Masahisa Fukase: the Incurable Egoist

Palais de l’Archevêché, Arles; 03/07/17 to 24/09/17

The first Fukase retrospective in Europe, presented in four parts – one head and shoulders above the rest.

Ravens is captivating example of a single subject photographed multiple times in different ways – obsessively it seems, following his divorce. This series comes across as more autobiographical than the actual self-portraits, which are generally surface-level visual pranks.

There is a section of previously unseen work, small b/w prints, usually of an isolated single raven, with colour drawing on top, usually examining the shape the bird has made. They may have been research material for the published work, or maybe a private obsession while he was working through his feelings about the marriage breakdown.

 

Most are in b/w but a few of the later ones are in colour – very bold, deep colours and some double exposures, one including a self-portrait. Perhaps this was him acknowledging the autobiographical nature of the work and moving on towards a brighter future.

The Play section, mostly with his cat as subject, is a little lightweight and the fact that he got three books out of cat photographs seems like potentially a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes, or maybe he was trolling his audience, seeing what he could get away with.

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The Family section is in two halves for me. The work tracing his father’s demise comes across as overly sentimental and lays on the death metaphors a little thickly. The series of family portraits where one or more of the sitters is nude is a little self-consciously ‘arty’ but I admire his explanation, that he simply didn’t want to produce a boring old family portrait and just wanted a way to make it different.

The final section Private Scenes is a little like Play for me, a series of one-off projects where he was experimenting with photography almost to amuse himself, it seems. I did like his dogged persistence to work deep into an idea, however slight it might be: he gets a project out of self-portraits in the bath, for example. Some of it came across as self-conscious art world silliness, such as selfies touching tongues with other artists.

In a strange way, the artist he most reminded me of is Damian Hirst; a prankster as much as an artist, but not without a serious side on occasion. And the serious work is the most impressive.

The exhibition title The Incurable Egoist is appropriate, and not necessarily as derogatory as it seems. Almost all of his work is centred around himself as subject, either literally as self-portraits or depicting a psychological state of mind, as shown by the evolution of the Ravens series. Even his Family portraits had to have the special Fukase twist (the nudity) which meant that whoever else were the nominal subjects of these pictures, in the end they are more about him than anyone. Perhaps its only really in the cat projects where he turned the camera away from himself.

Main takeaway

You can go deep into even the simplest of themes and explore all its potential; don’t feel you need to settle for your first idea, work around all the angles for as long as you are interested in the subject (even/especially if that subject is yourself…).