1. From Japan in the Far East to the Center of the Art World
Taro Okamoto was eighteen years old in 1929 when he moved from Japan in the Far East, to Paris, the world center of art. Taro despaired of the other Japanese artists he met who had traveled to Paris to study, only to congregate together, painting conventional landscapes and dreaming of triumphant exhibitions on their return to Japan. Instead, he was determined to make himself self-sufficient within French society, becoming a boarding student at a private school, improving his French and adopting Western culture. Later he opened his own studio in the Montparnasse district of Paris, enjoying unique experiences for more than ten years before he returned to Japan in 1940.
2. From Pure Abstract to Surrealism
In 1933 he became the youngest member of the Abstraction-Création group, producing several series of works, such as Kuukan (Space) and Contrepoint etc. In 1937 he submitted his Itamashiki ude (Sad Arm) in the Salon des Surindépendants and gradually moving away from Pure Abstract art, he left the Abstraction-Création group. This work was highly praised by André Breton and the following year he was invited to participate in the first Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme (Paris). He deepened his relationship with members of the Surrealism movement such as Max Ernst, Alberto Giacometti, Man Ray, Raymond Tanguy, etc. and in this way, rare for an artist, Okamoto participated at the forefront of two major avant-garde art movements in real-time.
3. Studied under Marcel Mauss at the Musée de l’Homme
In 1938 Okamoto was studying philosophy at University of Paris when he visited the Musée de l’Homme and so impressed was he by what he saw there that he transferred to the university’s ethnology department. He studied with Claude Lévi-Strauss, Michel Leiris, etc., under Marcel Mauss, at one point becoming so involved in the subject that he even ceased painting. It was this experience that gave rise to his philosophy on art, a belief that ‘art is not a commodity’, ‘art should be free and unconditional’ and ‘art means to live everything in a human fashion’. Okamoto later appeared in Jean Rouch’s documentary film, ‘Homage à Marcel Mauss’ in 1975.
4. A Chance Meeting with Georges Bataille
Invited to a meeting of the political group, Contre-Attaque, by Max Ernst, Okamoto met Georges Bataille and was greatly moved by his speech. The two went on to become firm friends with Taro becoming a member of the ‘College of Sociology’, then later joining the ‘Acéphale’ secret society. The motifs for his postwar works, Yoru (Night) and Dengeki (Lightning Bolt) are said to be derived from his experience of secret ceremonies in the forest of Saint Germain as a member of this group. He became close friends with many world-famous intellectuals, such as Michel Leiris, Roger Caillois, Pierre Klossowski, Patrick Waldberg, etc.
5. A Singular Japanese
From Abstract to Surrealism, from art to philosophy, from the world of abstract logic to the field of philosophical anthropology and finally even joining a secret society concerned with the supernatural. Taro Okamoto experienced firsthand the early stirrings of many of the major trends in twentieth century art, and was probably the only Japanese to have become so totally involved in the forefront of the intellectual movement that sprang up in Paris during the 1930s. In fact, his career is probably unique throughout the world. The aesthetics underlying his art can be summed up as ‘freedom’, ‘pride’ and ‘dignity’. These became engraved on Okamoto’s
2. A Solitary Battle
1. Restarting from Scratch
In 1940 Taro Okamoto returned to a Japan that was in a state of war. He was soon called up and sent to the front line as a new conscript. In stark contrast to the freedom of France, the country lay under the pall of militarism. After the war, he was held in a prisoner-of-war camp in China before returning to the site of his family home in Aoyama, Tokyo, only to discover that the area had been burnt to the ground during an air raid. His studio and thec works he had produced in Paris were all destroyed. He literally had to start again from scratch.
2. The Struggle Against the Galapagos Syndrome
Starting his artistic activities anew, Taro Okamoto wrote in a newspaper article that ‘the stone-age of art is finished’. He went on to state that the age of ‘art’ as simply something to be appreciated had passed and that it was now time to receive the benefits of the freedom offered by the spirit of Western art, single-handedly declaring war on the authoritarianism centered around the doyens of the Japanese art world. Confronting a ‘Galapagos-like’ art world in thrall to the simple, subdued aesthetics of the past, Okamoto produced works in powerful, garish colors, working positively to enlighten people through publications and lectures. What is meant by art? What is the avant-garde? What is creativity? He published numerous revolutionary classics on art, raising these questions in society through his provocative words and deeds.
3. Polar Opposites
‘In the future, the spirit of avant-garde art should contain the romanticism of irrational enthusiasm combined with a totally rational concept, these two extremes existing in vehement opposition to each other. I cannot imagine the mixing or fusion of these disparate elements, I grasp both extremes as being sundered.’ Naming this artistic ideology ‘Polar Opposites’, Okamoto used it as a base upon which to produce numerous controversial works. Shortly after recommencing his artistic activities in Japan, he created numerous large-scale works, such as Jukogyo (Heavy Industry) and Mori-no-okite (Law of the Jungle), creating a sensation in the art world as a leader of the avant-garde.
4. ‘Discovering’ Japan
In addition to his artistic work, he devoted his spare time to the investigation of ‘Japan’s origins’ and exploration of ‘Japan’s unspoiled landscapes’, accomplishing groundbreaking work. The most famous of these was his ‘discovery of the Jomon’. He is credited with ‘discovering’ the beauty that exists in pottery produced during the Jomon period (ca 11000 BCE – ca 300 BCE), which had previously been considered solely of archeological interest, bringing it into the art field and praising the spirit of the potters who created it. He traveled extensively throughout Japan, observing traditional landscapes from an anthropological viewpoint. In recent years, the photographs he took at this time have been reassessed as valuable anthropological material, and his cultural discourses on the themes of tradition and customs around the country have attracted renewed attention. This is because the Japanese landscapes that he discovered form part of a universal world.
5. A Multifaceted Artist
In addition to working actively in a variety of creative fields, Taro Okamoto also devoted himself to enlightening the rest of the art establishment. He felt that the Japanese art world was suffocating with mundanity and was determined to inject it with some of the ‘freedom’, ‘pride’ and ‘dignity’ that he had discovered during his time in France. Taro Okamoto had undergone a unique experience as a Japanese living at the forefront of the art scene in Paris during the 1930s and after his return to Japan, he resolved to use his experiences to bring about a change in Japanese art and ideology.
3. An Interloper at the Expo
1. The Greatest Expo in History
In 1970, during a period of unprecedented economic growth, a World Expo was held in Japan. It was a once in a lifetime national project planned to demonstrate the country’s arrival in the ‘Club of Developed Nations’. The man selected to act as Theme Producer for the exposition was Taro Okamoto. He designed a seventy-meter tall, monumental, Taiyo-no-to (Tower of the Sun) and drove it straight through the center of the site, its potent, bizarre spectacle creating a powerful impression on the minds of the Japanese people and becoming the country’s largest, most dynamic icon. There are no Japanese who were alive at that time who do not know Taro Okamoto’s Tower of the Sun.
2. A Giant Symbol of Anti-Expo
Since they were first held in the mid-nineteenth century, world expositions have embodied modernism, presenting a message of how ‘advances in technology and industry will bring happiness to mankind’. However, the Tower of the Sun stood in direct contradiction to this. Appearing like a primitive structure that has stood since time immemorial, it alone succeeded in destroying the image of an ‘urban landscape of the near future’. Taro Okamoto confronted the cheap progressivism upon which the exposition was based and said, ‘Non!’ In reply to critics who claimed he used the avant-garde to support the government, he merely laughed and said, ‘anti-Expo? What are you talking about? The Tower of the Sun is the ultimate expression of anti-Expo!’ The Tower of the Sun stood as an interloper within the whole history of world expositions.
3. Anti-modernism, Anti-traditionalism
Taro Okamoto stated that, ‘The Japanese people have only two standards of value: Western modernism and its antithesis—traditionalism based on the Japanese concepts of quiet simplicity and subdued refinement.’ ‘I kicked both of these aside, to create an absurd idol that linked the primitive directly with the contemporary.’ That was the Tower of the Sun. It truly was an exercise in ‘Polar Opposites’. He tried to produce ‘a Japan that was not a five-storied pagoda, a Japan that was not a reflection of New York or Paris.’ Taro Okamoto tried to free Japan from the cultural inferiority complex that had gripped it since the introduction of Chinese culture during the Nara period (710-784).
4. Longing for a Musée de l’Homme
The theme that Taro Okamoto produced was also unorthodox. He accepted responsibility to depict the Exposition’s theme, ‘Humankind’s Progress and Harmony for Mankind’, but devoted almost the entire space and budget allotted for this theme to trace life from its origins to the activities of primitive culture. Whereas the other pavilions focused on presentations displaying technologies of the future, he produced an exhibit showing the origins of life, prayer and chaos, etc., collecting masks and idols from around the world to present a magic display. He did this in order to send two messages: ‘Do not believe in the values of the Expo’ and ‘Return to humankind’s roots.’ In addition to these, he had one more motive, that was to create a Japanese Musée de l’Homme, and as it transpired, seven years after the Exposition, the materials collected for this display provided a base for the creation of the National Museum of Ethnology.
5. A Well-loved Avant-Garde Artist
The Tower of the Sun remains engraved on the minds of the Japanese people as the symbol of the Osaka World Expo. There are no Japanese who lived at that time who do not know of Taro Okamoto. Loved by the people, Taro continued to produce public art for display around the country, and in 1975, it was decided that the Tower of the Sun, which had been scheduled for demolition, should be preserved for posterity. The grassroots movement campaigning for its conservation had been successful. Taro Okamoto was the only Japanese avant-garde artist to ever reach the hearts of the general public.
4. Young People’s Sun
1. The Recent Revival of the Taro Okamoto Boom
Taro Okamoto died in 1996 at the age of 84. He suffered from Parkinson’s disease in his latter years forcing him to postpone many of his projects and most of his books gradually went out of print. However, a few short years after his death, this situation underwent a dramatic change. In 1998 the Taro Okamoto Memorial Museum opened to be followed in 1999 by the Taro Okamoto Museum of Art, which opened in his birthplace, Kawasaki City, many of his books were republished and numerous other works concerning him were produced. Between 20 and 30 exhibitions dealing with Taro Okamoto are held annually throughout the country, articles on him in newspapers, magazines, etc., number between 1,500 and 2,000 a year and approximately 100 books have been written about him. The media has not overlooked this singular situation and feature articles on the theme of ‘Why Taro Okamoto Now?’ appear repeatedly.
2. The Young People’s Sun
The current Taro Okamoto boom is driven by young people who did not know him in real-time. Taro Okamoto’s powerful works and statements rip aside the feeling of stagnation that confronts people today. The sketchbook at the Memorial Museum is filled with comments written by young people, such as: ‘I feel much more optimistic now,’ ‘I can move forward again’, ‘I will come again next time I run into an insurmountable problem’, etc. To these people, Taro Okamoto is not just ‘some great man from the past’, but a ‘living being’ who is moving towards the future with them. More and more people can empathize with ‘Taro Okamoto’s way of living’. There has never been another artist like him in Japan, before or since.
3. Two Museums
This movement is supported by two museums. The Taro Okamoto Memorial Museum is housed in the building where he lived and worked for over forty years, preserving it just as it was when he was alive, whereas the Taro Okamoto Museum of Art in Kawasaki is a purpose-built museum run by the local government. The aforementioned is small in scale, but filled with Okamoto’s presence, becoming a sacred place for young people, whereas the latter is a huge affair, covering 5,000m2, containing nearly all of Taro Okamoto’s works, and the site of a 30-meter-tall monument entitled Haha-no-to (Tower of the Mother). Both institutions complement each other in introducing Okamoto’s art to the world.
4. The Miracle of the Asu-no-shinwa’
(Myth of Tomorrow)
An event took place that proved the Taro Okamoto movement to be a true one. In 1969 he had painted a vast mural in Mexico entitled ‘Myth of Tomorrow’ (30m x 5.5m), but later the whereabouts of this work became unknown unknown. However, it was rediscovered in autumn of 2003 and through the unstinting support of a huge number of people who wished to see it, it was restored with amazing speed. Donations were collected from people numbering in the tens of thousands, and during the fifty days that it was initially shown after restoration, two million people turned out to view it. The mural was later placed on permanent display in Tokyo’s Shibuya station in 2008, causing a sensation as a new symbol of this district, famous for young people’s culture.
5. Towards the Next 100 Years
Events were held throughout Japan in 2011 to celebrate the centenary of Taro Okamoto’s birth. The theme of these was ‘Be TARO’. Large numbers of young people gathered for over twenty official programs, including a large-scale retrospective exhibition.