Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

Beyond Surrealism: Kitawaki Noboru and the Avant-Garde During Wartime Japan, 1931-1951

  • Author(s): Ritter, Gabriel Richard
  • Advisor(s): Nelson, Steven D
  • Winther-Tamaki, Bert
  • et al.

This dissertation traces the life and work of the artist Kitawaki Noboru (1901-1951), utilizing his story as a case study to explore issues related to surrealism in Japan, the pressures on avant-garde expression during wartime, and the general shift from authoritarianism toward a postwar artistic subjectivity and discovery of individual autonomy. While Kitawaki’s work is often dense and idiosyncratic, bringing together obscure references from science, philosophy, and Chinese divination, his search for meaning in the underlying order and structure of the natural world was part of a more universal pursuit of knowledge and a fundamental understanding of the world in which he lived. Like some of his contemporaries, Kitawaki saw surrealism through the lens of Japanese nativism, often locating foreign surrealist concepts and terms within an indigenous Japanese-specific context. This impulse was not simply a means to make sense of surrealism in Japan, but more specifically, a means of making sense of surrealism within the unique context of wartime Japan and its immediate aftermath.

Kitawaki was first and foremost a realist who believed that surrealism could provide the means and methods for unlocking hidden meaning in the world as it exists—not its imagined alternative. He viewed the world through the lenses of natural science, color theory, morphology, and physics—all of which have concrete, measurable results based in reality—but when trying to synthesize this worldview into an all-encompassing theory that could explain the meaning, order, and interconnectedness of such phenomena, he turned to irrational practices such as numerology and Chinese divination to fill in the gaps. Kitawaki’s surrealism, or transcendence of reality, then, is most compelling when the artist attempts to articulate the structure and order of a world that is so inherently complex and multi-faceted so as to render such attempts fundamentally impossible. It is this intellectual paradox, and its surrealistic pursuit that defines Kitawaki and his work.

This study attempts to articulate Kitawaki’s unique position within the history of Japanese art, providing needed context to the life and work of an artist who was synonymous with surrealism in Japan, but ultimately transcended this categorization.

Main Content
Current View