Photo Essays

Graphic Designer Awazu Kiyoshi’s Fantastical World

Awazu rebuked modernist design ideals in his graphic art and instead engaged with indigenous culture, popular symbols, and untidy visuals.

Awazu Kiyoshi, poster for The 5th Exhibition of Contemporary Japanese Sculpture (1973), offset lithograph, 40 1/2 x 28 3/4 in., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Marc Treib Collection (© Awazu Kiyoshi Estate, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA. All images courtesy of LACMA)

Japanese graphic designer Awazu Kiyoshi (1929–2009) developed a style that eschewed simplicity and clean line and instead drew viewers into psychedelic visual cornucopias. Born in Tokyo and self-taught, Awazu began his career creating film posters. He became known for working with a variety of themes and within different disciplines. He designed posters for film and theater, collaborated with architects and urban designers, and addressed social issues in his work. His style has elements that recall pop or psychedelic art, yet his use of color and iconography reveals a unique aesthetic.

In his essay “Tracing the Graphic in Postwar Japanese Art”  for the catalogue accompanying MoMA’s 2012–13 exhibition Tokyo 1955–1970: A New Avant-Garde Michio Hayashi writes of Awazu’s attitude towards his work: “… ‘instructions’ (shiji) were beginning to pervade urban space by means of modern design […] the city was regulating people’s behavior and manners down to the smallest detail […] Awazu sought to create ‘gaps/fissures/openings’ (sukima) in the increasingly regulated and flattened urban plain.” Hayashi explains that Awazu’s approach rebuked modernist design ideals and instead engaged with indigenous culture, popular symbols, and untidy visuals.

In a 1973 poster for an exhibition, The 5th Exhibition of Contemporary Japanese Sculpture, Awazu inflects the natural world and sculptural object with surrealism. A figure’s head is replaced by a wooden beam. A swan swims in a blue color field that is either water or sky, depending on one’s vantage point. A turtle swims past a pyramid, and tiny human figures cross a bridge upon which the headless giant stands. The poster evokes sculpture in the artist’s use of scale, as well as his pairing of unexpected elements and exploration of the boundaries between the inanimate and the animate. The result is an artwork that provides an immersive viewing experience, rather than information alone.

Awazu’s works are complex, and for an audience not familiar with Japanese culture a full understanding may require some research into their motifs and symbols. What is immediately clear is the joy of peeling away visual layers and falling deeper and deeper into a fantastical world. Delight, engagement, and emotional response are the functions of his artworks. Their forms follow.

Awazu Kiyoshi, “Seishū Hanaoka’s Wife” (1970), offset lithograph, 40 3/8 x 28 3/4 in., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Marc Treib Collection (© Awazu Kiyoshi Estate, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA)
Awazu Kiyoshi, “Flower Hall” (1970), offset lithograph, 40 5/8 x 28 7/8 in., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Marc Treib Collection (© Awazu Kiyoshi Estate, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA)
Awazu Kiyoshi, “The Friends” (1969), offset lithograph, 28 1/2 x 20 1/4 in., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Marc Treib Collection (© Awazu Kiyoshi Estate, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA)
Awazu Kiyoshi, “Surging Waves” (1971), offset lithograph, 28 3/4 x 20 1/4 in., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Marc Treib Collection (© Awazu Kiyoshi Estate, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA)
Awazu Kiyoshi, “Women: People of the Kumehachi Troupe” (1977), offset lithograph, 28 5/8 x 20 1/2 in., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Marc Treib Collection (© Awazu Kiyoshi Estate, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA)
Awazu Kiyoshi, “Mussorgsky = Ravel: Pictures At An Exhibition/Ravel: La Valse/ Zubin Mehta/ New York Philharmonic” (1979), Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Marc Treib Collection (photo © Museum Associates/LACMA)
Awazu Kiyoshi, “Crowded Ground: Apart from Life” (1970), offset lithograph, 40 3/8 x 28 3/4 in., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Marc Treib Collection (© Awazu Kiyoshi Estate, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA)
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