|Tokyo Protest 1968 photo by Tomatsu Shomei|
Of all the horrors of the 20th century, the most traumatic must be the atomic bombing of
. The Holocaust in Japan Europe
was more destructive in terms of lives, and more evil in its intentions. But the atomic bombs were more psychologically
searing and disfiguring. The Nazi
extermination campaign took place over years, and some of its
victims were able to mount a human response in the face of death, responses
that endured as the Nazi dream died.
But took place in
an instant, and that instant has never died.
The white flash that vaporized the center of the city came with no
warning, no precedent, no context for those on the ground. And it was followed, not by redemption or
revenge, but by unconditional surrender, occupation, and a slavish identification
with the American conquerors. Harry Truman famously said he never lost any sleep over Hiroshima, and Americans to this day tend to see it as a necessary evil that put an end to a terrible war. But Hiroshima
is sick to this day from the effects of the bomb, and Japanese art reflects it. Japan
Garden of Earthly Delights” looks at first like a minimalist
abstraction, a golden circle surrounded by irregular concentric fields. But on inspection it turns out to be an aerial
diagram of the bomb blast – utter annihilation in the center, and the outer
rings filled with outlines of prostrate bodies.
Americans who care to contemplate those effects can see them in a harrowing show of post-war Japanese art now at the Museum of Modern Art.
The transformations wrought by the bombing are everywhere in the show titled “Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde.” Amid the formal elegance of Japanese style, images of atrocities, monstrosities, disfigurement, decapitation, torture, destruction, helplessness and sudden death are everywhere. +Maeda Josaku’s 1959 painting “
More overtly shocking is +Nakamura Hiroshi’s 1968 “Circular Train” (left) where the passengers are deformed Japanese schoolgirls, with featureless faces except for one upside-down eye. What humor there is in the show comes from the hopelessness of resisting: a mock instructional film by the Hi Red Center group shows people supposedly being measured for one-person fallout shelters, coffins for the living.
Over and over again there is reference to the blinding white flash of the explosion, after which life will never be the same. The flash is a recurring nightmare, the kind typical of war veterans who spend their nights trying and failing to master their horrific experiences of war.
And as in real life, trauma affects not just its victims but their offspring. The most haunting image for me is a 1968 construction by
+Kudo Tetsumi, titled “Homage
to the Young Generation: The Cocoon Opens.”
The cocoon is a large peanut-shaped shell on a bloodstained baby carriage,
pushed by a molted human skin, with a flimsy umbrella above. Inside the half-opened shell we hear a
baby’s cries, but looking in, we see only what looks like disembodied brain tissue and random
industrial parts, with a white light flashing every few seconds, the
afterimage of the blast that peeled the skin off the parent. The horror is transmitted intact to a new generation.
In the whole show, I found only one artist who seemed able to absorb the trauma and send it back. Sixties photographer +Tomatsu Shomei literally looks it in the face, in a portrait of a
bomb survivor with skin that has partially melted and then set in ripples
across her face. Her gaze is level; she's not asking for
sympathy. The portrait is rather an
indictment of the world that did this to her.
Even stronger is his image of a statue of Christ with its head blown
off, in the cathedral at Nagasaki . Here western civilization is not decapitating Nagasaki ,
it’s decapitating itself. And finally there
is his image of protest (photo at top) a young demonstrator firing a projectile
at riot police during the 1968 student uprising in Japan ,
alone and single-minded in his fury. Tokyo
The show is not all about the atom bomb. We also see some architectural drawings envisoning a new post-war Japan, and some pure abstraction. But for this viewer, the whole exhibit is shadowed by a mushroom cloud; a cloud made in the USA, but which we have never fully owned.
1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde” continues through
February 25 at MOMA. Tokyo
Copyright 2013 by Tom PhillipsImages courtesy of MOMA