Reflections on Kitasono Katue: Surrealist Poet

November 13, 2013

It was a great pleasure to view the exciting LACMA exhibition Kitasono Katue: Surrealist Poet. In Japan, Kitasono Katue’s reputation as an artist, designer, and photographer has been rising exponentially in the past 10 years, despite the fact that the avant-gardist—who advocated for the amateur over the professional—was proud in the latter part of his life to pose as a minor poet. In 2010, I curated the Kitasono presentation of the exhibit, Hashimoto Heihachi and Kitasono Katue: Unusual Pair of Brothers, a Sculptor and a Poet. The exhibition ran for two months at the Mie Prefectural Art Museum (where my colleague, Mori Ichiro, curated the Heihachi presentation), after which it had a two-month display at Setagaya Art Museum in Tokyo. Although not a blockbuster—it wasn’t promoted on billboards or television like some exhibitions—the work was new to the audience and drew 14,000 visitors, many of whom were young artists, art enthusiasts, and romantic couples.

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Kitasono Katue, Forgotten Man (Plastic Poem), 1975, collection of John Solt

Over the past few years, retrospective exhibitions of artists have been held one after another, with the aim of reconsidering the careers of artists who flourished before World War II. Curators and researchers are aiming to reexamine this complex history by combining existing documents with newly discovered ones. Along with Kitasono and his brother, the lives and art of prominent figures such as Murayama Tomoyoshi (MAVO Group), Surrealist painter Koga Harue, and Nihonga-style painter Tamamura Hokuto (the sponsor of Kitasono’s Dada-era journal), among others, have added to a critical mass of a new understanding about the breadth and vibrancy of the activities of artists who worked in multiple fields and genres before the war.

There was a curious phenomenon after our exhibition: Kitasono Katue became an “idol” among young artists and art lovers—especially photographers, designers, and poets. Suddenly it became unhip to be unfamiliar with Kitasono and his works. Interestingly, this phenomenon finds a parallel to Kitasono’s popularity in the United States during the 1950–70s, when bohemian, Beat, and hippie poets were all familiar with Kitasono’s poems in English (self-translated), and later with his plastic poems.

Kitasono Katue (Japan, 1902-1978) Plastic Poem Homage to J.F. Bory (Hommage à J.F. Bory), 1967, on page 20 of the periodical VOU, no. 113, January 1968 approx: 8 3/8 x 7 1/2 in. (21.3 x 19.0 cm) Collection of John Solt

Kitasono Katue, Plastic Poem Homage to J.F. Bory (Hommage à J.F. Bory), 1967, on page 20 of the periodical VOU, no. 113, January 1968, collection of John Solt

The recent Kitasono boom in Japan has little to do with new findings on pre–World War II artists; rather, it is linked to the contemporary art and technological worlds. There is something about the fragmental elements of Kitasono’s words and images that relates to the way information is disseminated today.

Strolling through the exhibition at LACMA, I wondered how Kitasono’s work resonates with the diverse American audience. At the partition, without curtains between the Kitasono exhibit and the permanent collection, one can stand and reflect simultaneously on two pasts: the 2,000 years represented by the priceless examples in the permanent collection, and the half-century of work by 20th-century poet-artist Kitasono Katue. It is an important and rewarding exhibition because in the one figure of Kitasono is bridged the little-known, pre-World War II Japanese avant-garde and the better-known postwar period.

Noda Naotoshi (and Mori Ichiro) flew expressly from Tokyo to see the exhibition Kitasono Katue: Surrealist Poet at LACMA. Noda and Ichiro worked collaboratively on Hashimoto Heihachi and Kitasono Katue: Unusual Pair of Brothers, a Sculptor and a Poet, which was awarded the Japanese Association of Art Museums’ 2010 exhibit of the year. Setagaya Art Museum has carved out a niche as one of the main museums in Japan for regularly displaying Japanese avant-garde art, and occasionally it also exhibits Western painting and photography. Noda recalls his experience in the LACMA presentation.

Kitasono Katue at Knotts

Kitasono Katue at Knott’s Berry Farm in California

“Katue once visited the U.S. with a group of fellow librarians. He didn’t contact his literary friends—perhaps he had no time—but he made sure to have a photo of himself taken at Knott’s Berry Farm, which he made into his 1965 New Year’s greeting card and sent around.”

Noda Naotoshi, curator, Setagaya Art Museum, Tokyo


Gabriel Figueroa in Collaboration and Context

November 12, 2013

To take a still from one of Gabriel Figueroa’s films is to capture an image that is markedly photographic. Indeed, Figueroa’s aesthetic was created without coincidence; the filmmaker was in dialogue and surrounded himself with the great modernist painters and photographers of Mexico who worked in the early half of the 20th century. In the exhibition Under the Mexican Sky: Gabriel Figueroa—Art and Film, on view in the Art of the Americas Building, curators Rita Gonzalez and Britt Salvesen aimed to present Figueroa in the context of Mexican art at large.

Gabriel Figueroa, scene from the film La perla, directed by Emilio Fernández, 1945. © Televisa Foundation

Gabriel Figueroa, scene from the film La perla, directed by Emilio Fernández, 1945, © Televisa Foundation

Gabriel Figueroa’s circle, which included artists such José Orozco, Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, among others, were collaborative and mutually influenced one another. While the exhibition has one person’s name on it, and it’s Figueroa’s story told throughout, it’s also a narrative of creative networks and inventive teams of people.

Gabriel Figueroa, Film still from Enemigos, directed by Chano Urueta, 1933, (c) Gabriel Figueroa Flores Archive

Gabriel Figueroa, Film still from Enemigos, directed by Chano Urueta, 1933, © Gabriel Figueroa Flores Archive

Film, by its nature—the multiple entities and talents involved—is a collaborative medium. Figueroa and Emilio Fernández, who worked together on the adaptation of John Steinbeck’s La Perla (The Pearl), pushed each other to create vivid iconography of the legacy of the Mexican Revolution. Later in Figueroa’s career, when he worked with the Spanish Surrealist Luis Buñuel, there was some disparity in their viewpoints—Buñuel was not particularly interested in a monumental version of Mexico. He wanted something grittier, more ambivalent, surreal. Yet both collaborations produced numerous films. In some cases, artistic tension was productive.

Mario Ybarra, Jr. and Juan Capistran, Stick 'em Up . . . (Slanguage Bandito), 2003, © Juan Capistran and Mario Ybarra, Jr.

Juan Capistran and Mario Ybarra, Jr., Stick ‘em Up . . . (Slanguage Bandito), 2003, © Juan Capistran and Mario Ybarra, Jr.

Under the Mexican Sky also puts the work of contemporary artists in dialogue with Figueroa’s. For example, there is a section that deals with a genre called commedia ranchera, and it also includes the figure of the charro, or Mexican cowboy. Parallel to the depiction of cowboys in American Westerns, there was too in Mexico a really robust representation of the charro. In contemporary art, there have been a number of plays with the figure of the charro, namely as a representation of masculinity. A number of contemporary artists, such as Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Gonzalo Lebrija, have been mining that territory.

Through Figueroa, audiences are given an incredible overview of Mexican cinema in the 20th century. Figueroa was active for 50 years, a time that covers a lot of changes in the industry, in style, and presentation. The images in Figueroa’s films are iconic, and have informed Mexican visual identity and visual culture since the early 20th century. Under the Mexican Sky provides a capsule view of this incredible history.


A Sighting at LACMA: Little Frida Kahlo

November 11, 2013

A common assumption we museum educators often face is that our job is always glamorous; that we spend all of our time surrounded by world-class works of art, bumping elbows with famous artists. Just a couple of weeks ago, we confirmed this theory.

littlefrida

Birdie, or Little Frida, attends an Andell Family Sunday.

The Andell Family Sundays staff was truly in the presence of greatness when the iconic Mexican painter, Frida Kahlo, wheeled around the corner in her push car and onto the Los Angeles Times Central Court, ready to create a masterpiece before our very eyes.  The paparazzi went wild, bringing out the big lenses to capture the moment.  She was just as stunning in person as she is in the portrait her husband, Diego Rivera, painted some 74 years ago, that now graces our museum walls.

In 1925, when Frida Kahlo was only 18 years old, the city bus she was riding in collided with a trolley car in Mexico City. The crash caused injuries that left her bed and wheelchair-ridden for months at a time. During this time, she was quoted as saying, “Feet, what do I need you for when I have wings to fly?” Her paintings kept her company during times of rest, but each time she was able to stand again, it was a milestone for her recovery.

This little Frida celebrated a similar milestone on LACMA’s campus.  Her parents—and us, of course!—were thrilled when she took her very first steps on her own! Congratulations, Birdie! Thanks for visiting us at Andell Family Sundays!

Angela Hall, education coordinator, education and public programs
Alicia Vogl Saenz,  senior education coordinator, education and public programs


This Weekend at LACMA: Free Jazz and Classical Music, A Look at Luba Art, The Stories of San Bernardino in Nicole Miller’s “Believing Is Seeing,” and More!

November 8, 2013

Start your weekend this Friday at 6 pm with a free, live performance at Jazz at LACMA, featuring the group House of Games. Known for their distinctive mix of jazz and fusion, the members of this group have individually worked with artists such as Ray Charles, Herbie Hancock, and Michael Bublé. The quartet, complete with guitar, piano, bass, and drums, has been thrilling audiences for decades.

Caryatid Stool, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Luba Peoples, 19th Century, Wood, glass beads, Royals Museum for Central Africa, RG 22725, Photo R. Asselberghs, RMCA, Tervuren ©

Caryatid Stool, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Luba Peoples, 19th Century, Wood, glass beads, Royals Museum for Central Africa, RG 22725, Photo R. Asselberghs, RMCA, Tervuren ©

Make your way to the Ahmanson Building on Saturday for a Gallery Tour: Luba Art, Culture, and Cosmology Saturday at 11 am. Led by curator Mary (Polly) Nooter Roberts and California State University, Northridge’s associate professor of religious studies Mutombo Nkulu-N’Sengha, the discussion covers the importance of history, the role of women , the nuances of Luba philosophy. Visit a handful of LACMA’s galleries and exhibitions on view after the tour.

Three new exhibitions debuted this month, including David Hockney: Seven Yorkshire Landscape Videos, 2011, Agnès Varda in Californialand, and See the Light—Photography, Perception, Cognition: The Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection. Beyond those, check out Murmurs: Recent Contemporary Acquisitions and Princely Traditions and Colonial Pursuits in India.

Viva!—Rado—Ragni—Varda in Hommage to Magritte, Agnès Varda's film LIONS LOVE (. . . AND LIES), 1968, © Max Rabb / Agnès Varda

Viva!—Rado—Ragni—Varda in Hommage to Magritte, Agnès Varda’s film LIONS LOVE (. . . AND LIES), 1968, © Max Rabb / Agnès Varda

On Sunday at the Bing Theater, see Nicole Miller’s Believing Is Seeing, a film work showcasing personal stories from San Bernardino residents that participated at the LACMA9 Art+Film Lab a few months ago and Redbelt, a film by David Mamet about a martial-arts instructor who blindly follows the code of morality. The day also includes Andell Family Sundays beginning at 12:30 pm, in which families and children are invited to craft animals found in Japanese art. See a live performance by violinist Martin Chalifour and pianist Nadia Shpachenko at Sundays Live.

Roberto Ayala


Four Photographs, Four Trees, Four Ways of Seeing

November 7, 2013

The exhibition See the Light—Photography, Perception, Cognition: The Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection presents 220 photographs from the Vernon Collection, one of the most important holdings of photography that spans the history of the medium. The presentation aims to identifying parallels between photography and vision science over time.

Since the invention of photography in the late 1830s, its materials and meanings have evolved in relation to theories about vision, perception, and cognition, which in turn reflect the social, political, and economic priorities of any given time and place. Todayas photographic images proliferate and find their way ever more directly into our consciousness—it seems not only possible but necessary to correlate developments in neuroscience with those in visual culture. This exhibition takes a historical perspective, identifying parallels between photography and vision science during four chronological periods.

We’ll look a grouping of four photographs of trees featured in the exhibition in order to trace the main themes presented. In this grouping, four approaches are considered: descriptive naturalism and subjective naturalism, and experimental modernism and romantic modernism. This gathering shows how standard genres—such as portraiture, still life, and landscape—could be depicted differently, depending on the artists’ priorities and choices.

Andrew Young, Plane at Aberdour. In Old Avenue., c. 1850, printed c. 1850, The Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection, gift of The Annenberg Foundation, acquired from Carol Vernon and Robert Turbin

Andrew Young, Plane at Aberdour. In Old Avenue., late 1870s, The Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection, gift of the Annenberg Foundation, acquired from Carol Vernon and Robert Turbin

The earliest example was made in the 1870s and represents the aims of descriptive naturalism. The photographer (Andrew Young) has tried to show maximum detail and information, framing the tree directly in the center and including small figures for scale. At the same time, in the middle decades of the 19th century, physiological optics concentrated on the eye’s information-gathering capacities, understood through new mechanical devices for measuring and recording the optical system’s response to light.

Robert Demachy, Toucques Valley, 1906, printed 1906, The Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection, gift of The Annenberg Foundation, acquired from Carol Vernon and Robert Turbin

Robert Demachy, Toucques Valley, 1902, published in Camera Work, 1906, The Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection, gift of the Annenberg Foundation, acquired from Carol Vernon and Robert Turbin, © The Estate of Robert Demachy

As the turn of the 20th century approached, both photographers and scientists became more interested in the subjective aspects of perception. Robert Demachy, a French photographer, demonstrates the tendency in subjective naturalism to manipulate the image, either in the camera or on the surface of the print, to evoke a mood rather than simply describe a scene. Similarly in the scientific realm, a new field called experimental psychology emerged, suggesting the role of emotion in perception.

Harry Callahan, Tree, 1956, The Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection, gift of The Annenberg Foundation, acquired from Carol Vernon and Robert Turbin, © 2013 The Estate of Harry Callahan

Harry Callahan, Multiple Exposure Tree, 1949, printed later, The Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection, gift of The Annenberg Foundation, acquired from Carol Vernon and Robert Turbin, © The Estate of Harry Callahan; courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

With the 20th century came modernism and its revolutionary ideas. One form of modernism in photography, which emerged after World War I in Europe and America, was experimental modernism. This is evident in Harry Callahan’s work with multiple exposure—he is interested in seeing what happens when he moves the camera while the shutter is open. The image of a tree presents a graphic pattern of black lines on a white background, more than a representation of a specific tree in a specific landscape. It is nearly abstract, yet we do recognize it as a tree. This perceptual ability to make sense of minimal visual cues was of interest to the Gestalt psychologists who came to prominence during the period of experimental modernism.

Toward the middle of the 20th century, a more romantic form of modernism can be seen in photography, exemplified in the work of Ansel Adams, who believed strongly in the artist’s special vision while also advocating for technical mastery. In this photograph, Forest, Early Morning, Mt. Rainer National Park, Washington, Adams establishes a subtle range of tone, so as to convey a mood of hushed reverence for nature while also capturing each distinct leaf and texture. The issue of light-and-dark contrasts was of primary concern to both photographers and vision scientists at this time—not only must these contrasts be managed in a photographic print in order for the image to make sense, contrasts in the physical world allow us to locate objects and navigate in our environment.

Britt Salvesen, department head and curator, the Wallis Annenberg Department of Photography


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