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Yasumasa Morimura - The Art of Self-Portaiture in a Post-Modern Global Japan

Page history last edited by PBworks 12 years, 10 months ago

Yasumasa Morimura by JC Brew


Yasumasa Morimura is an internationally respected and controversial Japanese artist who embodies and displaces societal currents in Japanese culture, such as Western assimilation, capitalism, and gender values.  He follows the spirit of wabi-sabi by drawing beauty from the rifts of Japan's connection with the global community and its connection with its own past.  As a master of self-portraiture, Morimura is the androgynous outsider peering at the audience or the crowd, with the absent identity of a Noh performer, yet the piercing gaze of the Western critic.  Like a wabi sabi ceramic, Morimura is wildly unpredictable and unable to pin down. 

GOAL OF WIKI:  To explore how Japan interacts with the World through the lens of the artist and how the artist creates an identity within his culture and the global community.




Yasumasa Morimura has achieved fame as a contemporary international artist due largely to his provocative interpretations of a unique subject matter: himself.  Morimura appropriates iconic images from Western culture in his photographic self-portraits, including series in art history paintings, American leading actresses from the mid-twentieth century, and more recently, controversial historical world leaders.  


Morimura was born in Osaka, Japan, in 1951.  His artistic training occurred at the Kyoto City University of the Arts, where he graduated in 1978.  He has shown internationally in countless solo shows and many larger group exhibitions. His provocative works dressed as Marilyn Monroe sold in the tens of thousands of dollars per color print.  Some interpret the incessant self-portraits as a form of megalomania and self-aggrandizement, in order to gain wealth and prestige, yet this does not account for the risks that he takes as an artist. 

http://www.luhringaugustine.com/index.php?mode=artists&object_id=75&view=bio   Exhibition History



"Taking photographs is generally an act of 'looking at the object, whereas 'being seen' or 'showing' is what is most interest to one who does a self-portrait...self-portraits deny not only photography itself but the 20th century as an era as well...an inevitable phenomenon at the end of the 20th century." - Yasumasa Morimura


Morimura claims that over the course of his career, has has taken on 300 different faces or characters. It is a process of relinquishing individuality and self, and releasing the identity of the other into a new sphere of interpretation, much like the pop art of Andy Warhol.  He has many favorite Western artists who specialized in self-portraiture, the greatest being Rembrandt Van Rijn. In addition to achieving a high level of lookability, Morimura also explores his own identity behind the lens, and charts an evolution with his characters.


Yasumasa Morimura's flow chart for beauty:

 Recollection-->Commotion Within-->Enthusiasm for Expression-->Beauty




Postmodern Artist

The question of what is an international, post-modern artist must also be examined.  International audiences do not know how to react to Morimura.  For the duration of its existence, the study of art history has maintained a grounding on Western works, and although global art has gained wide acceptance, Morimura's ressamblements create a dangerous mix of elements without firm footing.  Critics in Paris and throughout Europe might find the work intellectually delighting yet offensive to their great masters.  Americans might have more reverence/hatred/confusion regarding their favorite pop stars done in drag by a foreigner.  And does Morimura have greater understanding in Japan?  Do they enjoy his satirical message on Western invasion?  Do they like that his fame is enjoyed largely in international markets?  In this confusion, there is a great amount of Post-modern wabi sabi, art on the edge by an illusive creator, that avoids strict definition, but that forces a guttural response. 


Modernization has been called the process of reproduction leading to a hybrid imitation.  Morimura is clearly beyond the modernizing process.  He does not want a hybrid, he wants the original essence of the subject, and he wants it to exist in a new world that calls upon what our world is facing.  If it is a hybrid imitation, it is full of perforations that allow the viewer to absorb an art capable of shattering, or confusing, or flexing and delivering new light, to any global context.  Postmodern works frequently call the viewer to the author's presence, in the work, in the gallery.  Morimura is both buried in the history and aesthetics of his work and gazing out to create an uncomfortable edge, almost like meeting the performer in makeup following the performance of a play.



The Role of Theatre

Yasumasa Morimura considers himself to be a performer, in costume, in makeup, posing in front of the lens and presenting a character that is both historical yet embodying a current statement.  He has dressed up as Christ, Marilyn Monroe, and Frida Kahlo while attending different major exhibitions.  Morimura was most likely influenced by the Noh and Kabuki classical theatre in Japan.  Male actors wore very subtle masks to portray female characters.  The masks responded to the slightest movement of the talented actor with intense emotion.  In the same way, Morimura creates a mask out of makeup and his entire elaborate setups.  He has the power of a kabuki actor to be able to take on the persona of the female star without the conventional tool of moving film.


Mona Lisa in Pregnancy 1998           Portrait of Artist 1996                                  

East versus West Conflict   

As a student Morimura loved to draw in the traditional Western manner.  He copied Western masters largely because his school, like most art schools in Japan, taught Western art and art history.  As a young, emerging, talented artist, he had trouble deciding how much his style would reflect the Western influence of his education and how much would draw from his native heritage.  He settled on aspect of Japanese performance, using "psychological makeup," to jumble and redefine the common texts of Western culture, especially movie stars, that had invaded his culture.  The results were his highly respected and scorned series of art historical paintings and his American Actress series during the post-war period, produced during the eighties and nineties, and returned to even in recent works.  His work is similar to that of American artist Cindy Sherman, who also recreates art historical paintings through photography.  He was one of the first international artists to fully use digital photography in the 1980's and has developed a sophisticated craft combining this technology with painstaking makeup, backdrops, and costumes.   


Yasumasa Morimura realized that the twentieth century had come to end at the end of the 1970's.  How?  After watching Star Wars, he knew that the "era of images," "as they were," was gone.  From that point, images would be reconstructed.  His work was postmodern in that its images rearranged signifiers unique to original cultures.  The most striking way Morimura achieved this affect was by playing with the common signifiers of gender, and "the iconic metaphors of beauty."




Japanese and Western Art has a long history of influencing each other.  Morimura was taught western art history at his art school in Japan. Globalization occurred as a second wave of the Western invasion following World War II.  Japanese culture molded with the West as it idolized Western celebrities.  Morimura's work with leading female actresses of the post war period portrays this act of becoming another culture.  He interpreted a lot of what the Japanese inherited from the West, movie stars and hedonism of certain forms, to promote wrong values and consumerism.  There was a generation of hybrid children, charged with a new fashion and eroticism that provokes a lot of his style. 



Morimura has worked through his work to interpret Western myths about success and celebrity, perhaps through the art of perversion.  The result of a man of a different culture dressed as that culture's starlette produces a rupturing effect on the viewer.  The gaze between the viewer and Morimura's self-portrait, is what needs to be analyzed, just as Eduoard Manet originally shocked the French art world with his female subject's ambiguous gazes.  The work suggests issues ranging from global assimilation and cultural identity, to issues of authorship in art, to the status of sexuality of artwork produced largely by a male creator.


Some critics interpret the body of Morimura's work as a call towards de-westernization and reclaiming local, Asian identities.  Morimura, hiding in Western canvases, his face implanted in Van Gogh's sunflowers, can be seen as the emerging Asian presence in a succombing Western heirarchy.  Yet it is difficult to conceive of Morimura as being fully political, even in his portrayals of dictators.  He is out to mix cultures, not divide, and to heal ripples in the past, and inequities in cultural conglomeration into the future.




Political Series: Listen to me! A Requiem

 In his series, A Requiem, Morimura dresses up as dictators and influential figures of the twentieth century, including Chairman Mao, Valdimir Lenin, Adolf Hitler, and Albert Einstein, among others.  Morimura creates a historical lens for reconnecting with the past atrocities associated with each figure.  In his depiction of Hitler, Morimura is dressed in Hitler's tan military ensemble, but the swastikas are replaced with a Chinese symbol that means "Smile!," while looking slightly like a pig.   


Morimura imitates a Japanese dictator in a series, Listen to me!" delivering a speech about rising up against consumerism and dependence, based on Charlie Chaplin's movie The Great Dictator.  The speech is directed to artists in Japan.  Morimura speaks to artists, suggesting that they have the greatest responsibility, or the greatest power, in recrafting society around proper values. He might also be insinuating that Japanese artists' work is too connected to consumerism and not enough to purposeful meaning. Morimura, of course, has been considered a megalomaniac, with his focus on self-portraiture that allows for an internationally understood and promotable style that has brought tremendous fame.  Yet he continues to find a way to be a risk taker.


Unlike his actress series, his Requiem is less about classical aesthetics and more about the performance and the effect of revisiting history.  It raises the age-old questions of "who we are" and "where are we going, " in much the same way as Andy Warhol froze popular history.  Many of the dictator scenes are shot in abandoned slums of his hometown in Osaka, towns ravished and abandoned following the war.  This staging was the most person for the artist.  Morimura even used the local homeless as extras in his series, creating a chilling, lifelike sense of demagoguery, despite the obvious staging.  As a consequence, A Requiem was intended to have a cathartic effect.  In Japan, this can be related to the Shinto ceremony of jichinsai, conducted whenever a new building is to be erected.  Essentially, by staging an artistic and intellectual reconsideration of our the bad spirits in our history, Morimura intends to uncurse the land.  In Shinto, Morimura would be calling on Amateraso, the Sun Goddess, to extinguish through art Sosomao, the embodiment of storms and evil, the masculine force of the twentieth century politics.



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One review interprets Morimura's amplification of sexuality in the context of Western paintings.  In a review of the book Seeing Things Differently, Morimura is seen as escaping the "asexuality" of Zen asceticism through the medium of Western art and culture and its potential for hypersexuality, as it exploded in the post war period in Japan.  The book sees Morimura as an artist escaping the oppression of a dominant culture through an almost homosexual self-portrayal in the sphere of the other.  The problem with this interpretation is that Morimura is often satirizing the iconic Western hypersexuality, and his work can be understood to comment on its development through the depiction of the female subject throughout Western art history.  Morimura more ascends labels of queer or hypersexual by the performance he creates in front of and behind the lens.  He creates a postmodern self-identity that hovers between the boundaries of the texts that he is reinterpreting. 

Nonetheless, the response to Yasumasa Morimura's work is viceral, but also respected.  There is one story of Morimura shooting the scene from Casablanca, dressed up as Ingred Bergman, at a Japanese Naval Base.  It is told that the artist was treated with great respect and courtesy.   


Newsweek Magazine Interview

September, 2001- "Japan’s Man of Many Faces" p 5 (Annotated)

Q: Why Kahlo?

A: Her self-portraits showed range of emotion, a desire to be remembered

Q: Why do you like doing self-portraits?

A:  “I hate it” but hate is reason for doing...a transformed reality is more real than actual 57-year old self.

Q: “ You play women.  Do you wish you were one? Are you gay?...or just trying to confuse your audience?

A: Commotion provides beauty, like waves crashing.  Weird and hard to pin down beauty (is what I'm after)

Sounds like Post-Modern Wabi Sabi!


What about a Western Man Entering Japanese Art?


I painted my face white with acrylic paint and used simple editing techniques to blind myself into two dimensional, classical Japanese artwork.  The effect is rather chilling, but the work has less to say other than imitation.  Clearly Morimura's work is successful because of themes of globalization and a recurring awareness of the "other" and the "orient," infiltrating our Western heritage of beauty.



Yasumasa Morimura's work transcends the art world by becoming a form of communication for shifting values.  He frequently breaks taboos through his performance and challenges both his culture and himself to form new identities.  His recent political work shows a desire to reconcile and memorialize the twentieth century and come to terms with those forces that could lead to catastrophe in the next century.  By harnessing these waves of commotion and probing cultural divisions that defy definition, Morimura achieves uncommon expression and beauty.


Recent Works


Yasumasa Morimura continues his exploration of art historical appropriation in recent works at Luhring Augustine in New York City.  He has photographs that continue a political/cultural message, perhaps derived from his explorations into world leaders.


Art Critiques of Individual Works









Image Credits

http://dunedin.art.museum/exhibitions.asp?p=3&y=2005  samuri

http://blogs.princeton.edu  woman with long hair

http://membres.lycos.fr/morimura/  marilyn, cranach christ, mona lisa

http://www.ayton.id.au/gary/photos/Qld/Qld_Art_P3314193.jpg long composition

www.kasrl.org Noh masks

www.answers.com kahlo



 Weiermair, Peter and Gerald Matt. Japanese Photography: Desire and Void.  no copyright page

Yasumasa Morimura. Skira Photography



0.    Review: Seeing Things Differently

0.    Grant H. Kester

0.    Art Journal, Vol. 58, No. 4 (Winter, 1999), pp. 101-103


 New York times September 21, 2001 pE30

Roberta smith


Art in America, july 96 “glamour girls” p 62-65



 Art in America dece 2001 110-111 nancy princenthal


0.    Recent Exhibitions of Contemporary Art. London

0.    Tony Godfrey

0.    The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 134, No. 1068 (Mar., 1992), pp. 198-200

0.    10th Biennale. Sydney

0.    David Carrier

0.    The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 138, No. 1123 (Oct., 1996), pp. 714-715


From photographs and Warhol paintings to the dress she wore to serenade JFK, objects associated with Marilyn Monroe are in high demand

by David Kirby



0.    Beyond Boundaries: Rethinking Contemporary Art Exhibitions

0.    France Morin, Apinan Poshyananda, Mari Carmen Ramírez, Caroline Turner, Igor Zabel and Valerie Cassel

0.    Art Journal, Vol. 59, No. 1 (Spring, 2000), pp. 4-21


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