Surrealist Painting ― Influences and Iterations in Japan

2019.12.15 — 2020.04.05

Dec. 15(Sun), 2019 – Apr. 5(Sun), 2020





Advanced by French poet André Breton (1896-1966), Surrealism became one of the most influential art movements of the 20th century. With Philippe Soupault (1897- 1990), Breton devised the technique of Automatism in 1919, one year after World War I ended. Connected to the idea of the unconscious mind in psychoanalysis, the methodology of Automatism was to create poetry by moving pen on paper as rapidly as possible. Having experienced the unprecedented devastation of World War I, Breton and Soupault questioned reason based modern rationalism and sought a new aesthetic to express the ‘surreal’ lurking in reality. Breton’s 1924 Surrealist Manifesto allowed for the gradual spread of Surrealism beyond the field of literature to painting, and eventually to the collages of Max Ernst (1891-1976) in Germany’s Dada movement and Salvador Dalí (1904 -1989) in Spain.


Surrealism reached Japan in the 1930s and, translated into Japanese as “ultrarealism” (cho-genjitsu shugi), generated a great sensation as the latest avant-garde style. Eventually, with the admixture of Eastern thought, the original search for the unconscious was lost in Japan and Surrealism became understood as art of a strange fantasy world, popularly referred to in mass media as ‘Shuru.’


This exhibition focuses on the development of Surrealism in painting in Europe and Japan, its influence on post-war Japanese art and, through the work of contemporary artist Tabaimo, the transformation in Japan from Surrealism as a significant 20th century art movement to the popular idea of ‘Shuru’ – art of the unreal and incongruous.

Salvador Dalí, Invisible Sleeper, Horse, and Lion

1930, Pola Museum of Art

© Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, JASPAR Tokyo, 2019 E3562

Chapter 1

The Birth of Surrealism: Response to 1920s Boom and Bust


Though the word ‘Surrealism’ identifying the movement first came into play in André Breton’s 1924 Surrealism Manifesto/Soluble Fish, the activities of the Surrealist artists date to 1919. Serving in the French army medical corps during World War I and witnessing the miserable situation at the front, Breton began to question modernity and the destructive weapons created and used during World War I. He started to realize that though rational modernity, based on science and reason, was expected to improve the world it instead led to great destruction.


After the devastation of war, the promotion of modernization resurfaced. Breton, who turned to poetry and rejected expression controlled by reason, resisted the trend and engaged in various experiments with his friends. In 1919, they discovered the technique of Automatism, running their pens at high speed across paper to create unexpected poetic expression, to liberate them from the constraints of consciousness.

Joan Miró, Personages and Bird in the Night

1944, Pola Museum of Art

© Successió Miró / ADAGP, Paris & JASPAR, Tokyo, 2019 E3562

(First half of the exhibition)

Giorgio de Chirico, Evangelical Still Life Natura Morta Evangelica

1916, Nakanoshima Museum of Art, Osaka

© SIAE, Roma & JASPAR, Tokyo, 2019 E3562

Giorgio de Chirico, Hector and Andromache

ca. 1930, Pola Museum of Art

© SIAE, Roma & JASPAR, Tokyo, 2019 E3562

Chapter 2

Ernst and Dalí: Encounters with Material and Image


Breton’s 1924 Surrealism Manifesto/Soluble Fish ushered in the Surrealist movement in search of a reality unreachable through ‘reason.’ The reach of the movement expanded beyond poetry and literature to include the work of Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico, and Max Ernst from Germany. Breton had recognized the possibility of Surrealism in painting from the early stages of his activities, as evidenced in his “Surrealism and Painting” essay (serialized in 1925, published in 1928).


A review of the works of painters involved in the Surrealist movement reveals that the methods and styles were diverse and that there was no unified ‘Surrealist Painting’ style. Breton’s goal was not to define ‘Surrealist painting’ or to form a group of ‘Surrealist painters,’ but rather to discover painters whose works resonated with Surrealist ideas. Obviously, there were some painters inspired by Breton who created new forms of expression. Each painter sought their own way to distance from reason and to approach the surreal. Ernst, for example used traces from a grattage scraping technique to render forest landscapes and seascapes, and Salvador Dalí established his own Paranoiac Critical method inspired by psychoanalysis. Surrealism spread internationally in the latter half of the 1930s, against a background of instability and anxiety prior to World War II.

Max Ernst, Forest, 1927, Okazaki City Museum

© ADAGP, Paris & JASPAR, Tokyo, 2019 E3562

(First half of the exhibition)

Max Ernst

The Hundred Headless Woman

1929, Tomioka City Museum / Fukuzawa Ichiro Memorial Gallery

© ADAGP, Paris & JASPAR, Tokyo, 2019 E3562

Salvador Dalí, The Three Sphinxes of Bikini

1947, Morohashi Museum of Modern Art

© Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, JASPAR Tokyo, 2019 E3562

Chapter 3

1930s Japanese Surrealism


Avant-garde artists in Japan in the late 1920s and 1930s were inspired during this turbulent time by exposure to Western trends through art magazines and increased exhibitions of contemporary overseas artists. Japanese artists who had studied in France and were influenced by Fauvism formed the ‘1930 Association’ in 1926.


The growing trend in the Japanese art world was going in the direction of departure from academism. Around 1930, the avant-garde paintings and style of Fukuzawa Ichiro began to be known and emulated as ‘Surrealism.’ Surrealism in Japan, however, was understood not an ideological movement to own reality by overcoming modern rationalism, but rather a painting style representing a world of dream and illusion separate from reality.


The impending Sino-Japanese War and World War II brought a cloud of despair and hopelessness in the 1930s and Japanese Surrealist painting showed a tendency to connect with elements of Eastern thought such as Zen Buddhism and Eastern painting traditions. Koga Harue and Migishi Kotaro were inspired by Surrealist ideas and works and created fantasy paintings that incorporated Eastern elements. Noboru Kitawaki and Aimitsu advanced a philosophical approach in their pursuit of the spirituality of Eastern painting. Japanese Surrealism developed in contradistinction to Japanese-style Fauvism and referred to in in Japanese in abbreviated form as ‘Shuru’ having the meaning of ‘something separate from reality that is impossible to truly understand.’

Koga Harue, White Shell, 1932

Pola Museum of Art

Migishi Kotaro, Sea and Sunshine, 1934

Nagoya City Art Museum

Migishi Kotaro

Butterflies Flying above Clouds, 1934

The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo

Kitawaki Noboru, Spikenards, 1937

The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo

Chapter 4

Yoshihara, Ei-Q, and Okanoue: Post-War Japanese Surrealism


With the lifting of restrictions on their freedom of expression after the end of World War II, avant-garde artists in Japan for sought a fresh start for several years. Jiro Yoshihara who began his painting career in the late 1920s under the influence of Ernst and Magritte, went on after the war to explore abstract painting. Creating works that emphasized the physical properties of paint with bold brushstrokes, and becoming the leader of Gutai Art Association group of young artists, he arrived at the expression of the simple and versatile circle as his solution. Ei-Q created what he called ‘photo-dessins’ – based on Surrealistic photograms and painting. His works were strongly abstract, verging on pointillistic, and featured fluid color scattering through his use of oil paint.


In this milieu, artists who had been exposed to Surrealism since pre-war times aimed to establish their own style of abstract expression. It would seem that the post-war paintings emphasizing materiality cannot be compared with paintings seeking to express a world of dreams and illusions. Considering the material approach of Ernst to painting, the development was from Surrealism to abstract painting and this was obviously built on continuity rather than on a break with convention.


It is noteworthy that the attraction to Surrealism in Japan lives on in the worlds of film special effects and manga. The spirit of Surrealism, criticizing rationality and aiming to grasp reality anew continues to expand the territory of intellectual and literary movements in the 21st century.

Ei-Q, Archetype of Sea, 1958, private collection

Narita Tohl

First Draft of Ultraman, 1966

Aomori Museum of Art

© Narita/TPC

(First half of the exhibition)

Narita Tohl, Breton, 1966, Aomori Museum of Art

© Narita/TPC

(First half of the exhibition)

Tabaimo, Chirping, 2016

video installation

©2019 Tabaimo