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Tokyo: Art & Photography

Tokyo: Art & Photography is on now at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

A depiction of Edo in the late 17-th century. Part of the Tokyo: Art & Photography exhibition
Edo Castle from the album, Record of Famous Sights of the Tokaido Road, Tosa school, late-17th century. Double page, 17.5 x 28.1 cm, Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Tokyo: Art & Photography is a celebration of one of the world’s most creative, dynamic and fascinating cities.

Including works on loan from Japan and new commissions, it is on at the Ashmolean Museum until January 3, 2022.

This diverse exhibition spans from the isolationist Edo period, to the iconic images of Hokusai and photography of Moriyama Daido.

It examines a city which has undergone constant destruction and renewal.

Dr Xa Sturgis, director of the Ashmolean, said: “With its tumultuous history and extraordinarily rich artistic output, Tokyo is one the most exciting cultural hotspots on the globe.

“In showcasing this exceptional range of artworks from the 17th century right up to pieces made in 2021, and precious works on loan from Japan, the exhibition promises to be a thrilling and unusual insight into Tokyo, one of the most interesting cities in the world.”

Edo – a cultural capital

Tokyo: Art & Photography opens with an immersive installation by Ninagawa Mika.

It then introduces Tokyo’s evolution from the small fishing village of Edo to the sprawling metropolis of the 21st century.

It came to prominence as the seat of the Tokugawa shoguns, Japan’s military rulers from 1603, who based themselves in Edo Castle.

During this period Kyoto remained Japan’s official capital and home to the Emperor, who was the titular head of state.

By the 18th century Edo had taken over as the nation’s cultural capital.

Utagawa Hiroshige’s series, One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (1856–9) remain some of the most enduring images of the city.

These prints, showing beauty spots through the seasons, were hugely popular and went on to influence the Impressionists.

With over a million inhabitants Edo was one of the largest cities in the world.

Regional feudal lords (daimyo) would congregate with their retainers in this bustling centre.

With no wars to fight, they were hungry for entertainment.

Shoguns were patrons of the ‘arts of peace’ including calligraphy and painting.

In the meantime, townspeople, merchants and artisans began to generate new art forms reflecting their own interests.

They commissioned ukiyo-e, ‘pictures of the floating world’, showing dashing kabuki actors, sumo wrestlers and beautiful courtesans of the pleasure quarters.

Rapid modernisation

In 1868, Emperor Meiji was restored as ruler of Japan.

This ended the policy of national isolation.

Rapid modernisation and westernisation quickly swept the city, which became known as Tokyo.

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 modern girl – show young women with bobbed hair, make-up, short dresses and bare legs.

Expressive photographs by artists such as Hosoe Eikoh and Naito Masatoshi present highly subjective views on life in the city.

Masatoshi’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 Moriyama Daido includes a moving projection and atmospheric sounds of the city.

Mohri Yuko’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.

Ninagawa Mika’s recent photographs of Tokyo (2018–19) offer a personal view, showing her friends and family and her experiences out clubbing.

A photo of Tokyo Tower taken in 2011. Part of the Tokyo: Art & Photography exhibition
Takano Ryudai (b. 1963), Tokyo Tower (2011.03.11) from Daily Snapshots, 2014 © The artist and Yumiko Chiba Associates, Tokyo

Rebuilding and reinventing

Perhaps more than any other city on earth, Tokyo has had the constant need to rebuild and reinvent itself.

An awe-inspiring list of natural disasters and catastrophes has necessitated repeated regeneration.

A whole genre of woodblock prints, namazu-e, depicts the mythological giant catfish thought to live under the islands of Japan.

This catfish would shake the earth at times of social and political discord.

The Great Ansei Earthquake took place in 1855.

Prints produced in the immediate aftermath 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 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.

Tokyo was firebombed in 1945.

It was the single most destructive bombing raid in history which, on one night, killed 83,000 people and left 1.5 million homeless.

Photographers such as Kimura Ihei and Hayashi Tadahiko recorded the city’s devastating realities after the war.

Entertainment and sex culture

Some artistic inspirations have remained constant throughout the city’s history.

A rich artistic tradition, now famous the world over, is to be found in Tokyo’s entertainment and sex culture.

From the Edo period right up to the 20th century, bijinga (pictures of beautiful women) 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.

Depictions of women by male artists were diverse, ranging from courtesans to female samurai, ghosts and monsters.

However, 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.

Tsuzuki Kyoichi’s 2001 photobook, Satellite of Love, explores the phenomenon of love hotels, focusing on their fantastical interior design.

Performance and protest

With so many creative and cultural forces intersecting in Tokyo, the city has become a world-renowned centre of avant-garde art.

In 1835 Utagawa Kuniyoshi printed Courtesan Usugumo with newly-imported Prussian Blue pigment.

This innovation continued with the Creative Print artists of the 1920s, Tokyo Pop and performance and protest artists.

Hirata Minoru’s photos document works by the Hi Red Center artist collective.

Cleaning Event (1964) was a ‘happening’ reacting to the government’s cleansing of neighbourhoods before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

More recently Murakami Takashi has blurred the lines between popular sub-culture and ‘high art’.

He creates unique Pop Art paintings that he has defined as ‘super flat’.

Aida Makoto provocatively links traditional painting techniques with contemporary manga styles to illustrate problems in Japanese society.

Four of his students are members of the young, socio-critical art collective Chim↑Pom.

Their performative works are inextricably intertwined with their lives.

Love is Over (2014) was based on the wedding of one of their members, Ellie, as well as a public demonstration for love in Shinjuku.

The cover of the book Tokyo: Art & Photography
Cover image: Tokyo: Art & Photography

Tokyo: Art & Photography book

Tokyo: Art & Photography is accompanied by a book featuring 280 illustrations.

It spans 400 years. Highlights include Kano school paintings, the iconic woodblock prints of Hiroshige and Tokyo Pop Art.

The book also features works by Moriyama Daido, Ninagawa Mika, Murakami Takashi and Aida Makoto.

Visually bold and richly detailed, it book is co-edited by Japanese art specialists and curators Lena Fritsch and Clare Pollard from Oxford University.

The accessible volume features 28 texts by international experts of Japanese culture, as well as original statements by influential artists.

Click here to order your copy.

Exhibition details

Tokyo: Art & Photography is on at Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, until 3 January 2022.

Tickets must be booked in advance.

Members and patrons can visit for free.

Click here to book tickets.