Okanoue Toshiko’s Surrealist Collages: at the Forefront of the Japanese Avant-Garde Movement


WordsManon Baeza

'The Complete Works of Okanoue Toshiko' / Layout: B5 size, hardback, 192 pages. / Expected price: 5000JPY, plus tax. / Publication: January, 2018 / Enquiries: Kawade Shobo Shinsha

Born in 1928 in Kochi, Japan, artist Toshiko Okanoue grew up and cut her teeth at the Bunka Gakuin school in Tokyo. While studying fashion, she soon developed a passion for collage, an art in its own right and one which has earnt her worldwide fame.

After the war, at the start of the 1950s, the artist escaped from the heavy, morose atmosphere that remained by losing herself in Western fashion magazines such as Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Life. Instinctively, she began cutting out, gathering and then sticking together body parts and objects of all kinds that she carefully selected.

Her art plays with proportion in an unsettling manner which throws her works totally off balance, showcasing asymmetric bodies knocking together with animals and various objects. Okanoue thus set foot in the surrealist movement without really realising it.

In general, surrealist paintings depict a dream in a figurative manner, categorically breaking with the conformity advocated by contemporary society. Surrealism aims to free the artist from the constraints of reason, inviting them to create their work in an unpredictable way. Although Toshiko Okanoue was unaware the surrealist movement even existed at the time, she is now one of the figureheads of the movement in Japan.

It wasn’t until 1952, when Toshiko met artist and poet Shuzo Takiguchi, that her career really came together. The latter was an iconic figure of the surrealist movement in Japan and educated her by showing her the works of Max Ernst and other artists, which would have a strong influence on her art. Over a period of six years, Okanoue became increasingly prolific, with over one hundred pieces to her name. Her dreamlike collages juxtapose contradictory images and seek to create their own vocabulary.

The artist held her first exhibition in 1953, but her divorce in 1957 put a sudden end to her career. It took almost forty years for her work to resurface. The custodian of the Metropolitan Museum of Photography in Tokyo uncovered her unique collages in the 1990s and, in doing so, propelled her career. Since then, her work has been recognised for its valuable contribution to the Japanese avant-garde movement, and museums (including the MoMa in New York) are continually paying homage to the artist by exhibiting her work in all four corners of the globe.

A Long Journey ©Okanoue Toshiko, Collection of the Museum of Art, Kochi

Premonition ©Okanoue Toshiko, Collection of the Museum of Art, Kochi