Sensual Surrealism in the Works of the Japanese “Man Ray” Kansuke Yamamoto
11 min

Sensual Surrealism in the Works of the Japanese "Man Ray" Kansuke Yamamoto

11 min

Kansuke Yamamoto (not to be confused with Masao Yamamoto) was a Japanese poet, photographer, and collagist whose career was developing at the time of absolute domination of surrealism both in Western and Eastern art. Although Yamamoto was not personally acquainted with Man Ray or any other French surrealists, his images are often close to those of his European “colleagues.”

Kansuke Yamamoto portrait

Fig. 1. Kansuke Yamamoto (

Early Years

Kansuke Yamamoto (1914-1987) was born in a family of the photographer Goro Yamamoto who had a photo studio, sold cameras, and was a founder of Aiyu Photography Club. Young Yamamoto learned about surrealism through the poetry magazine Ciné published by the promoter of surrealism in Japan, Yamanaka Chiruu who also was an editor of the collection of Japanese and French surrealistic poems Chogenjitsu Shugi no Koryu: L`Echange Surréaliste, 1936 (fig. 5). Despite the activities of his father, Yamamoto was primarily a poet, not a photographer. He started to write poems at the age of 15 when he graduated from the Nagoya Second Commercial School. The artist continued his studies at the Meiji University School of Arts and letters in Tokyo, where he majored in French literature. Yamamoto left the university two years later and went to his birthplace Nagoya. There he started photographing.

Kansuke Yamamoto

Fig. 2. The Developing Thought of a Human… Mist and Bedroom, 1932,  collage (

Kansuke Yamamoto The silver platter and the pigeon in the cage,

Fig. 3. The silver platter and the pigeon in the cage, / We suddenly have spring rain like typefaces today. / Cioran, / I may talk to you again someday, 1979 (

Kansuke Yamamoto Suddenly in the Morning

Fig. 4. Suddenly in the Morning, 1968 (

Kansuke Yamamoto Chogenjitsu Shugi no Koryu

Fig. 5. Chogenjitsu Shugi no Koryu: L`Echange Surréaliste, 1936 (

Yamamoto as a Surrealist

When we speak of surrealistic influence in Japan, we must mention the exhibition of surrealist works in Nagoya in 1937. That time Yamamoto saw the paintings and photographs of Man Ray, László Moholy-Nagy, Albert Renger-Petzsch, and others, who influenced his works a lot. A year later, Yamamoto began publishing the surrealist poetry magazine Yoru no Funsui (The Nights’ Fountain). Next year, the magazine was banned by authorities due to the Peace Preservation Law. This misfortune didn’t affect his enthusiasm as, in 1939, he created a group of surrealist photographers called Nagoya Photo Avant-Garde. The members of the group were Tajima Tsugio, Minoru Sakata, Shimozato Yoshio, and also Yamanaka Chiruu, whose magazine introduced surrealism to Yamamoto in his youth. Afterward, Yamamoto founded lots of other photographic societies. In later years, he was an adviser of Chubu Photography Federation of Students and taught photography.

Kansuke Yamamoto Buddhist Temple's Birdcage

Fig. 6. “Buddhist Temple’s Birdcage” 1940. Photo Avant-Garde, NAGOYA exhibition, 1989, Nagoya City Art Museum (

Kansuke Yamamoto Beautiful Passerby

Fig. 7. Beautiful Passerby, 1958 (

Kansuke Yamamoto Rose and Shovel,

Fig. 8. Rose and Shovel, 1956 (

Kansuke Yamamoto untitled

Fig. 9. Untitled, 1950 (

Kansuke Yamamoto photohraphy

Fig. 10.

Kansuke Yamamoto nude

Fig. 11. Untitled, 1956 (

Prolific and Prominent

The earliest work of Yamamoto entitled The Developing Thought of a Human… Mist and Bedroom was created in 1932. His works appeared in the Dokuritsu (Independent) journal and major Japanese magazines like Photo Times and Camera Art. His first personal exhibition was held in Nagoya in 1936. According to Wiki, the last exposition, which included Yamamoto’s works, happened in 2019 in Zurich. The total number of shows approximately amounts to fifty. In his pictures, Yamamoto speaks with us on themes of religion, eroticism, war, and genocide (Hiroshima (1950), Reminiscence (1953), Premonition of Genocide (1940), etc). As Amanda Maddox notices: “Yamamoto’s talent was in establishing a deeper Surrealist vocabulary through the incorporation of known Surrealist imagery and themes, and expanding it by situating his work in the context of modern Japan” ( Japan is commonly known for being restrained and resistant in terms of cultural communication with the Western world. The example of Kansuke Yamamoto proves that East and West, on the contrary, are mutually interested in each other.

Kansuke Yamamoto photography

Fig. 12. Work, 1955 (

Kansuke Yamamoto A Peculiar Grounding

Fig. 13. A Peculiar Grounding, 1956 (

Kansuke Yamamoto Scenery with Ocean

Fig. 14. Scenery with Ocean (two versions), 1940, 1949 ( &

Kansuke Yamamoto art

Fig. 15. Untitled (

Kansuke Yamamoto artist

Fig. 16. Kansuke Yamamoto 1955 © Toshio Yamamoto (

Kansuke Yamamoto nude art

Fig. 17. Untitled (

Kansuke Yamamoto nude photography

Fig. 18. Untitled, 1952 (

Kansuke Yamamoto A Historical Gaze

Fig. 19. A Historical Gaze, 1956 (

A Historical Gaze Kansuke Yamamoto

Fig. 20. A Historical Gaze (

Kansuke Yamamoto Curtain Box

Fig. 21. Curtain Box, 1956 (

Kansuke Yamamoto A Forgotten Person

Fig. 22. A Forgotten Person, 1958 (

Kansuke Yamamoto Hiroshima

Fig. 23. Hiroshima, 1950 (

Kansuke Yamamoto Reminiscence

Fig. 24. Reminiscence, 1953 (

Kansuke Yamamoto Premonition of Genocide

Fig. 25. Premonition of Genocide, 1940 (

Kansuke Yamamoto nude in cage

Fig. 26. Work, 1955. Kansuke Yamamoto, ©Toshio Yamamoto (

Kansuke Yamamoto faceless nude

Fig. 27. Untitled, 1955. Kansuke Yamamoto, ©Toshio Yamamoto (

Kansuke Yamamoto yoshio

Fig. 28. Kansuke Yamamoto, 1955.©Toshio Yamamoto (

toshio yamamoto

Fig. 29. Kansuke Yamamoto, 1955.©Toshio Yamamoto (

Kansuke Yamamoto Heart in Motion

Fig. 30. Heart in Motion – Shadow of Happiness, 1950 (

Recognizable Motifs

Let’s look at several correspondences between Yamamoto’s photography and the works of French surrealists. The picture Giving Birth to a Joke (1956) seems to be the most obvious one as it inevitably reminds of Man Ray’s Lips (1966) and Kiki de Montparnasse (1930). The shadow patterns on the female body also evoke a memory of Man Ray’s works, however, this motif is common for many photographers, e. g. Lucien Clergue. Another work by Yamamoto called Stapled Flesh (1949) looks like contamination of two famous oeuvres by Man Ray: Ingre’s Violin (1924) and Cadeau (1921). The well-known iron probably was a source of inspiration for Yamamoto’s Untitled (1930). The works of Japanese artist have their roots not only in Western photographs but also in surrealist paintings, for example his work Untitled (1950) looks similar to Magritt’s Violence (1934).

Kansuke Yamamoto Giving Birth to a Joke

Fig. 31. Giving Birth to a Joke, 1956 (

Man Ray, Lips, 1966. Right: Kiki de Montparnasse,

Fig. 32. Left: Man Ray, Lips, 1966. Right: Kiki de Montparnasse, 1930 (,

Kansuke Yamamoto Man Rau

Fig. 33. Left: Untitled, Kansuke Yamamoto ( Right: Le Retour à la raison
1923 Man Ray (

Kansuke Yamamoto Stapled Flesh

Fig. 34. Stapled Flesh, 1949 (

Ingre’s Violin Man Ray

Fig. 35. Left: Ingre’s Violin, 1924 ( Right: Cadeau, 1921 (

Kansuke Yamamoto Anxious Corridors

Fig. 36. Untitled, 1930, series Anxious Corridors (

Magritte, Violence

Fig. 37. Left: Kansuke Yamamoto, Untitled, 1950 ( Right: Magritte, Violence, 1934 (

The Andalusian Dog

One more correspondence is curious enough to be brought to the light, however, it’s rather my own association. Yamamoto’s montage The Distance Between the Landscape and the Dusk (1956) with the eye that is almost “slit” by a sea-line somehow reminds of the most famous scene from Un Chien Andalou (1929). Nevertheless, the metaphors differ: in the first case, the artist’s eye represents the sun, and the whole composition symbolizes the distance between the observable object and the observing subject. In the second case, the eye of the woman is compared to the moon, which seems to be a free Freudian-like association.

Kansuke Yamamoto The Distance Between the Landscape and the Dusk

Fig. 38. The Distance Between the Landscape and the Dusk, 1956 (

Scenes from The Andalusian Dog

Fig. 39. Scenes from The Andalusian Dog (


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