Dreaming of Balthus

Japanese photographer Hisaji Hara is out to bring ‘timelessness’ to his work

Hisaji Hara

Symphony of Time and Light by Hisaji Hara shows at the Three Shadows until June 15.

At three in the morning, Hisaji Hara awakes to a darkened room, the sound of the forest and the pale light of a white moon filtering through his window. The photographer’s countryside home lies just outside Tokyo, bordering an 800-year-old bamboo forest. After his first coffee, he sets about his day. ‘I often work obsessively for six to seven hours,’ he says, adding that he sustains himself on sweets and caffeine for ‘best efficiency’.

When we speak, though, it is at a more reasonable hour and Hara is sitting peacefully at home, his cat nestled beside him. In slightly broken but careful English, he describes the ‘damp air and silver sky’ encircling his house. But life wasn’t always so serene. Until 2005, the photographer mostly spent his time in the US, shooting stills and practising art on the side. It was after his visa expired that he returned to Japan and conceived the project that would dominate the next six years of his life – and launch him on to the international art scene. This month, it arrives in Beijing as part of the Caochangdi PhotoSpring festival, with +3 Gallery playing host to Hara’s work until mid-June.

It’s a story he has clearly told a thousand times before. ‘One quiet autumn night in 2005, a very vivid image of one of Balthus’s paintings suddenly came into my mind,’ he recalls. ‘It was “Thérèse Dreaming”. I tried to search for an image of the painting on the internet and found only a very small version. Despite being only a blurred 5cm square, it radiated an intense light of authenticity.’ Hara scrupulously planned 25 black-and-white photographs, based on canvases by the early 20th-century French painter Balthus (Count Balthasar Klossowski de Rola), few of which he has seen in the flesh.

‘Thérèse Dreaming’ depicts an adolescent girl, face turned away, eyes closed and skin bathed in sunlight. Her parted legs reveal white underwear as she dozes unconcerned, basking in the sun’s warmth. But it was not the sexual elements in the count’s work that enraptured Hara. Rather, it was the lines of composition and use of light; the carefully rendered angles of bent knees and elbows that form a complex image; the sense of aerial perspective achieved within that cramped space that caught his eye.

‘Light and shadow are everything to me,’ says Hara. Using the same models for every shot, he took over a 1920s art nouveau-style medical clinic. The building, in a state of preserve since the ’60s, even had old medicine bottles still on the shelves. ‘It has its own spatial quality,’ he explains. ‘When I shot the interior, I wanted to transfer that quality into light and shadow to achieve a density of image.’ Using dry-ice machines found at concerts, Hara has discovered his desired stillness.

The dispersed light seems to softly envelop his models, giving them an almost comatose air, yet the figures and the objects are still sharply defined. There is no attempt to disguise that they are posed; they are calm but frozen, acting their parts.

As we get down to discussing the light in Balthus’s paintings, I pause to ask what Hara means by ‘authenticity’. It is a word that he frequently uses to describe his goals as well as the work and artists that he most admires, such as the filmmaker Tarkovsky and the painters Poussin (1594-1665) and Giotto (1266-1337).

‘Authentic’ artwork should achieve a sense of timelessness. ‘It makes you feel that you’ll never have to compare a painting to any other in art history,’ he says. But Hara’s quest for timelessness goes beyond a still visual style. He is keen to show that photography need not be limited by its modernity. By taking multiple exposures, Hara has proved to be a man of patience and has avoided the lens’s usual sense of perspective.

The technique enables Hara to focus on different subjects in each take, squeezing more detail into the end shot – just as if he were composing a painting. ‘Because I was shifting the focus as I took the multiple exposures, the optical perspective was impaired and I got a really attractive sense of space, which I see in Balthus’s paintings,’ he adds.

In what seems a quirk of fate, history reminds us that Balthus’s surviving widow, Setsuko, is from Japan; the painter was as inspired by the island’s ancient landscape painting as he was by Western art. In turn, throughout Hara’s interpretations, the photographer features Japanese models, school uniforms and period architecture, all composed within a hazy, unidentified time. It feels as if Balthus has gone full circle. By using the medium Japan is perhaps most famous for – photography – Hara has managed to imbue his images with a timelessness of their own.