Tokyo: Art and Photography - capturing the modern city in change and continuity

From a fishing village called Edo, Tokyo’s global dominance today owes to a tradition of dynamic transformation. Artists in woodblock and Kodak print have doubled as social documentarians of the city’s changing seasons. 

Tokyo: Art and Photography delves into the extensive archives of the Ashmolean Museum, along with loans from Japan, and new commissions from contemporary artists. Co-curated by Lena Fritsch and Clare Pollard, the pictures – and their places – are meticulously considered. The works are even labelled from right to left, intended to be read in their original Japanese form.

Two maps open the space: one petite and precise rendering of Tokyo, and one vast black-and-white photographic cityscape. They couldn’t be more different. The first, produced by Dutch hand, reveals how the restored imperial regime sought to legitimise its new capital from 1868, painting Tokyo as the modern man to its bureaucratic kid brother Kyoto. The second shows how Tokyo’s inhabitants still trying to make sense of the city one hundred and fifty years later. It’s an unexpected, but welcome, challenge to our expectations of modernity, as the artist returns to antiquated monochrome to collage the contemporary city in all its colours.

Nishino Sohei, ‘Diorama Map Tokyo’, light jet print on Kodak Endura paper, 2004.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Tokyo: Art and Photography Press Pack
Yamaguchi Akira, ‘Original Plan of Tokyo Metropolitan Government’, pencil and watercolour on paper, 2018 and Aida Makoto, ‘Maybe the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building should have been like this?’, 2018
PHOTOGRAPH BY Jelena Sofronijevic

Past and present depictions of Tokyo are placed in parallel throughout the exhibition. We can read too much into these comparisons, but perhaps we’re supposed to. “The more you look at it, the more you see,” remarked co-curator Clare Pollard, on my recent trip.

After the Meiji Restoration (1868), local leaders (daimyos) were kept under the watchful eye of the imperial capital, still bringing their region’s artistic traditions to Tokyo’s attention. This regional sensibility is echoed in the model replicas of Kyoto’s Buddhist temples that still scatter the capital.

Landmarks from Japanese art and architecture crop up throughout the exhibition’s three rooms and themes – city, people, and innovation. In part, it harks back to the Japanese tradition of depicting landscapes. But it’s also a clever nod to how the city respects, but never clings to, its past.

Art and Photography shows Tokyo as a transient, changing city. But it is one in which recurrent cultural motifs – like the cherry blossom, or acceptance of natural disasters – have been appropriated in individual and national psyches. Pollard sees these symbols as points-of-entry, “hooks, not cliches,” used to capture and challenge our stereotypes of Tokyo.

We see the city destroyed and renewed, both blossoming and reblossoming. This unique dichotomy of being the fixed and fleeting is best captured today with disposable photographs.

Ninagawa Mika, ‘Tokyo’ from ‘Utsurundesu’ series, 2018.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Tokyo: Art and Photography Press Pack
Utagawa Kunimasa IV, ‘Ryōunkaku Tower Game (Ryounkaku kikai sugoroku)’, colour woodblock print with collage elements, 1890.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Tokyo: Art and Photography Press Pack

It’s also a pointed challenge to our Western preconceptions of Japan. Prints by Hiroshige to Yamaguchi Akira privilege Nihonbashi Bridge, disrupting our vision of the sprawling industrial cityscape with near-rural scenes of rivers. Boldly coloured individual posters are overshadowed by multi-print tourist guidebooks – more popular in contemporary Japan – and startlingly monochrome Hokusai prints. This is Tokyo like you have never seen it before.

Utagawa Kunimasa’s poster shows how skyscrapers opened their doors to the ordinary people of Tokyo. Such unprecedented access extended to the poster itself, a Snakes-and-Ladders style game with fold out flap doors, dice stations, and places for players to miss a turn with a cup of tea.

Art tilted ever West in the Meiji period. Allusions to thrones, biblical triptychs, and regal reds regale the Emperor’s portraits for international exhibitions. European modes of modernisation also permeate the “creative print” movement. “Moga” and “mobo” – modern girls and boys – browse Mitsukoshi Department Store, the Harrods of kimono. These subtle nods to art deco arguably reach their Parisian pinnacle in Japan’s post-war architecture.

Before Meiji, there was no single word for “art”. Rather, respect was afforded to individual artistic processes. From Suzuki Harunobu’s first multicolour prints in the 1760s, or the tidal waves of Prussian blue pigment in Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s 1830s, Art and Photography reveals how artistic method and modernity have always been closely intertwined.

Moronobu made headlines as the first to sign and date his work, a stamp of modern artistic individualism.

In One Hundred Views of New Tokyo (1928-1932), other artists resisted the traditional division of labour of the print-making process. In practice, this meant the precise skills obtained through collaboration – along with the final print quality - was sacrificed so that the artist could stake claim to the final piece as wholly their own.

Perhaps this challenges our perceptions of progress, or indeed the idea that divided labour is inherently more modern, as capitalist.

“Large head” (okubi-e) Kabuki prints later gave way to more European-looking ladies, as “Modern Beauties” captured the city more than the cinematic climax (mie) or celebrities of theatre. But the enduring quality and processes of these works remains breathtaking, something that can only be appreciated in person.

Here, the warrior-monk Benkel is bound by blind printed ivory rope. Pockmarked with tiny indents to replicate the texture of tied string, the paper simply begs you to run your fingers over it.

Natori Shunsen, ‘Matsumoto Koshiro VII as Benkei’, colour woodblock print with embossing, 1935.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Tokyo: Art and Photography Press Pack

More nuance can be found in so-called nostalgic representations of the “new print” woodblock revival movement. Chugging trains and clouded skies hint at Tokyo’s turn-of-the-century turmoil, an uncomfortable commingling of wabi-sabi and Western influences.

Kobayashi Kiyochika, ‘View of Takanawa Ushimachi under a Shrouded Moon’, colour woodblock print, 1879.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Tokyo: Art and Photography Press Pack

Tokyo’s “boring places” (kasubabu) receive equal attention. Clever captions draw our eyes from central action of sumo matches and war-training games, to the entertaining exploits of their ringside spectators. Shots of empty coathangers hint at the sacrifices behind the 1960s Nihon University student protests, whilst the shoes are pictured parked politely outside their emergency cardboard shelters of Tokyo’s homeless people.

Protest and performance intertwine in the overzealous street cleaning against the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, to Aida Makato’s manga movement against the 2020 Games. His provocative poster shows sushi athletes, onigiri characters headbutted by volleyballs.

Certainly, there’s a unique timelessness to Tokyo’s political art. Somehow, these works embody and transcend their time. Even 1960s psychedelia – the posters of Twiggy’s peepers and anti-Vietnam War political protests – seems remarkably fresh, licked by Lennon’s breezy Oh, Yoko!

It’s a timelessness that often lends to mystery, like the sweeping lines and socket plugs of Machida Kumi’s Three Persons (2003). But elsewhere, this protest takes a more brutal form.

Yamashita Kikuji’s Bunker-1 (1966) embodies Japan’s post-war “reportage” movement. His Francis Bacon-style screaming general also echoes ghoulish landmarks of manga, whilst his oils are painted in flat, almost print-like form, not Western impasto.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, ‘Scribbles on a Storehouse Wall’, colour woodblock print, 1848.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Tokyo: Art and Photography Press Pack

Such explicit political content was suppressed until the mid-20th century. But it is there from the start, albeit in more subversive form. Take the artists who circumvented the censorship of actor prints by spelling out famous names syllable-by-syllable in pictures, or scribbling celebrities like graffiti.

To imply that Japanese art is only critical from the 1960s is to ignore Japan’s lengthy tradition of satire and social coping, and how artists used surrealism to reveal the nonsense of reality. From our birds’ eye perspective over Yoshiwara Pleasure Quarters, we can poke fun at the lofty samurai, hiding their identity with huge basket hats, or kimonos cloaked over their heads.

Unknown artist in the style of Hishikawa Moronobu, ‘The Yoshiwara Pleasure Quarters’, hanging scroll, ink and colour on paper, late 17th century.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Tokyo: Art and Photography Press Pack

Tokyo’s tiny citizens toil in countless “catfish pictures” (namazu-e), against the underground beasts rumoured to cause tremors like the Ansei earthquakes of 1855. Any such displays of hardship or disruptions to the natural order were considered critical of life on land, and thus rapidly censored and destroyed by the Tokugawa Shogunate.

Unknown artist, ‘Citizens Subduing the Catfish of Edo and Shimizu Provinces’, colour woodblock print, 1855.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Jelena Sofronijevic

It might still come as a surprise, then, that Japan celebrates such a strong tradition of erotic art. With censors more concerned by political rather than pornographic content, shunga prints often platformed women’s sexual pleasure and pubic hair, challenging tropes around prudish Asian cultures. Sex and gender are everywhere, even without “the” nude tradition.

The seedier side lurches out with shots of prostitutes pulling snakes through their nose, and Aida Makato’s sex phone card collages. In part, this speaks to an art scene still dominated by depictions of, rather by, women. Yet contemporary women artists feature throughout, and Pollard and Fritsch’s considered curation creates space for those often excluded from the art historical canon, including Hokusai’s own daughter.

Take Tsuzuki Kyoichi’s 2001 photobook, Satellite of Love, which celebrates the fantastical interiors of so-called love hotels. More of Japan’s population – many in committed relationship - have stayed in them than Hiltons. But they were closed in the 1990s under the pretence of fire safety regulations, replaced by out-of-reach boutique hotels. Today they exist only in print, a lament and final testament to the role of Tokyo’s artists as social documenters.

COVID cut fifty works from the final display, and there are certainly no manga comics to clasp. Other works will be returned before the exhibition ends, as Japanese shows tend to run for shorter periods, often just six weeks. Now packed quite literally to the ceiling, this passing moment only mimics Tokyo’s own transience, inviting onlookers to attend quite different exhibitions.

Prior to picking Art and Photography, Pollard and Fritsch concocted the title Tokyo Stories, a nod to one of Japan’s most infamous films, but also the city’s various and vibrant tales. Here, they expose Tokyo in all its hues.

Tokyo: Art and Photography runs at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford until 3 January 2022.

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Jelena Sofronijevic

Jelena Sofronijevic is an audio producer, journalist, and researcher based in London. I make content at the intersections of cultural history, politics, and the arts. Beyond my works in print, I produce EMPIRE LINES, a podcast which uncovers the unexpected flows of empires through art, and historicity, a new series of audio walking tours, exploring how cities got to be the way they are, recorded on location in London (2022) and Tokyo (2023). My full portfolio of work is available on my website, Twitter, and Instagram.