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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Flutsch

Tokyo: Art and Photography

Updated: Jul 31, 2021


Exhibition Review: Tokyo: Art and Photography

Ashmolean Museum, 29 July 2020 – 3 January 2022.

Tickets from £6 - £12.25. Free for under 12s, Oxford Students, Carers and Pass holders. Book tickets here.

Warning: This review contains photographs of a sexualised nature and includes images of injury detail that may be distressing to some.

[Disclosure: I attended this exhibition for free and was provided with an exhibition catalogue for free for the purposes of this review.]

Tokyo: Art and Photography is the Ashmolean’s new exhibition. I saw it at the beginning of the week and it has taken me a few days to absorb and process this most extraordinary collection. Planning for this exhibition began in 2018 with the idea that it would coincide with the Tokyo Olympics. Despite everything - the plan has come to fruition.

Tokyo: Art and Photography spans 400 years of Japanese art, from the 17th century to the present day; with pieces commissioned from contemporary artists especially for the exhibition. The exhibition can be roughly divided into three categories: the city, its people and artists’ responses to Tokyo life. Each category is carefully, lovingly and beautifully illustrated with gorgeous pieces that are rarely seen outside Japan.

Exhibition curators, Lena Fritsch and Clare Pollard.

Tokyo City

In the space that covers Tokyo city – we see ancient and modern views of Tokyo. The genius of curators Lena Fritsch and Clare Pollard is that this space can be approached on so many different levels. You may want to walk through the space as a “time tourist”, to marvel how Tokyo has changed in the last 400 years. You may want to find inspiration in the way Tokyoites have rallied and reconstructed Tokyo after so many destructive disasters. Or, like me, you might just want to seek out familiar places and revisit old friends.

Many of the beautiful ancient views were familiar to me, but the modern views were something new to me and rather wonderful. Yamaguchi’s clean and restrained New Sights of Tokyo: Shiba Tower, created in 2014, was something special, showing me a very dear and familiar view.

I took this photo at the exhibition on 27 July, with my iPhone.

Similarly, Takano Ryudai’s Daily Snapshots series taken in 2014 presents ordinary views (he calls them “junk places”) of Tokyo that would be familiar to any Tokyoite, but would not normally be elevated to the walls of a Western gallery – it’s wonderful to have them on the Ashmolean’s walls.

I took this photo at the exhibition on 27 July, with my iPhone.

Walking through this section of the exhibition, Tokyo’s journey from a small fishing village to the largest metropolis in the world comes alive.

Tokyo’s people

In the space that covers Tokyo’s people, we see again, a deft hand in the broad and diverse choice of works displayed. One section is dominated by glorious kabuki fan-portraits, commissioned by kabuki actors for their die-hard fans – Natori Shunsen’s portrait of kabuki star, Matsumoto Koshiro VII created around 1935 is magnificent.

I took this photo at the exhibition on 27 July, with my iPhone.

By contrast, in the glass case opposite the imposing kabuki portraits, we see delicate portraits of Japanese beauties. These were created in 1847 by Katsushika Oi, Hokusai’s daughter and free spirit. Hokusai would declare that his daughter’s portraits of beautiful women were far superior to his own.

I took this photo at the exhibition on 27 July, with my iPhone.

Jumping forward more than one hundred years, the exhibition displays contemporary artists’ portraits of their friends – who are themselves creatives; artists, musicians, actors, models. It is here that we see the feature image for the exhibition, Ninagawa Mika’s striking photographic portrait of twin models Amiaya taken in 2018.

This exhibition doesn’t just showcase images of Tokyo’s social and cool elite, however. We get to see Tokyo’s subcultures too. Photographs from Naito Masatoshi’s Tokyo: A Vision of its Other Side series displays images of Tokyo’s underbelly; pictures of the homeless, prostitutes, drug addicts and night club performers who come out during Tokyo’s witching hours.

Tokyo’s Contemporary Artists

In the last section, the curators have chosen extraordinary works to graphically illustrate Japanese artists’ responses to life in Tokyo. There are images of protest at the artificial gentrification (or sterilisation as the protesters saw it) of areas in Tokyo in preparation of the 1964 Olympics. There are works created especially to protest against the 2020 Olympics.

I took this photo at the exhibition on 27 July, with my iPhone.

We also see videos and images showing enfants absurdes, art collective, CHIM↑POM’s flamboyant rebellion against the strictures of Japanese society.

I took this photo at the exhibition on 27 July, with my iPhone.

Aida Makoto’s huge picture of a cherry blossom lined street – a collage made from Japanese girls’ sex calling cards - is a stark and rather wistful comment on the “progress” of an inner-city area in Tokyo called Uguisudani. Uguisudani was once known for its cherry blossoms and the sound of nightingale song, and is now associated with prostitutes and the yakuza (the Japanese mafia).

Picture detail, taken with my iPhone on 27 July.

Similarly, Machida Kumi’s painting called Three Persons, created in 2003, compassionately expresses the alienation that everybody who lives in Tokyo for any period will at some point feel.

One of the stand-out pieces for me in this contemporary section, was Matsui Fuyuko’s painting on silk titled Nature Preserves the Form of its Children, created in 2017.

I took this photo at the exhibition on 27 July, with my iPhone.

A challenging piece that depicts in a literally visceral way, the artist’s yearning to connect with real feelings and to live in the present. This is the sort of piece that you will see on the walls of galleries in Japan but almost never outside Japan. I think it might be the very first time a Matsui Fuyuko work has been exhibited in the UK.

I have chosen to highlight a few of my favourite pieces to illustrate the depth and breadth of this extraordinary exhibition, but my selection represents just a drop in the ocean of diversity of the works on display.

I took this photo at the exhibition on 27 July, with my iPhone.

Clearly tremendous scholarship has gone into the choice of pieces, but despite this, the exhibition is not a dry, academic one nor is it chaotic or incongruent. Walking through this exhibition with all its disparate pieces, Tokyo and its people come alive. Only a lived-knowledge and a deep love of Tokyo, in all her personalities, coupled with some serious scholarship, could result in such a beautiful, thoughtful and above all, fun exhibition.

I took this photo at the exhibition on 27 July, with my iPhone.

For this reason, I think almost everybody will be able to find something interesting, special and something that they love in Tokyo: Art & Photography.

If you only go to one exhibition in the next year, make it this one.


A Note on the The Exhibition Catalogue

The exhibition catalogue for Tokyo: Art & Photography is a beautiful, stand-alone book in its own right. Written and edited by Lena Fritsch and Clare Pollard, the curators of the exhibition, the catalogue contains a wealth of additional material that is not in the exhibition. Written as a collection of short, very readable essays by various expert authors and illustrated with gorgeous colour images, this is the type of book that you can dip into again and again. It would make a lovely present for anybody interested in Tokyo, its artists and their art. If you can’t visit the exhibition in person, then this book would be a very beautiful consolation prize.


High quality pictures provided by, and used with the permission of, the Ashmolean.


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