John Solt on Kitasono Katue: The Limber Acrobatics Of Self-Disappearance


The Limber Acrobatics of Self-Disappearance

LACMA’s Exhibit “Kitasono Katue: Surrealist Poet”
August 3-December 1, 2013
Kitasono Katue LACMA Exhibition

Kitasono Katue (1902-78) has something to teach those who don’t want to learn; his anarchist pin pulls a dynamic thread through his oeuvre. In a Dada poem from 1925, Katue ended:

          ’ah it’s summer’
          then I tore to shreds my silver-paper necktie

In the mid-1920s he was frequently spotted strolling through Ginza (“Gin-bura”), which was fashionable for the in-crowd, but only on Fridays. Katue wore a cape with a monocle and had a unisex hairdo with bangs that was popular at the time. He passed through Surrealism and other -isms, constantly trying to forge a new poetry. For him, one’s “poesie” was the basis for all the arts. Not only words on the page, “poesie” implied a bohemian lifestyle, and Katue was one of the most flamboyant of his generation at the new game.

Along the way, Katue reinvented the lyrical poem, creating romantically-charged, surreal landscapes throughout the 1930s. Then he went for a harder edge—“angular verse” (derived from T. E. Hulme via Ezra Pound)—in which the confessional “I” is downplayed in favor of linguistic play with abstract imagery. Katue kept reinventing himself before, during, and after the war, pushing a given experiment to its logical conclusion and moving on. These included mixing traditional language with modernist imagery, even dabbling in writing a modernesque haiku, but mostly he was searching for new avenues of free-verse expression.

In one such experiment, Katue mixed brittle, scientific vocabulary within surreal contexts. Eventually he went a step further and turned the syntax itself into an unabashed circus of signifiers (he had once named a short-run magazine “JaNGLE” [pronounced “jungle”]). Another key element for Katue was his endless variations on the “line lengths” in his poems, and a crucial aspect was how it was laid out graphically on the page, together with the book’s shape and design to create a total “object.” Katue tried to eliminate traces of an easily discernible style in his evolving, dead-serious play with words, but his honing of the linguistic apparatus—which took a multiplicity of forms and was grounded in a conspicuous “anti-style”—paradoxically became what people identified as his style.

Whereas other poets tried to create a signature “voice,” Katue’s choice was always to leap forward, rejecting his last experiment as if it were a passé marker along a spent highway. His individual poetic explorations veered into multimedia and inter-media, photography, textual snippets, concrete and visual poetry as well as short 8 mm films. Katue’s journeying into unchartered territory with each successive book gave the trajectory of his two-dozen poetry books a thrill to readers that was unprecedented, a new type of poetry always delivered in new packaging. Katue’s body of work allows him to stand shoulder to shoulder with canonized, 20th century cosmopolitan poets who also explored their individual strategies on how to “make it new.”

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Viewing Kitasono Katue’s artwork allows us to enter the debate of whether to see the time divide between pre-World War II and the postwar arts as an absolute break or not. Is focusing on the war divide a viable approach to understanding an artist such as Katue? Can his career be meaningfully split into prewar and postwar productions, or should his lifetime work be considered as a more fluid whole, despite the bumpy wartime years when coercive Thought Police roamed the archipelago to cleanse the body politic of such figures as Katue, whom they summoned and interrogated in 1940?

For its part, the US art scene—whether consciously or not—has been heavily invested in privileging the postwar flowering of the arts in Japan as a self-congratulatory way to reinforce positive aspects of the US’s democratization efforts during the Occupation (1945-52), in order to mask and soften the imposed psychic brutality of censorship and the channeling of mind-control. To see an artist’s pre-and-postwar work as continuity dislodges the US narrative of absolute change, and there has been a concentration in both countries on fetishizing the generation of artists who came up after the conflict, as if the US somehow can justify from behind the scenes that the Japanese cultural fireworks was enabled by their necessary Occupation. Paying attention to the prewar Japanese artists—who were in any case influenced by European, especially French, avant-garde models—muddles the US narrative, so the prewar artists’ works are usually dismissed as irrelevant. Unresolved issues such as these linger over a half-century later as we glance at Katue’s artwork displayed tastefully.

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