Gražina Subelytė: Okamoto Tarō and Kurt Seligmann: The Magical Myth of Tomorrow


  • 1.30pm

  • Online

Chair: Prof Patricia Allmer

Gražina Subelytė is a curator at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, where she is currently organizing a large-scale exhibition “Surrealism and Magic: Enchanted Modernity,” opening in April 2022 in Venice. Her PhD dissertation (Courtauld Institute of Art, London) centers on the magical undercurrents of Kurt Seligmann’s work. She has recently written a preface to a new edition of Seligmann’s book “The Mirror of Magic. A History of Magic in the Western World” and she has collaborated with the Taro Okamoto Museum of Art in Japan on several occasions, including its recent exhibition on Seligmann and Okamoto.

The Swiss-American Surrealist artist and scholar Kurt Seligmann (1900-1962) and the Japanese artist and writer Okamoto Tarō (1911-1996) met when they lived in Paris in the 1930s and associated with the Abstraction-Création and the Surrealist groups. They struck a close personal friendship, influencing and helping each other. Seligmann soon decided that his art would be an integration of abstraction and Surrealism, a synthesis of styles that he called Neo-Concretism, and that was advocated by Okamoto as well. Neo-Concretism was probably key for Okamoto in developing his own theory of Polarism (taikyokushugi) in the later years. Then, because of the Second World War, they left Paris: Seligmann departed permanently for the United States in 1939, while Okamoto returned to Japan in 1940. Afterwards, they exchanged numerous letters and Okamoto often asked Seligmann to collaborate on activities in Japan. The physical and spiritual destruction that the War and nuclear threat brought about formed a common ground in their experience, informing their art and thought. While Seligmann’s and Okamoto’s lives seem to take on distinct trajectories, startling parallels and interconnections can be found and deserve further examination than previously afforded. These include their embrace of personal mythologies and magic to counteract the unsettling experience, as they sought for new ways to reshape society in poetic and spiritual terms. Both artists embraced a viewpoint that myth, alongside magic, was a universal transformative force that fueled imagination and helped to reinvigorate humanity that had lost its hope. Seligmann and Okamoto sought to create a new, positive myth of the future. For them, the rebirth of the human spirit represented the ultimate goal, but, as opposed to Seligmann, Okamoto elevated agonism and struggle as positive forces in bringing about this change. I will discuss their friendship and trace the similarities and differences in their approaches in my talk.