Yuki Katsura, Self-Portrait (Of My Young Age), 1985, cloth, cotton batting, 66 1/2 x 24 2/5 x 5 3/4".

Yuki Katsura, Self-Portrait (Of My Young Age), 1985, cloth, cotton batting, 66 1/2 x 24 2/5 x 5 3/4".

Yuki Katsura

Yuki Katsura, Self-Portrait (Of My Young Age), 1985, cloth, cotton batting, 66 1/2 x 24 2/5 x 5 3/4".

Yuki Katsura (1913–1991) was a female pioneer of the avant-garde whose prolific career encompassed the diverse fields of painting, collage, book design, and illustration, as well as writing essays and travelogues. This impressive range was fully on view in the comprehensive retrospective organized by Naoko Seki, the senior curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo (MOT), in collaboration with fellow MOT curator Mihoko Nishikawa and the curatorial team at the Shimonoseki City Art Museum (where the show traveled subsequently) to celebrate the centennial of the artist’s birth.

The installation at MOT, the show’s initial venue, in particular, created a space of hermeneutic pilgrimage, in which visitors could walk through five sections featuring the major phases of Katsura’s artistic career, thereby gaining insight into the motives of her stylistic transformations. The first two sections featured Katsura’s prewar collaged and multilayered figurative paintings and the cartoonlike, satirical paintings she produced in the early to mid-1950s. By arranging Katsura’s works of the period, including sketches, collages, and illustrations for children’s books, to show the development of her “three fundamental techniques,” these sections presented the technical and ideological foundation of her protean career as a cycle of repeated reinvention, in which she continually reorganized three basic formal principles in reaction to the massive and often contradictory shifts in the social order of the postwar world.

The three fundamental methods of Katsura’s artistic expression, as defined by Seki in the exhibition catalogue, as well as in the show’s organization, were collage, the ultrarealistic copying in oil paint of the surface textures of objects, and cartoonlike caricature with humanized but comically distorted animal characters. In paintings such as Letters, 1936, and Work, 1940, the picture plane is divided into quasi-Cubist geometrical forms, or an array of such forms, to create a multilayered structure into which Katsura could fold actual or copied fragments of everyday objects and natural images, ranging from flower petals, tree bark, fungi, and lace to the grid-patterned fabric of traditional women’s farming garb. Incorporating the tactile surfaces of the external world into her densely knit fabric of image and texture, Katsura synthesized her perceptions and indicated the interconnectedness of natural and human realms as well as the continuity of the present consciousness with ancient layers of memory. The satirical paintings, combining the sharp wit of prewar urban cartoons with the violent distortion and compositional abstractions of modernist painting, gained a strident critical force—for instance in Resistance, 1952, or Man and Fish, 1954, in which the half-humorous, half-grotesque figures cry out against the dehumanization and social disorder betokened by mass society, nuclear weapons, and the Cold War. This caricatural style embodied Katsura’s answer to the 1946 call by the avant-garde art critic Kiyoteru Hanada for artists to create intensely disruptive works to confront, with equal force, the violent reality of that period of cultural transition.

Katsura’s subsequent stylistic changes—including her large-scale, highly tactile abstract paintings of the 1960s; a return to cartoonlike social satire in the ’70s, in works showing people as subhuman creatures drowning in layers of information and commodities made using collage and meticulous representations of accumulated newspaper and banknote fragments; her late-’70s wooden panels overlaid with fragments of discarded cork to present an Arte Povera–like alternative to painting; and the soft sculpture of the 1980s, made of red silk fabric traditionally used for the inside of women’s kimonos—all reflect the artist’s shifting relations with contemporary society, from conscious distancing to sober but humorous critique, and finally to the reconsideration of history from an anonymous woman’s viewpoint. In this astonishing thematic range, radical formal inventiveness, and pointed social critique, all of which continue the suppressed possibilities of the prewar formal experiments in the vastly different postwar context, Katsura’s oeuvre reveals an avant-garde spirit as strong—and relevant—as ever.

Midori Matsui