Japan’s master of realism gets first overseas exhibition

An exhibition guide speaks before a work by Japanese photographer Domon Ken (1909-1990) during a press preview of the exhibition of his work at Rome's Ara Pacis Museum, May 25, 2016.AFP/FILIPPO MONTEFORTE

ROME: The works of Ken Domon, an acclaimed photographer whose images of the aftermath of the Hiroshima bomb shocked 1950s Japan, are nowadays having their first exhibition outside his home country. Domon, who died in 1990, is venerated in Japan as one of the country’s greatest photographers and a pioneer of realism, but relatively unknown internationally.

Organizers of the show on display at the Italian capital’s Ara Pacis museum hope to change that.

“Ken Domon Master of Japanese Realism” features some 150 of his works dating from the 1920s to the 1970s and encompasses the full range of his enormous output, from propaganda-style shots of military cadets and nurses destined for the frontline in the 1930s through his documenting of Japan’s post-war social and political struggles.

There are also examples of his meticulous depictions of the country’s temples and Buddhist statues and portraits of artistic figures of the 1960s and 1970s.

“He loved ‘his’ Japan, all of its art and its people,” said Takeshi Fujimori, a former student of Domon’s who was in Rome for the opening. “He wanted to show this Japan to the world through a Japanese eye.”

Fujimori jointly curated the Rome exhibition with Rossella Menegazza, an Italian East Asian art history expert.

Now the artistic director of the Ken Domon Museum of Photography in Sakata in northern Japan, Fujimori recalls Domon as having a gruff, uncompromising side that made him a hard taskmaster.

“That is why they called him the devil of photography. He never used words to teach, you had to learn by observing him,” he said. “We were always afraid of making a mistake, knowing it could lead to a wallop on the back or a clout round the head.”

Children feature in many of the most striking images on display, from the small boy peeing in the street from a 1952-54 series to the laughing toddler who features alongside his equally joyous but disfigured father in “the Otani family” from his Hiroshima collection.

A small selection of the 7,800 images Domon took in and around Hiroshima in the Fall of 1957 form the heart of the collection in Rome and have been symbolically placed in a low-lit room in the centre of the riverside museum.

Twelve years after the first military use of the atomic bomb, the scars were still evident on the city’s infrastructure and in the disfigured and reconstructed limbs and faces that Domon was to be severely criticised for recording, often weeping as he did so.

“People said it was too shocking. He was attacked for capturing the reality of the survivors’ situation,” Menegazza said. “But for him it was a moment of change in his life. He recorded in his notebook the exact time at which he arrived in Hiroshima for the first time. For him it was one from which there was no turning back.

“He realized that up until that moment he had chosen to ignore or had been afraid of what Hiroshima meant. That pushed him deeper into realism.”

“Ken Domon Master of Japanese Realism” is up at Rome’s Ara Pacis museum through Sept. 18. For more, see

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 03, 2016, on page 16.




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