Jesse’s book review, 1920’s Expressionism by Kitai Kazuo
We have been away for a couple of weeks but now Jesse is back on the program. And he brings us a really understated book review this time, from another Japanese master. Check it out.
All artists go through periods of evolution, some for the better others for worse. Either way, this progression often is met with scorn from a public that demands from an artist more of what they have already had. For Kitai Kazuo this book remains his most enigmatic period and of course was rejected by people who wanted to see work more in line with Mura e and Sanrizuka that had come out prior. He would return to form with his documentary style photos in what I previously reviewed in 1970 Nendai Nippon, that although shot before wouldn’t be released till after. However, it is here that he chose to go to Germany and document the remains of German Expressionist architecture.
In brief, expressionism was a creative movement after WWI that peaked (esp.in Berlin) during the 1920s mostly associated with architecture, painting, and cinema. For the most part the movement was confined only to Germany following their loss in the war and subsequent isolation from the rest of Europe. Due to post-war anti- German sentiment, most would fail to appreciate it. The onset of Nazism would soon kill the movement as most expressionists were either killed, exiled/fled, or became Nazis themselves while the work would come to be seen as degenerate by the Nazis. In specific to architecture, expressionism sought to create buildings that could be considered as a work of art. They were made entirely with the idea of a building as an outward expression of the inner. Forms were distorted for an emotional effect that resulted in fantasy like structures that represented a utopia in contrast to the dreary post war reality. The movement is often confused with the another German architectural movement at the same time in what the Bauhaus was doing that stripped away all ornamentation in favor of a more rational idea of form following function that would also be viewed as degenerate by the Nazis.
So why is that a Japanese photographer 60 years later would cast this as the subject of his art? Kitai himself states that even though the style has been long dead, it still held a vitality of its own that he felt compelled to capture. Can’t argue with his own reasons, so instead I will argue its significance in his development. Looking at the above mentioned books and the previously reviewed 1970 Nendai Nippon works compared to 1990 Nendai Beijing this work signifies change. Metaphoring expressionistic architecture, after this project his work was just like before in terms of its structuring it just became much more artistic and personal. Directly comparing 1970 Nendai Nippon to 1990 Nendai Beijing, the earlier was straight forward documentary photography while the latter was much more artistic in its documentation.
Which brings us to the book itself…with just under 40 photos; they were all taken on a single four month trip to Germany in 1980. They are all black and white, and feature both exterior and interior shots of expressionistic architecture. While the majority of the photos do require a taste for architecture, there are enough more photographic photos to keep you turning the pages. The exterior shots are well done, utilizing light reflections off windows or water in front that give a feeling to the structures. They are usually shot at distance to allow elements of the environment into the shot, i.e. trees in the foreground or paths that lead the eye to the structures that all give the shots depth. These more traditional architectural shots are then paired with closer exterior shots that give us the details focusing on the texture and lines of the structures. Transitioning into the interior shots we begin to see people in the photos either in or around the buildings making up what I think most photographers would like in this book. They all have a focus on composition that at the same time compliment the architecture. People are photographed more often than not in motion making them appear ghostly that is symbolic of the forgotten structures themselves.
The thing about Kitai’s photography is the overall quietness of his work. Even in his more famous Nippon Nendai 1970 there really aren’t any one-liners or stand alone amazing shots. It’s the overall effect that one takes away from a Kitai book or work as a theme thoroughly explored and realized. With this expressionism set, there aren’t any photographs that will blow you away, but by the end of it you will understand the aesthetics of this movement through his camera. This book can be easily obtained from Amazon for around 30 USD.
Jesse Freeman is a friend, photographer and movie buff. He has a great knowledge of photography books and classic cinema. He can also be relied upon for decent music recommendations.
You can more of his work and passions at the following places:
Thank to Jesse for another well composed and thoughtful book review. I really enjoy these as they give me a taste for books that I would otherwise skip past.