By Michael Webb
No country balances past and present as deftly as Japan. You can take one of the world’s fastest trains from the megalopolis of Tokyo and stay in a ryokan in Kyoto, eating and sleeping, participating in a tea ceremony and trying to stay awake through a Noh play, as you would have four centuries ago. Both eras coexist in a stunning exhibition at the Getty Museum, which has drawn on its own collection and secured loans to present photographs by Hiroshi Hamaya (1915-1999) and Kansuke Yamamoto (1914-1917).
The names may be unfamiliar but the images are eloquent. Hamaya was a reporter, documenting the deeply traditional lives and rituals of villagers on Japan’s west coast, which experiences some of the deepest snows of any inhabited country. He lived with these impoverished farmers, capturing the inventive ways they protect and divert themselves. Here are children struggling through snowdrifts in straw coats, and inviting parents to join them in ice caves. Later, Hamaya recorded the anti-American protests of 1960 and then, despairing of modern Japan, turned his attention to unchanging landscapes.
Yamamoto was always on the cutting edge, embracing surrealism and abstraction, and challenging the military dictatorship that plunged the country into war and destruction. He survived by outwitting the right, veiling his criticisms in oblique imagery. There are clear links to Europe—his Stapled Flesh and an image of floating lips clearly derive from Man Ray—and the repertoire of shock had become a cliché by end of the 1930s. But the best of Yamamoto’s images are startlingly original, notably the woman in a long gown with a sailboat as a head, and a “self portrait” of an egg floating in a black void.
One of the smartest moves the Getty made was to build a huge and distinguished collection of photography while the medium was undervalued, rather than competing with billionaires for over-priced trophy paintings. Thanks to its curators, it now has a unique resource that may generate many more shows as astonishing as this.
Japan’s Modern Divide runs through August 25. Information at getty.edu.