Smiles, Grief, Women and Children: Domon Ken’s Human Eye on Japan
Domon Ken captured the vast spectrum of emotions of Japanese people throughout almost 50 years
More than 150 photographs of the Japanese master Domon Ken (1909, Sakata – 1990, Tokyo) are displayed in the white and minimalist (quasi-zen?) spaces of the Ara Pacis, Rome. Curated by Rossella Menegazzo, Professor of Eastern Asia Art History in Milan, and by Takeshi Fujimori, art director of the Ken Domon Museum of Photography and pupil of Domon Ken, the exhibition illustrates the artistic path and the diversified oeuvre of the Japanese photographer; from the 1920s to the 1970s, from propaganda to photo-realism, from photojournalism to social photography.
One of the greatest photographers of the Eastern world, the proponent of photo-realism, the “devil of photography” Domon Ken was able to capture the vast spectrum of emotions and realities of the Japanese people throughout almost 50 years. He combined sensitive thinking with a poetic but never dramatic gaze on truth. As if poetry came from truth itself. Truth is, in fact, the real protagonist of his pictures, which often appears exquisitely revealed through images of women and children.
Before and during the Second World War, Domon Ken worked for the magazine Nippon, whose mission was to promote Japanese culture and society abroad. His practice was characterized by a propagandistic approach. However, he managed to capture hints of humanness and moments of naturalness from his characters (see Navy Graduation Ceremony), while reporting their daily activities.
The violent trauma of the war and the death of his second daughter pushed Domon Ken to change his perspective on photography. He chose to devote his sensitive and careful eye to the tragic reality of the post-war era as well as the westernization of Japanese society. His pictures reported Western trends and the emergence of new social roles, such as actresses, artists, and intellectuals, revealing their thoughts and exploring human relationships. Domon Ken was thus promoting social realism and collaborated with several magazines as a freelance photographer. His photographs were now shot with a less dramatic point of view, contrasts were reduced, and movement was added.
Three photographic projects dedicated to the life of poor orphan and mine-worker children were born: “Children from Kōtō” (published in 1956), “Children from Chikuhō” (1960) and “The Father of Little Rumie is Dead” (1960). Despite the terribly poor conditions pictured, these photographs are able to illustrate genuine feelings, focusing on the human reality and on its generous variety of emotions, rather than on the dramatic and pitiful aspect of it, shown through the dynamism and naturalness in the shot.
This approach was best known for being used in Domon Ken’s most powerful project: Hiroshima, published in March 1958 and consisting of 180 photographs. Nobel prize Ōe Kenzaburō defined it as “the most modern artwork.” He continues:
Portraying living people fighting against the bomb, and not people dead because of the bomb, is to have squarely faced the essence of art from a fully human point of view.
Faces and bodies report much sufferance, yet the elegance of the pictures are a symptom of that human vitality that strives for survival through sorrow, as part humanness itself. It refuses both to close itself to the tragedy of death and to portray a fake and sterile overcoming of the trauma (see The Ōtani Family, Survivors of the Atomic Bomb).
Domon Ken – Il Maestro del realismo giapponese
Museo dell’Ara Pacis
27 May – 18 September 2016
Address: Lungotevere in Augusta (angolo via Tomacelli), Rome.
Hours: everyday 9:30- 19:30
Tickets: 11 euros full, 9 euros reduced