In February the Michael Hoppen Gallery unveiled the first European solo show of works by Hisaji Hara. The show demonstrated Hara’s studious approach and meticulous technique in a display of beautiful, if disquieting, works.
Hara painstakingly recreates works by the painter Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, commonly known as Balthus. Born in 1908, Balthus painted controversial and disturbing works, in a figurative, classically influenced style. Preoccupied with themes of childhood and innocence, his scenes are marked by a troubling sexuality, particularly in portraying young girls.
Though Hara avoids Balthus’ more explicitly controversial works, his photographs are unsettling. Hara captures the awkward transition from childhood to adulthood. His teenage subjects are seen dressed in school and cadet uniforms; adolescent in body but childish in dress. In one a boy and girl pose together; the girl uses a magnifying glass to examine a book, the boy leans on a table behind her. It is a study of Balthus’ Because Cathy Taught Him What She Learnt, in which the playful world of childhood learning is darkly contrasted with concepts of maturity, knowledge and loss of innocence.
There is something of August Sander in the photographs too. At times Hara employs a portrait style reminiscent of Sander’s series People of the Twentieth Century. In this, Sander titled his subjects after their vocation or position in life: The Farmer, The Bohemian, The Actor. Uniforms and costumes neatly match the titles; The Boxers seen in their shorts and gloves for instance. The archetypal uniforms in Hara’s work likens it to Sander’s. It would be unsurprising to see Hara’s subjects labelled The Schoolgirls or The Students.
Technically Hara is masterful, carefully reconstructing the warped perspective of Balthus’ paintings. Using multiple exposures and focuses, he creates unusual depths of field by partially blocking the lens. Staging his scenes in an abandoned medical clinic, he leaves little to chance. Smoke machines help skew the perspective, and costumes are built with a deliberate angularity, exacerbating the strangeness of the figures.
The exhibition was small, filling just one room, and it would have been good to see more of Hara’s work. Yet this is a minor criticism, and the Gallery should be congratulated for bringing Hara’s work to a bigger audience. Hara’s works are poignant, beguiling and thought-provoking. Minutely detailed and laboriously created, they delicately draw the uncertain lines between childhood and maturity, innocence and knowing.