, flexible, and inexpensive, photography was an ideal medium for exploring the questions that troubled the nation, and Tomatsu did this with what his fellow photographer Daido Moriyama has called “awesome tenacity.” Even Tomatsu’s most playful work has great moral force. He has been one of the most eloquent artists of Japan’s last half-century, and one of the most eloquent anywhere to study what happens when the West collides with the world beyond it.
Shomei Tomatsu: Skin of the Nationis organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in association with Japan Society, New York. The exhibition is generously sponsored by an anonymous donor and the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation. Additional support has been provided by Mr. and Mrs. William S. Fisher, Prentice and Paul Sack, and Allan Alcorn.
Skin of the Nation’spresentation at the Corcoran is made possible through the generous support of the Trellis Fund, Deane and Paul Shatz, the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, Toshiba International Foundation, and The President’s Exhibition Fund.