by John SOLT

From the exhibit catalogue “YAMAMOTO Kansuke: Conveyor of the Impossible,” Tokyo Station Gallery, August 22–September 24, 2001. The exhibit was a great success with 9,000 visitors. It was featured on NHK television’s premier art program, “Nichiyoubi bijutsukan” (Sunday Art Museum), and all 3,000 copies of the catalogue were sold out. I thank Mr. Yamamoto Toshio for kindly allowing his father’s photographs to be reproduced here, and Mr. Inada Takeo, director of Tokyo Station Gallery, for giving permission to reproduce John Solt’s article which was first printed in the exhibit catalogue. All Japanese names are given in the customary manner of surname first.

—Larry Sawyer

Below there are underlined phrases within the essay that lead to YAMAMOTO Kansuke’s visual work.


Yamamoto Kansuke was active between the eras of the daguerreotype and the disposable camera, specifically from 1931 to 1987. Surrealism in France and Japan differed in many respects. Surrealism’s leader, Andre Breton, had high hopes for the movement. Based as it was on Freudian psychology, surrealism was supposed to lead to an understanding of the “blueprint of thought.” Penetrating the mystery of consciousness would achieve a liberation breakthrough for humanity. Surrealist art, photography, and poetry needed to transgress the societal norm to achieve political status. For them to lose their edge and fall into mere aestheticism was a danger feared by Breton.

In Japan, Freudian psychology was not widely practiced or understood. Rather than being interested in the unconscious per se, artists and writers in the movement were excited by the production of surrealist imagery. In this sense, the Japanese artists are a kind of second-generation reaction to the initial experimentation of the Westerners, and the Japanese provide a valuable viewpoint on that initial production. For example, when considered facing Europe, some of Kansuke’s work can be seen as a dialogue with Western artists such as Salvador Dali, Yves Tanguy, Jean Miro, Man Ray, Rene Magritte, and Jean Arp. The same oeuvre, when having Japan as its audience, becomes in part a translation of those Western artists into Japanese. For example, Kansuke’s realistic photo of a nude descending a spiral staircase is surely a translation of Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2” (1912).

It is similar to what Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) and other Japanese woodblock artists meant to Vincent Van Gogh. No one faults Van Gogh for being imitative or getting ukiyo-e (“floating world pictures”) wrong. Rather, critics are impressed by his openness to the work of foreign artists. When it comes to the Japanese, however, the word “imitative” curiously becomes the predominant filter of perception, and the overriding approach of questioning.

In Japan, surrealist imagery that would by Breton’s standards seem wholly aesthetic and non-transgressive—such as Kansuke’s photographs—was persecuted by the Special Higher Police (Tokubetsu koto keisatsu, abbreviated Tokko, who specialized in crimes of thought and were commonly referred to as the “Thought Police”). Breton’s fear that surrealism not grounded on political (i.e., communist) ideology would lack any punch and just wow the visual cortex was not applicable to Japan. The strangeness of surreal imagery in itself “stunk of butter” (“bataa kusai”). In other words, it was too Western, and that was reason enough for Japanese to reject it.

Using Michel Foucault’s concept of “heterotopias” or “sites of resistance,” we can say that Breton did not conceive of the purely aesthetic as a viable heterotopia but the Japanese police did. Since the police decided the imagery was subversive, there is no reason to believe that the assailed Japanese photographers would have concurred with Breton’s limited focus. Rather, for them the aesthetic could be a highly charged political ground.

European surrealists initially had qualms about the medium of photography. With painting and writing, early surrealists favored the technique of automatism for probing the subconscious mind. At first they wondered whether automatism could be applied to photography, because pressing the camera shutter is a conscious, not subconscious, manipulation. Over time, however, there was such an outpouring of fascinating surreal photography and collage work that the powerful imagery itself sufficiently muted further questioning about the possibilities of the medium.


You might wonder if there ever has been a great Western No actor, or if there could ever be a great Japanese surreal photographer. Your initial response might be to say, “Why not? Obviously, surrealism, a modern movement, was not exclusive regarding ethnicity.” On closer observation, however, a similar canonization process is at work in both scenarios. A Western No actor cannot be acknowledged as a superior actor without the approval of the Japanese No establishment. Likewise, at least from a Japanese perspective, because surrealism is a movement with Western origins, a “foreign” (i.e., Japanese) surrealist would need endorsement from the Western establishment.

Japanese surrealists could form a branch office, but their participation would be meaningful only if endorsed by Breton’s headquarters in Paris. The French surrealists didn’t see it this way—they seem to have been numb to the existence of the problem. Apart from the Japanese seeking out Western surrealists—such as Takiguchi Shuzo (1903-79) visiting Breton or Kansuke publishing Eluard, Dali, and others—there is no indication that Western surrealists were interested in the surreal work of the Japanese.

In fact, Japan itself was not highly regarded by the Belgium surrealists, who excluded it from their “Surrealist Map of the World, 1929.” The Japanese police, however, did take notice. When the distant French at their Paris headquarters became communists, the Japanese police rounded up local surrealists, such as Kansuke in Nagoya, Nakagiri Masao (1919-83) in Kobe, and Kitasono Katue (1902-78) and others in Tokyo. Kansuke had been in contact with with Western surrealists through Yamanaka Sansei (1905-77, also Chiruu or Tiroux), fellow Nagoya-based poet and close friend. Kansuke had printed the Westerners’ artwork and translations of their poems in his elegant journal, Yoru no funsui (Night’s fountain, 1938–39), until he was forced to stop by the Thought Police.

Kansuke never used his contact with Europeans as a launching pad to send them portfolios of his photographs in hopes of getting them published abroad. He was never so calculating or self-serving. Consequently, Western surrealists had little idea of Kansuke’s talent, except what they could glean from his occasional contributions to Yoru no funsui. For their part, the Westerners were more interested in promoting their own work abroad than in taking interest in the work of their artist “friends.” The neglect becomes tragic when we realize that prominent Japanese surrealists and modernists suffered for the sake of their artistic production.

Takiguchi Shuzo was a Japanese surrealist poet, painter and art critic who corresponded with Breton. Takiguchi spent six months in jail in 1941 for being a surrealist. After the War, he went to visit Breton in Paris and returned to Japan with a photo of the two taken in the Frenchman’s study. The jail sentence and the photo are the kind of tangible evidence of lineage that Japanese seem to appreciate, and they have been reproduced countless times, giving weight to the Takiguchi-Breton relationship and, by extension, to Takiguchi’s brand of surrealism. Without such endorsement, a Japanese artist’s claim of belonging to a particular movement can be called into question.

There has to be a double endorsement, first by the Western critical establishment and then a rubber-stamping by the corresponding Japanese establishment. You could say that the Japanese artists were free to produce whatever they felt like, and that is true, but in the act of canonization the Japanese avant-garde critical establishment has never wavered in seeing Japanese versions of surrealism and subsequent movements of foreign origin as necessitating Western approval. An artist could obtain this approval either by having lived abroad or by having received the endorsement of a famous foreign artist.

The logic is the same as if an American were to stake a claim to be a great No actor. Americans who know nothing about the genre might be inclined to ask which “authentic” No actors or critics have endorsed him. You might say that surrealism is a universal concept—albeit of Western origin—and therefore anyone can claim to be a surrealist. However, even in the West, endorsement from other participants in the movement was helpful or necessary. You might wonder if I am suggesting that the words “Japanese surrealist” are an oxymoron. Not exactly, because there have been great Japanese surrealists, such as Kansuke. I am suggesting that in Japan there has been a gap between the production of surreal imagery and its general acceptance by the critical establishment, although the situation has been improving over the last decade.

Japanese were, almost by definition, unable to speak authoritatively on the topic. Westerners who did have authority—either the surrealists themselves or later critics of the movement—almost totally ignored Japanese surrealism from disinterest or simply because they hadn’t been exposed to it. I am not discussing Kansuke as if he were a lone surrealist working at an obscure outpost. A story often told by Japanese poets and artists active in the pre-Pacific War period is that Andre Breton was shocked to learn in 1936 from a Japanese artist in Paris that 500 poets and painters in Tokyo considered themselves “surrealists.”

How many current specialists of Western surrealism can name even one twentieth-century Japanese surrealist poet, painter, or photographer? It would be rewarding if this exhibit were a step in rectifying that situation. Another difficulty in gaining legitimacy for Japanese surrealists has been the unconscious absorption by the Japanese critical establishment of the self-orientalizing stereotype of misperceiving themselves as “imitative.” The logic is circular and, not coincidentally, self-affirming for the West. Were a Japanese artist to diverge from the Western norm (for example, regarding surrealism) and show originality or reformulate some of the (surreal) ideas, he or she would be condemned for having misunderstood the movement. At best, you could be a facsimile; at worst, you would be considered a fraud. Poet Kitasono Katue, who absorbed dadaism, surrealism and other -isms only to weave them into his own peculiar blend, was evaluated as somewhat dubious by the literary establishment in Japan.

Questions revolve around who has the right to join a foreign movement or to be influenced by one. Who holds the credentials and how were they obtained? How firm is the evidence of one’s association with the European headquarters? These are the kinds of peripheral issues that have prevented people from seeing Kansuke’s images and making their own judgments, both in Japan and abroad. Serious interpretation and evaluation of his imagery has been almost non-existent.


People may fault Japanese critics for their relative lack of attention to the work of experimental or surreal photographers such as Kansuke, but because of the above-mentioned situation regarding Western approval, they have had their hands tied, for the most part. Nevertheless, there have been a few major exhibits dealing with Japanese surrealism, and a handful of Kansuke’s photographs are always faithfully included. His photos have occasionally been featured on the covers of magazines. A collage of his from 1938, for example, was the prominent frontispiece of an anthology titled Nihon no shuururearisumu (“Japanese surrealism”).

That being said, I am still surprised that the photography publishing industry and leading galleries dealing with avant-garde art have not picked up on his work. This catalogue is Kansuke’s first book. I wouldn’t have expected that his photos would have remained buried for this long. I believe that in vision and praxis Kansuke is on a par with any surrealist or modernist photographer—Japanese or Western. His photography is branded with his personal style, his career follows a recognizable yet exploratory trajectory, and his brand of humor is unmistakable in its elegance and subtlety.

His body of work created over a lifetime contains more than a few masterpieces. It amazes me that he produced quantity and quality from 1931 to 1986 and yet no one had the inclination to publish even a tiny selection of his photos in, for example, a pamphlet. Kansuke has been dead for fourteen years, and now, finally, the first serious look at his oeuvre is coming out. In that sense, everyone has been “asleep at the wheel,” except Yamaguchi Kenjiro of T.B. Design Research Institute in Ginza, who held a solo exhibit of Kansuke’s photos at his one-room gallery, Imagination Q & P, in 1988.

I should add that one main reason why Kansuke has been neglected (except by the police!) is that he lacked interest in self-promotion. He had strong ideas about photography (see the quotes from his writings), but he was dignified and self-effacing with people. He allowed his photos to speak for themselves. Many artists who achieve mainstream status are connected to the establishment, and they keep one eye on their artistic production and the other eye on the cash register. Kansuke, however, was dedicated to avant-garde principles and, therefore, to pure experimentation. He had sufficient outlets for his work—such as photography and poetry journals, and group exhibits—that allowed him to ignore the commercial establishment. He and the mainstream developed a mutual neglect based on mutual disrespect.

Within the avant-garde establishment, he had a fine reputation. He was a member of the VOU Club (run by Kitasono Katue) from 1937 to 1978. VOU was sent to Ezra Pound, Kenneth Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen, Henry Miller, James Laughlin, and dozens of other avant-garde literati worldwide with whom Kitasono corresponded. It was one of the best and most prestigious independent poetry and arts clubs in Japan, and Kansuke was highly regarded within it.The club boasted a lineup of first-rate photographers, each of whom deserves fuller treatment in his or her own right: Torii Ryozen (1913- ), Kitasono, Tsuji Setsuko (1927-93), Takahashi Shohachiro (1933- ), Okazaki Katsuhiko (1929- ), Kiyohara Etsushi (1931-88), and Ito Motoyuki (1935- ) are among the most notable names.

In Nagoya, Kansuke started his own avant-garde group, VIVI. In his mid-twenties he edited and published Yoru no funsui, which is now considered the greatest surrealist magazine in terms of paper quality. It was printed on exquisite “gampishi” (literally, “‘wild-goose skin’ paper”), which is the finest available and reputed to last for over two millennia.

Kansuke had outlets for his photos, especially the thirty-one VOU exhibitions which were held from 1956 to 1976. One exhibit took place in Milan, Italy, and the rest throughout Japan. Kansuke’s involvement with VOU and VIVI kept him active in avant-garde circles. Like any creative artist, he continually shifted gears within his overall sensibility. Kansuke never seems to have craved mainstream recognition. He might have had an occasional photo in a popular magazine or even have won a prize, but for the most part he led his artistic life comfortably on the margins, experimenting month after month, year after year, decade after decade. The photographs are testaments of his breakthroughs.


In contrast to the documentary or press photo that aims to report a frozen moment of reality, Kansuke probed the interior life of dream landscapes and borderline consciousness. He regularly used an exaggerated perspective by placing diminutive people in the far distance to create a sense of mystery. He also liked the angle of looking diagonally down on a scene from a bird’s-eye view, allowing for the intimacy of a voyeuristic experience. Mediterranean imagery and the mythology of the sea appear in his archetypal landscapes. Among his recurrent themes are the eroticism of woman and the landscape as nude. At times, he combines them.

Kansuke’s attention to composition is evident in his manipulation of collage and montage. His cropping also shows an understanding of how meaning and effect can be altered by creating or eliminating borders. I find at least four areas of innovation in Kansuke’s photographs.

First, there is the work, usually collages of incongruent images, such as the telephone in a cage or the string wound through a pin stuck on a hat, in which there is a familiarly surreal juxtaposition but with his individuality imprinted on it by the choice of objects.

Second, there are the photos that use the techniques of surrealism but are of specifically Japanese subject matter, such as the “futon” piled ten high, located in a field under a cloudy sky, the “shoji” (“sliding door”) with torn paper panels, and the numbered lockers at the public bathhouse.

Third, there is the background used in a couple of photos in which Kansuke bends dimensions in a surreal way that I haven’t noticed elsewhere. In the photo we observe the bottom corner of a room in which the floor is made up of two surfaces converging at right angles, as is expected. However, the vertical line, which should run up the two walls rising from the two surfaces of the floor, is absent. Instead, we find a single wall made up of a continuous, flat surface. How could the floor and wall of the same room not converge geometrically? Quite subtly executed with mind-boggling effect, Kansuke thwarts expectations using dimensional distortion.

Fourth, there are the dramatic sequence photos, usually three to five photos presented vertically or horizontally to form a narrative. “photo story: Kuki no usui boku no heya” (“My thin-aired room”) is an example of this group. Kansuke often exhibited these photos from the late 1950s on, under the bandwagon of “concrete” or “visual poetry.” The word surrealism was passe to the VOU group from the mid-1930s. As Kitasono Katue put it in his 1936 letter of self-introduction to Ezra Pound (the year before Kansuke joined the club): “We started from Dada and passed [through] Surrealism. And at present we are connected with no ‘-ism’ of Europe.”

Katue admired Kansuke’s work, which his rave review in VOU, no. 53 (1956) makes evident. Katue praised Kansuke’s titles and regarded the photos themselves as “filled with poesy” and “carrying a poet’s voice.” In calling the series of photos in Kansuke’s exhibit “poetic” lay the seeds of what would evolve into Katue’s own merging of poetry and photography which he referred to as “plastic poetry.” Katue wrote:

“Yamamoto Kansuke’s one-man photo exhibit at Matsushima Gallery in Ginza for one week from November 24 [1956] was a touch on the refined side. His career as an avant-garde photographer can be traced back to the mid-1930s…. His long-time avant-gardism is displayed in the polished photos, and the VOU poet in him shows through in the titles. The color photos ‘Utsukushii tsukonin’ [‘Beautiful passerby’] and ‘Hana hiraku rekishi no sujo’ [‘The lineage of blossoming history’] are excellent examples of how subdued color tones can be used. The same can be said for the romantic work ‘Kaze ga watakushi no mae o yogiru’ [‘The wind crosses before me’] and ‘Kaaten no hako’ [‘The curtain’s box’], which resembles an abstract oil painting; in both we can recognize the glittering of his unique spirit. Furthermore, his originality is indicated brilliantly in the four-panel ‘photo story: Kuki no usui boku no heya’ [‘My thin-aired room’]. For avant-garde photographers, this series of poesy-filled photos provides revelations of a new world. The camera—that quaint old machine—has been able to carry a poet’s voice by means of this genre breakthrough.”


Katue was leader of the VOU group, which had from its inception aimed at gathering avant-garde practitioners from all the arts. The thirty or so members were attentive to Katue’s views, such as on photography’s relationship to poetry. He accorded poetry a central position, and almost all the members wrote poetry, even those who were primarily musicians, painters, architects, or photographers.

In 1958, Katue reiterated his long-held position: “Poetry is the passport to all the arts. Anyone who wants to do something in the art world must grasp his own ‘poesy.’ All the arts are nothing but a variation of poetry; in that sense it is meaningless to call photography easier than poetry or the novel more difficult than poetry.” [VOU, no. 61 (May 1958): 27.] Therefore, it was not odd that photographer Kansuke would also write poetry.

Here follow my translations of seven poems by Kansuke. In 1988, they were selected with his drawings and made into a postcard series by Torii Shozo, another talented VOU poet, and Yamaguchi Kenjiro. Each of the poems has a French title.

Profond aujourd’hui:

glass and
holding it
for a while
tired pipe’s
insides of
within it
falls into
waste basket’s

[VOU, no. 64, 1958]

Fond d’aujourd’hui

wind and snow
on the
cargo ship
to Cambodia
Elcilon P
felt comfortable
wearing that
white apron
comic books’
what exploded
an hour previous
in light feathered
private part was

[VOU, no. 66, 1958]

Pouls d’aujourd’hui

he was a good guy
for sure
he won’t
return anymore
between two
hard benches
the smoke
rises up
walking through time
longing and
travel weary
PH 480
gaseous state’s
window’s other side
a space
made of glass
is pushed open
by a falling

[VOU, no. 67, 1959]

Coup d’aujourd’hui

raising a hand
it disappeared
a calendar
starting with Benois
a soft
rain falls
a flowing ribbon and
a ribbon shape
this agate state’s
clipper ship
already there was
you and
or you in plural
this dexterous
far off

[VOU, no. 70, 1959]

Cote d’aujourd’hui

it’ll teach
from beyond the glass
shaking its head
for example
like a lie
an overcoat is flapping
a kind of wind which
may blow tomorrow
first open the suitcase
because you don’t want to err
these 24 hours
wearing a white mask
and rubber gloves
like a sanitized assistant
next to you
this orderliness like a pencil and
silent pendulum
slipped in
between us
sewers and basements and
all the buildings across town

[VOU, no. 73, 1960]

Lobe d’aujourd’hui

a glass-like
easily breakable things
were lined up
an empty
simple ionized line
in such a hurry
taking time’s hand
by chance calculated
shape is put forward
like a room
facing toward
my shoulder
suddenly breaking off and falling

[VOU, no. 76, 1960]

Lapret d’aujourd’hui

blowing a flute
from a fragment of wind
of wave of glass
of wrinkle of wave of stripe of wind
swallowing tears
singing Tarutaran
on this day
the subterranean chamber
was emerald color
the time above
the crossroad nibbles at the clock
one instant
makes a flicking sound
from the rooftop pouring down

[VOU, no. 91, 1963]

Yamamoto Kansuke was influenced in style by Kitasono Katue and other VOU poets, both in the methods he used to achieve discontinuity and in the type of quasi-scientific vocabulary that was favored at the time as innovative. Having said that, I should add that he was original in subject matter, had a good sense of rhythm, and knew how to develop a poem while creating a high-strung sense of tension and absurdity. He tends to subvert and pervert Japanese grammar in imaginative ways.

Occasionally, Kansuke uses the “kakekotoba” or “pivot word,” a technique in Japanese poetry which dates back to the eighth century. Images fluidly connect and disconnect with one another. Part of the effectiveness is that the pivot word swings in two directions, like a hinge. An example of a pivot word is “wrinkled” in the following lines:

Elcilon P / never / felt comfortable / wearing that / white apron / wrinkled / comic books’ / elegance

As far as I know, nobody has yet written about Kansuke’s poetry, and I think it is certainly worth critical consideration. The relationship between the images in his photos and his poems is intriguing. With words he seems to be making a montage of sharp images, yet he is also creating abstract images that defy the ability to be photographed, or even easily imagined. For instance, how would you picture “a fragment of wind of wave of glass / of wrinkle of wave of stripe of wind”? or, “[A] calculated / shape is put forward”? Kansuke explored the potentialities inherent in the different media of photography and poetry.


Kansuke was not a flag waver, and if you see his photographs and read his prose and poems, you might think them merely aesthetic specimens. Ironically, his act of creating now seemingly non-political pieces got him in a lot of trouble. One false move and he could have been jailed for months.

Methods were different, but the Japanese and Nazis both pursued avant-garde artists. A Nazi tactic was to exhibit the abstract work of avant-garde artists, especially Jews, interspersed with abstract, often obsessive, art done by mental hospital patients. Even to the trained eye, the mixture raises interesting questions. According to Masao Miyoshi, “The doodles and paintings of mental hospital patients—such as those in the Prinzhorn Collection at the University of Heidelberg—become ‘art’ only if and when they are sold.”

In any case, Kansuke’s politics started with his name. He was born yama1Yamamoto Kansuke. Yamamoto is a common surname meaning “foot [moto] of the mountain [yama].” Kan means “intuitive, easily grasps” and suke means “to help, rescue.” Put together, it could mean “Intuitive Rescuer at the Foot of the Mountain.”

Sometime in 1936 or 1937, around the time the Japanese military involvement in China heated up, he kept the sounds “Kan-suke” but changed the two Chinese characters toyama2 The first character, “kan,” has a range of meanings from “strong, ferocious, keen, and sharp” to “rough, rude, harsh, and violent.” It is used in compounds such as “kanba,” which means “unruly/runaway horse.” In other words, it is used to designate the uncouth in contrast to the refined. The second character, “suke,” is the mundane directional word “right,” which, along with “left,” had been used as a suffix for names since ancient times. Put “kan” and “suke” together, and we can see he was accusing the “violent right [wing]” for politically ruining the country.

Okazaki Katsuhiko, who considered himself a student of Kansuke (and was also a VOU member), told me that Kansuke once explained to him that he changed his name to “violent right” as an activist statement that began with how he referred to himself. In renaming himself, Kansuke demonstrated both a knack for tongue-in-cheek self-abnegation and a willingness to strike out at the government.

It seems to me difficult to be more political than with one’s own name. Malcolm X chose his name as a way to point a straight line to history, slavery, cause and effect. Kansuke did something similar with his own situation, although in a more euphemistic way.

Incidentally, Okazaki is a colorful character who grew up as the son of a yakuza (i.e., mafia) boss in Nagoya. Although Kansuke was Katsuhiko’s photography mentor, Okazaki also influenced Kansuke, especially in introducing him to the strip joints and underground dives where Kansuke met some of his main models. I should add that Kansuke also used professional models, often going on location with two or three photographer friends. He also photographed his attractive wife.

As I mentioned, Kansuke was persecuted by the Tokko (“Thought Police”). He had planned to make at least six issues of Yoru no funsui. In November 1938, he published 100 copies each of numbers one, two, and three. Then in October 1939 he published 65 copies of number four.

Kansuke recalled, “During the war, I was called in by the police and [Yoru no funsui] was suppressed. I remember that shitty time vividly.” He was subjected to questions such as, “In this surreal poem of yours, what do you mean by the third line of the second stanza? And, how does your surreal photography aid in Japan’s war effort?” According to Kansuke, “It was a frightening experience. I needed to evade their questions while not saying anything that the police might interpret as incriminating to me.” Kansuke was released on the condition that he no longer publish Yoru no funsui.

Other surrealists were less fortunate. The Tokko considered poet and art critic Takiguchi Shuzo and painter Fukuzawa Ichiro (1898-1992) to be surrealist agents working clandestinely for the international communist movement. They spent over half a year in separate detention centers, in line with the common judicial practice of not indicting suspects but wearing them down with interrogations and confinement for months or years under miserable conditions. Takiguchi and Fukuzawa received the harshest treatment, yet they were fortunate in being released before Pearl Harbor. Prisoners held after the outbreak of the Pacific War often did not fare as well because of the shortage of supplies, and a great many of them died of malnutrition and disease.

Kansuke must have found it painful to attempt an explanation on what his abstract and surreal photos were doing for Japan’s war effort. One of the most pernicious aspects of state control is the power to formulate incriminating questions during interrogations. You may wonder why the police fixated on surrealist imagery. Besides the movement’s supposed ties with international communism, surrealist or modernist/post-modernist imagery is inherently ambiguous. Even when the image itself is clear, such as Kansuke’s woman with leather staples in her back or his woman with needles in her legs, the meaning is ambiguous.

This ambiguity is—however minor—a confrontation with or resistance to the press photo and its worldview. In other words, for the Thought Police the realism in front of the camera implied that the mind behind the camera had an understandable point of view which could further the country’s patriotic goals. Unrealistic photos were a threat and implied mental aberration. Those were apparently dangerous, nightmarish times for Kansuke. I don’t think the totalitarian system effectively broke him down; rather, it frightened him, which in the long run had the effect of reconfirming his convictions.

In Kansuke’s wartime writings, however, he did give a nominal wink to the Japanese tradition and its militarist guardians by invoking Zen and the tea ceremony, which were acceptable buzz words supporting the cultural backbone of Japanese nationalism. For example, in March 1941 he wrote, “Because we are self-conscious of the spirit of Japanese romanticism, our earnestly pure romance informs the shape of our photography the way Zen informs the tea ceremony.” It’s not stridently militaristic, but there is also no whiff of resistance in his alluding to “Japanese romanticism” and equating it with “our [bokutachi no]… pure romance.” He said exactly what the militarists wanted people involved with culture to say.


Each Kansuke photo or series of photos is naturally different, but at the risk of being dubbed an essentialist, I think it is worthwhile to consider the special characteristics of his photography in general, compared with that of Western surrealists.

As much as I personally enjoy Western surrealist imagery, I find that the artists regularly tend to bombard with stimulation in trying to evoke a surprised response. Hans Belmer’s dismembered dolls in erotic poses is a good example, but so are Man Ray’s angular close-ups of women’s necks, backs and other body parts abstracted to a kind of geological proportion which gives them a monumental status.

Kansuke also can evoke shock, such as his photo of a woman’s legs with needles stuck in them, or his photo of a woman’s back with leather staples. More often, however, I am captivated by Kansuke’s exquisite sense of composition and his freedom to leave space blank. I don’t know a Western photographer, surreal or otherwise, who has been less inclined to fill in the spaces. Kansuke’s lines are clean and his images are crisp. It’s as if his photos are a response to Western surrealists, and he is suggesting that there is no need to be showy and overwrought; rather, one can find sophistication in understatement.

Kansuke’s photos elicit a smile rather than a belly laugh. If it can be said that they reflect the intersection of his conscious and subconscious, then his world is permeated by a kind of stillness. Simply put, he is not afraid to stimulate mildly. He implicitly lays his chips down on the side of subtlety as more intriguing and powerful than, for example, the overtly grotesque, in-your-face imagery that shocks at first glance but then tends to fade in effect over time.

Rather than calling Kansuke a minimalist, I would go a step further and call him an “ephemeralist.” Most artists wish to leave works which they consider solid and substantial, but Kansuke’s output—whether the photos, poems, his miniature book, Butterfly (which incidentally is the Japanese term for a stripper’s G-string*), or his essays on photography—all seems to me to be a celebration of the ephemeral.

In siding with the impermanent and the minute over the more common paradigm of a continually emitting and heavily charged semiotic structure, he was following one favored type of Japanese aesthetic. We can locate that aesthetic not only in the Edo period, but also in the Zen-influenced Muromachi and Kamakura, as well as in the earlier Heian period. In this sense of favoring the ephemeral, I find Kansuke’s link to one strong artistic tendency within the Japanese tradition.

For example, like flower arrangement, his imagery is a play between absence and presence, between filled and blank space, and the thread running through it is not the might of a fist or the hysteria of a nightmare, but the tender and fleeting moment of a daydream. His stance can be refreshing and courageous, and I think he has a lot to offer to both photographers and scholars of photography, especially to Westerners who are less familiar with the pleasure of this type of light-handed sensibility. In the sense that Kansuke was in a constant “dialogue” (actually two monologues that never crisscrossed) with the West, he was a spiritual doppelganger, an East Asian comrade-in-camera.

* Kameyama Iwao, a close friend of Kansuke and publisher of Butterfly among 150 other miniature books, chidingly wrote in 1988, “The only volume Kansuke published in his lifetime was Butterfly, a miniature book of tales from striptease joints. This somehow shows the hazy character of the man.”


I’ve been using the word “surrealism” in relation to Kansuke, and it’s easy from the present to look back retrospectively and dub him a lifelong surrealist. At closer analysis, however, it is apparent that he took in various influences during his almost sixty years of continual activity.

I have mentioned minimalism, which was a post-World War II movement, but there was also the basic interest in abstraction—patterns, shapes, light and dark contrasts—since his earliest work. Also, all the members of the VOU Club were heavily influenced by the Bauhaus, especially its accent on geometric lines and a simple, clean aesthetic. And we can see elements of Mondrian’s parallel and perpendicular lines in some Kansuke photos.

I think it’s useful to keep in mind that there were many different styles under the banner of surrealism, such as those of Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte, Yves Tanguy, and Andre Malraux, to name a few. And, of course, each artist changed over time. The continual influx of Western movements—such as futurism, dadaism, and surrealism—made the Japanese weary of trying to stay in vogue. As soon as they proclaimed themselves adherents of the latest craze, they were told that it was outmoded.

By the late 1920s, Kitasono, Haruyama Yukio (1902-94) and others used the French phrase “l’esprit nouveau” to cover anything modernist or avant-garde. I prefer the blanket term “experimental” when referring to Kansuke’s ouevre, because it includes the surreal, the abstract, and other categories, yet it usually stands in sharp contrast to the realistic press photo.


Following are a few excerpts I translated from Kansuke’s articles and essays to give a sense of his artistic outlook over time:

“To take one step forward requires an extraordinary talent.” (1940)

“New thinking is created by combining unknown concepts…. For poets, using words to think is both the tool for their thinking process and the material for their thoughts.” (circa 1941)

“Three-dimensional objects are transformed into flat pictures. This easy transformation traps photographers…. We shouldn’t overestimate the mechanism of a lens. There is no way that reality can be copied.” (1949)

“We should distance ourselves from over-rationality and lyricism and create a new beauty based on the human psyche. We should not only understand that 2 + 3 = 5, but also grasp it from the viewpoint that 5 is the sum of 2 + 3.” (1950)

“The surreal exists within the real. Tireless experimentation with new photography leads to the creation of a new beauty.” (1953)

“I purposely don’t give advice regarding technique. I tell young photographers not to look at photography magazines. Rather, they should develop their own way of seeing.” (1967)

“It’s more important what you photograph than how you express what you do.” (1967)

“What is a good photograph? [Experimental] photography—unlike a knife or fountain pen—has no practical use or function. We can locate the rationale for photography’s superiority in its total lack of purpose, complete uselessness, and absolute meaninglessness…To put it concisely, good photos aim at revolution…They emerge from everyday events and connect to revolution.” (1977)

“What is called beauty is closely related to the times. Yesterday’s beauty is always different from today’s beauty. On the one hand, a work of art responds sensitively to its times, and on the other hand it creates those times. To state it clearly, true beauty creates the future, but…a work of art in some sense must raise questions.” (1980).


Among the last drawings Kansuke did in the hospital, a few weeks before he died, included one masterpiece of self-irony. He simply drew a log on a hospital bed. I see that drawing as a modern version of the long line of drawings by Zen masters. It sums up his knowledge of life and is a kind of last testament. I find it interesting that his final statement of self-expression came in the form of a drawing rather than a photo or poem. With that deft stroke, he again showed that his life was the work of art and his artistic production merely a continual shedding of skins.

Kansuke shocked many people who knew him by specifying in his will that he wanted nothing to do with the customary Buddhist funeral in which the corpse is cremated. Instead, he donated his body to medical science.

Yamamoto Kansuke: Conveyor of the Impossible

he saw through the prism
of his one cracked eye

and took us behind a mirror
merging dreams with non-dreams

his collages of positives and negatives
glimpse the world of ghosts

boats float along underwater breasts
the sun eye sets on the horizon

his swirling face with umbrella in hand
in a rain-soaked room in underwear

day by day incrementally
he unraveled illusions

a bed hangs in the sky like a cloud
inviting us to roll over and awaken

YAMAMOTO Kansuke (1914–1987) was one of the leading lights of Japanese avant-garde photography. A poet as well as a photographer with surrealistic leanings, he encouraged the development of avant-garde photography in Japan and was a leading member of the “Nagoya Photo Avant Garde.”

John SOLT is associate-in-research at the Edwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies at Harvard University. He spent thirteen years knocking on art museum doors in Japan and the U.S. before this groundbreaking exhibit on Yamamoto Kansuke’s photography was accepted by Tokyo Station Gallery. Solt is author of Shredding the Tapestry of Meaning: The Poetry and Poetics of Kitasono Katue (Harvard University Asia Center, 1999), currently being translated into Japanese for publication by Shichosha in 2006. In 1998, Solt produced the video “Glass Wind: Kansuke, Kit-Kat and Kazuo” (, which includes the only remaining 8mm films by Yamamoto Kansuke.

For comments or questions on Solt’s essay,he can be reached at


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