Photo by George Lloyd

Taro Okamoto Memorial Museum: tribute to a radical artist

Taro Okamoto was a radical artist of a kind that doesn’t exist anymore. The kind to write an essay entitled The Japanese People Must Explode (Nihonjin wa bakuhatsu shinakereba naranai); the kind to hold an “experimental tea ceremony”; the kind whose collected writings run to nine volumes.

In some ways, he was a typical rootless cosmopolitan, who started out as a citizen of the world, only to return home in search of the elusive ‘essence of Japan.’ He first travelled to Europe in 1929, when he was just 18. His father was due to take part in a naval conference in London and decided to take his family with him.

When his parents returned to Japan, Okamoto chose to stay in Paris. Inspired by gallery visits to see works by Cezanne and Picasso, he started painting, befriending surrealist artists such as Max Ernst and attending lectures by the likes of Georges Bataille. It all happened so quickly – by the age of 27, he’d had a book of his paintings published, and his work had been exhibited at the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme in Paris.

Okamoto is probably best known for his Tower of the Sun, a giant ‘anti-expo’ sculpture that he created for the Osaka Expo in 1970. | Kanesue / © (CC by SA 2.0)

Okamoto’s heady immersion in the Parisian art world was cut short by the outbreak of World War Two. He sailed for Japan on the last evacuation ship and enlisted in the Japanese Imperial Army. After four years of fighting in China, the last six months in a prisoner of war camp, he returned to the family home in Aoyama in 1946 to find it had been destroyed in an air raid. Not only was all trace of his pre-war life gone, so were all his paintings.

Photo by George Lloyd

So he started again, from scratch, guided by what he called “the principle of polar opposites.” Like many surrealists, Okamoto was fascinated by the tension between the real and the imaginary, but being Japanese, and a survivor of war, his life was characterised by no end of ‘polar opposites.’

For example, post-war Japan was enthralled by the promise of modernity, and disdained everything that was rural, rustic or unsophisticated. But Okamoto was not seduced by cheap talk of progress. In 1951, he went to see an exhibition of Jomon-era pottery at the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park. He was fascinated by the art of the Jomon period (14,000 BC – 300 BC), and the energetic, un-self-conscious outlook of the Japanese before the upper class was seduced by Chinese culture.

Photo by George Lloyd

Thereafter, Okamoto spent a lot of time travelling to festivals throughout Japan, in search of whatever was raw and unrefined in his country’s artistic traditions. These festivals confirmed for him that art, religion and everyday life should not occupy separate spheres, but be inextricably bound.

Okamoto’s love of all things folky, rustic and unadorned took him to Spain and Mexico, Okinawa and South Korea. In 1952, he was able to return to Europe for the first time since the war, where he was reunited with his friends from surrealist art circles and visited Pablo Picasso at his studio.

Photo by George Lloyd

Okamoto had a solid grounding in ethnography, which he studied at university in Paris before the war. He was fascinated by the way that mythology worked in modern societies. The most powerful myth of post-war Japanese society was ‘progress’, the ever-beckoning, never-to- be-embraced tomorrow that kept a generation chained to their desks, with no time or energy to appreciate, let alone create art.

While in Mexico City, he created an enormous mural for a hotel, in which he tried to express his scepticism. He called it "The Myth of Tomorrow" (Asu no shinwa). After a few years on a wall of the hotel, it was removed to a warehouse on the outskirts of the city, where it lay gathering dust until 2003, when it was rediscovered and brought to Japan. You can see it today at Shibuya station.

"The Myth of Tomorrow" (Asu no shinwa) in Shibuya station. | galactic.supermarket / ©

Okamoto was a big hit in Europe, where curators saw him as a leader of the Japanese avant-garde. But being a member of an elite wasn’t really his bag. He was a populist; a populariser; a people-person. Nor did he have any of the disdain for the world of commerce that characterises the typical intellectual. For a start, most of his work was first exhibited in the gallery at the Takashimaya department store in Nihonbashi.

He was a great showman and had no compunctions about making money from his art or working with advertisers and marketeers. Like Andy Warhol, who made a career from working with advertising materials, Okamoto didn’t see any contradiction in being a commercial artist. He happily took on commissions from JR, Daiwa Securities, theme parks and onsen resorts.

Photo by George Lloyd

He appeared in quite a few TV commercials too. In 1981, he did a commercial for Maxwell video cassettes, as a result of which his catchphrase, ‘Art is explosion!’ became a popular expression. The same year, he appeared in a TBS TV programme called "Maicon jidai" (Microcomputer Age) in which he used a computer to create a picture for the first time.

‘Explosion’ was one of Okamoto’s favourite words – other favourites were ‘pride’, ‘freedom’ and ‘dignity.’ He died in 1996. You can see several of his works at the Taro Okamoto Memorial Museum, which stands on the site of his former home in Aoyama. For details on how to get there and opening hours, see the website here.

By - George Lloyd.