Ozu Yasujirô, Tokyo Story, 1953, 35 mm, black and white, sound, 136 minutes. Hirayama Noriko (Hara Setsuko).

ONE OF JAPAN’S BEST-LOVED FILMED ACTRESSES since her teenage years, Hara Setsuko left the film industry in 1963 at the age of forty-three—a few months after the death of Ozu Yasujiro, for whom she’d acted memorably in six features. She withdrew completely from public life, living outside Tokyo in Kamakura, refusing to be photographed and declining requests for interviews. This Garbo-like retreat inevitably fostered a powerful mystique, which endured until her death last September, itself kept secret by her relatives for two months after her funeral. The Togeki Theater in Tokyo’s Higashi-Ginza district happened to be presenting newly restored Ozu films in the week her passing became known, and a large, uncaptioned photo of her was posted front-of-house. The sixty-two-year-old image (from Ozu’s Tokyo Story, 1953) alone was enough to trigger grief and nostalgia.

Much Japanese cinema of the 1930s was lost in the Allied fire-bombing of Tokyo, but one of Hara’s earliest featured performances miraculously survives. She plays the market stall-holder Onami in Yamanaka Sadao’s excellent Kochiyama Soshun (1936), a young woman worried about the increasing delinquency of her brother. It’s clear that she was cast not only for her sweet-sixteen-ness (she seems credibly older), but also because she responded to Yamanaka’s demand for a naturalistic acting style, quite removed from the kabuki conventions that dominated period dramas of the time. A year later she was cast in a then-prestigious Japanese-German co-production as a young woman pushed away by her fiancé on his return from Nazi Germany, and she went on to appear in several wartime propaganda films, all designed to bolster the military government’s call for self-sacrifice and loyalty to the codes of bushido, “the way of the warrior.”

Her reluctance to give interviews even during her heyday leaves us unsure how Hara felt about the roles she was asked to play, but her radiance in postwar Ozu and Naruse pictures—almost always playing unmarried daughters, widows, or unhappy wives, internalizing unspoken emotional pain and disappointment—suggests a high degree of consonance between her off-screen life and feelings and her frequent on-screen roles. Like Ozu, Hara herself never married. She chose to live alone after her early retirement; her countless Japanese fans dubbed her “the eternal virgin,” partly because she had no reported romantic attachments, partly because she made such a mark as Noriko, the daughter who chooses to look after her widower father rather than get married and move out in Ozu’s Late Spring (1949).

Ozu Yasujirô , Late Spring, 1949, 35 mm, black and white, sound, 108 minutes. Somiya Noriko (Hara Setsuko). 

She was born Aida Masae, one of eight children in a Yokohama family, and used family connections to get an acting contract with the production company Nikkatsu in 1935, when she was just fifteen. (Her elder sister was married to the then-leftist director Kumagai Hisatora, a Nikkatsu employee.) We’ll never know what ambitions she had in her mid-teens, but she would certainly have seen Japanese movies in which women protagonists, played by the likes of Yamada Isuzu and Tanaka Kinuyo, protested loudly against the social, moral, and economic constraints on women’s lives. The distinguished Japanese critic Sato Tadao argues that Hara’s postwar status reflects her embodiment of the silent sufferings of Japanese people in general as they struggled to reconcile traditional values with the adjustment to “modernization” under the US occupation.

Ozu and Naruse, in their formalized melodramas, used Hara’s smiling-through-adversity persona as a subtle signifier of hidden social pressures. Their slightly younger contemporary Kurosawa Akira, more comfortable with full-blown melodrama, had her star in two movies that plunged into the strains and contradictions of postwar life much more explicitly. In No Regrets for Our Youth (1946) she plays Yukie, the complacently bourgeois daughter of a liberal professor who is punished for his anti-war views in the ’30s; she has a torrid affair with an anti-war activist who dies in police custody and enters peacetime as a proudly dishevelled farmer, working to support her late partner’s peasant parents. And in The Idiot (1951), in which Kurosawa transposes Dostoyevsky’s novel to post-war Hokkaido, she plays Taeko (Dostoyevsky’s Nastasya), a kept woman since her mid-teens, who refuses to be ashamed of her past and mocks the various suitors who think they can buy her as a wife. These assertive, proto-feminist roles are the flip-side of Hara’s usual reticence; they hint at what lies behind her “eternal virgin” image. They also help us understand why Hara Setsuko was so revered in Japan, and around the world.

Tony Rayns is a London-based freelance filmmaker, critic, and festival programmer.

*Japanese names are given in their traditional form: surname first.

Cengiz Çekil, Diary, 1976, seal print on diary and cardboard box, 8 1/2 x 6 3/10”.

A SMALL NOTEBOOK in a vitrine at the 2009 Istanbul Biennial caught my attention. It looked innocent enough: a light blue cover with an image of the Pink Panther on its front. At first sight, it resembled the diary of an eleven-year-old girl, not a conceptual artwork. But when opened, the all-caps rubber-stamped text reveals that this book registers not the private thoughts of an adolescent but the stark reality of a country in turmoil.

BU GÜN DE YAŞIYORUM (I am still alive today), ran the text across each page, accompanied only by the date, stamped on top. The diary marks a watershed moment in Turkish art, a gesture of local political commentary executed with utmost conceptual economy. And its inclusion in the 2009 Istanbul Biennial marked a late discovery of its maker, Cengiz Çekil, by a wider international audience.

Çekil was born in Turkey and spent several years in his twenties and early thirties studying art in Paris. By the time he returned home in 1976, he found his country in the grip of increasing violence and unrest, culminating in the 1980 coup d’état. It was in this climate that he decided to stamp a page in his small diary each night before going to bed with those humble words, a prayer of thanks and a talisman for the day to come. After two months, the last page reads simply ASKERE GIDIYORUM (Today I am enlisting).

Çekil’s return to Turkey and his decision to teach in İzmir for over three decades, far away from the tensions of the capital Ankara and metropolitan Istanbul, made him a major influence over several generations of Turkish artists. Those mentees were increasingly familiar with the languages of conceptualism and ready to employ the power of art to comment on Turkey’s fragile, changing, difficult political landscape, and during these decades, Çekil’s own art changed as well. The works of protest and resistance from the 1970s gave way to a mystical language of symbols and letters, and ultimately to sculptural installations of everyday objects, shirts, jackets, and fabrics. Throughout, Çekil remained a generous spirit, a trusted teacher and moral compass for Turkish artists, many of whom are still working today.

I met Çekil in 2011, the same year I acquired his notebook for the Museum of Modern Art. I remember his warmth, and, despite his historical importance, the same expectant spirit of the new and the next that all artists share. He did not want to speak much of his work of the ’70s; he preferred to discuss works yet to be produced. In November, a few days before the terrible events that shook Paris and Beirut, those words in Çekil’s diary became history.

Christian Rattemeyer is the Harvey S. Shipley Miller Associate Curator in the Department of Drawings and Prints at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Cengiz Çekil. Photo: Sevdiye Kahraman.

CENGIZ ÇEKIL WAS BORN IN 1945 in a small town in the dreary Anatolian heartland. He studied at the Gazi Education Institute in Ankara. Gazi was a teacher training school epitomizing the resourcefulness of the early 1920s republic. Next to Istanbul’s prestigious academy of fine arts, Gazi’s “art-craft” department was a lesser sibling, graduating teachers with knowledge of diverse media and a basic overview of art history. The institute championed Malik Aksel, who wrote a number of influential books on the vivid visual folklore of Anatolia. Çekil, like İsmail Saray before him, was particularly receptive to Aksel. Saray’s father was a sign painter and Çekil’s a fixer of gadgets of all kinds, from watches to motorcycles. Like most students at Gazi, they were not middle-class white Turks, but devoted boarding-school conscripts. Çekil recalls it as a warm place with a decent kitchen, with copies of paintings of western masters lining the walls, the perfect environment for a poor young student.

After Gazi, Çekil taught for two years while stationed in Turkey’s remote, far eastern town of Van and left for Paris in 1970 for a second BFA at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, equipped with a state scholarship. There he unloaded the inherited burdens of Turkey and began to engage in a tactile conceptualism perfused with a frugal vernacular. He had a lasting affection for his professor Étienne Martin, and Joseph Beuys, Duchamp, and Sarkis were important influences. His prudence and spartanism were unique among his peers. His was not an ecological modernism, or a doctrinaire answer to a culture of consumption and waste. What may have started as a practical reflection on working precisely with limited means became his credo. On his return to Turkey in 1975, following a period of radical leftist engagement, he was detained on the train with political materials. Tortured by undercover officers, his beloved Beuys book snatched from him, Çekil grew fearful of politics.

Cengiz Çekil, Manifestos I–IV, 1977, seal print on manifold paper, each 11 4/5 x 8 1/4".

During this time he made one of his most poignant works, an expression of dread and fate, Diary, 1976, a notebook on which he stamped the seal “I am still alive today” and the day’s date, a work now in MoMA’s collection. Çekil chose light and mobile materials without any volume. In the face of the assault of radicalized politics on everyday life, having no community to turn to and feeling little hospitality from Istanbul, he began to cover the texts on newspapers to render them wordless, and produced his light-hearted, cynically hopeful, folkloric “Manifestos,” 1977: “I wish you happiness; Maşaallah; Life ends but the road never; what God wills comes to pass.” Reproduced in limited numbers and printed on manifold paper like political pamphlets distributed in the streets, the “Manifestos” short-circuited the declarative and welcomed fate with grace. After the pointless desk job in Istanbul that he was assigned as a mandatory service in return for the scholarship, Çekil sought refuge in the languid Aegean town of İzmir. It was here that he received his MFA and began to teach in the Faculty of Fine Arts at Ege University, over time becoming known as the legendary “hodja.”

In İzmir, Çekil roamed the streets as if they were his studio. He identified low-intensity everyday objects in storefronts and workshops, working with conventional, patently unprivileged materials. He had deep respect for crafts and unpresuming aesthetics, the unconcealed relationship with the source material, and garnered a reputation for his ability to work on the edges of the art world, neither resigning from it nor demanding accolades. No one has seen Çekil ask for a meeting, a referral, or a shot at participating in an exhibition, not once throughout his life.

Cengiz Çekil, Smashed into Pieces, 1998, 288 gold-leafed moldings, pieces of newspaper, 78 3/4 x 110 1/4 x 12".

When the dictatorship came in 1980, Çekil was in İzmir. A subtle rift with the military appeared in his works, but he also had the opportunity to produce sculptures of Atatürk, which were in high demand following the dictatorship. This outlet became a source of extra support, especially given that one of his children needed special care. His students, however, did not miss a beat and began to make work about Çekil’s statues, slyly teasing him. İzmir became Çekil’s kingdom, a life devoted to students. His booming voice and motivational sermons became a trademark. In the 1980s he produced works for İstanbul’s legendary Turkish avant-garde and the ensuing exhibitions with artists who embraced him. He helped organize versions of said exhibitions in İzmir, including the unforgettable “In Memory of Joseph Beuys” in 1986. During those years he created interventions anchored in local folklore. He would play on the semantics of “exhibition,” which in Turkish refers to a horizontal display of goods, from melons to tchotchkes, often on the ground, on a large piece of cloth providing a frame. Deferring to gravity and undermining the conventions of hierarchy of upright exhibition spaces, he kept looking to a communion with the ground.

I became close to Çekil in 2001. We were in his workplace in the school as he unpacked and rolled out one work after another with the help of his students, holding fragments of things, turning them around and touching them like holy fruit. It was one of those moments when everything one knows about a history becomes a weary oft-repeated fiction. Another international story had to be written, and another arcade of dispute had to be opened. I was blessed to work on his first and last retrospective in 2010 when he moved to Istanbul. He loved the city, carrying his frayed, ailing body to exhibitions; he even stopped smoking. We would see each other when he had a work in progress. The last visit was to see the preparation of 144 cheap frames, with various colored fabrics hinting subtly at domestic abuse, all turned around and held in tension with stretched lacework and yellow cleaning clothes in the middle squeezed to resemble pudentas. It was his first feminist work, he would say smiling impishly, but also apologetically. Unfailingly gracious, it is conspicuous that he chose to spend his last days in İzmir, the gentle town that took good care of him to the end.

Vasif Kortun is the director of research and programs at SALT, Istanbul.

Harold Feinstein and his Rolleiflex camera in 1949.

HAROLD FEINSTEIN was a warm and humane man with a strong iconoclastic streak and a mischievous sense of humor. None of these qualities endeared him to the US Army, so when his sergeant discovered him as a draftee selling sandwiches in the barracks after hours—“Subs! Torpedoes!”—his superiors decided to ship him out. The scheme was typical Feinstein, in one stroke giving the GIs something tastier than canteen food, thumbing his nose at authority, and earning a few bucks in the deal. But the army was not amused. What could have been a cushy post, stateside, quickly transformed into combat duty in Pusan. No matter, with an audacity that might have made Robert Altman blush, Feinstein rented a house a few miles away from the front, moved in with a local Korean girlfriend, and began taking pictures of his fellow soldiers.

The army knew Feinstein had trained as a photographer, but using him in any official capacity was out of the question. One of the last great photographers to study at New York’s notoriously pinko Photo League, the way the military saw it, his patriotism could not be trusted. Ironically, official indifference gave Feinstein license to do precisely what he did best, portraying the personal side of the war and the day-to-day reality between battles in all its tedious, anxious, mundane ingloriousness. The men and boys he served alongside (if that is the right phrase) came from similar backgrounds to his own. So he photographed them the same way. Not heroic, but heroes nevertheless.

Harold Feinstein, Coney Island Teenagers, 1949, silver gelatin print. From the series in Life Magazine, August 1988.

Feinstein will always be remembered best for his photographs on Coney Island, especially those he made from age fifteen, in 1946, through the 1960s. If his near contemporary Diane Arbus used the camera to reveal awkwardness and absurdity in people, Feinstein did the opposite, infusing his pictures with a grace that transcended physical appearance. Skinny, fat, with bad skin, a combover or an overbite, Feinstein could not have cared less. Or rather, if he did care, it was because he identified with their circumstances. Growing up a working-class Orthodox Jew in Coney Island himself, underdogs were his people. So he portrayed them playfully, affectionately, throwing themselves into the rides with joyful abandon. Feinstein rejoiced along with them.

In 1950, at age nineteen, Feinstein approached Edward Steichen, then director of MoMA’s photography department, for advice. Steichen bought some works for the collection, and invited him to show in a new exhibition he was developing, “The Family of Man.” Feinstein, never one for official self-righteousness, declined the opportunity. In retrospect it was one of the decisions that consigned him largely to cult status. His photographs did appear in other group shows, at the Whitney in 1954, and at MoMA in 1957, but it was too little, too late. While his work did occasionally have popular reach, it was normally in association with other photographers, for example collaborating with his close friend W. Eugene Smith on Smith’s “Pittsburgh Project,” 1955–57. Like Smith, Feinstein also became a habitué of Manhattan’s Jazz Loft scene in the late-’50s and early-’60s. But compared to the legendary Smith, Feinstein remained in the shadows.

Harold Feinstein, Gypsy Girl and Carousel, 1946, silver gelatin print. From the series in Life Magazine, August 1988.

After the Korean War, Feinstein ran private classes from his living room in a small apartment in a Philadelphia housing project. These were ostensibly lessons on art and photography, but in reality they were thinly veiled exhortations on life itself. He preached resistance to The Man in all his forms—Kodak, camera makers, universities, parents, the government—all of whom he accused of inhibiting free will. Unsurprisingly, corporate sponsorship was not forthcoming, and he got by doing occasional pieces for Life, Popular Photography, and other magazines, as well as selling his blood and semen. His students loved him, and still do, with a passion more befitting a religious leader than a man with a camera. Some of his followers became photographers themselves. Others worked in schools and community centers, volunteering for at-risk children, or helping refugees. Most became better people.

For his own part, Feinstein never lost his optimism or his restless nonconformity. Until the last, it was his habit to literally greet each day with a smile. He loved being alive. And why wouldn’t he? He had seen the worst in people, and found the best. He suffered for his art but made a difference. His photographs—uplifting, intimate, and without a hint of irony—are evidence of a singular talent, and a life well lived.

Phillip Prodger is head of photographs at the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Ionel Talpazan in his apartment, 1999. Photo: Daniel Wojcik.

IONEL TALPAZAN was almost sixty when he became an American citizen and changed his name to Adrian da Vinci. This optional self-creation while ceremonially assuming a new national identity has few parallels in the nonimmigrant experience, except in religious practices. To name is to order, to gather. To be named is to belong; the power rests with the namer. Talpazan had many names; born Ionel Pârvu in Romania, he assumed the name of one of his foster parents. At the end of his life—a life that included serial abandonment and physical abuse, state oppression, a March night swim across the Danube in 1987 (during which he nearly drowned), several months in a UN refugee camp in Belgrade, a hand-to-mouth existence in New York, and the creation of over one thousand works depicting annotated blueprints, diagrams, and models of UFOs—Talpazan named himself Adrian (after the man who sponsored his emigration from Europe) and da Vinci (presumably, after that other artist obsessed with flying machines).

Even the received category of Talpazan’s art underscores the power of naming: “outsider art,” in its inclusive efforts, cannot help but preserve the boundaries it seeks to dissolve. But perhaps the catalogue for “Alternative Guide to the Universe,” a 2013 exhibition at London’s Hayward Gallery in which Talpazan’s work appeared, gives a better sense of the term’s spirit. That show celebrated “self-taught artists and architects, fringe physicists and visionary inventors . . . a kind of parallel universe where ingenuity and inventiveness trump common sense and received wisdom.” Self-taught (but aware of Leonardo, at the very least), fringe (where many a trained artist resides), and visionary (as trained artists may also be), this outsider artist was as complicated as his unsolicited category. That Talpazan, once in New York, chose to sell his bright cross-sectional paintings and sculptures of UFOs on the street in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (how he was discovered) shows nothing but common sense. Meanwhile, the formal elegance, technical detail, and totemic power of his works may represent “received wisdom” at its most literal.

Ionel Talpazan, Future UFOs Diverse Diagrame: 22 Modele Advanced Exstra Terestriale Tecnolog˙ for Planeta Earth, 2000, oil crayon, marker, pencil, and ink on paper, 30 x 40". Photo: Daniel Wojcik.

Talpazan’s report of the UFO encounter that launched his art is already mythologized but worth recounting. After a terrible beating from his foster mother at the age of eight, he ran away and huddled overnight in a ditch, from where, following a downpour, he watched an immense blue light appear and hover overhead. “The light was a beautiful color and moved in circles,” he told the scholar Daniel Wojcik. “There was no noise.” Without any context for the experience, he began to draw flying saucers.

“The problem of the UFOs,” Carl Jung wrote in a letter in 1957, is not whether they definitely exist, but that “the psychological aspect is so impressive . . . one almost must regret that [they] seem to be real after all.” Jung emphasized the prevalence of reported UFO sightings in the 1950s and ’60s in the context of modernity’s diminished access to the unconscious. In the 2003 book UFO Religions, Robert A. Segal further extrapolates, “Psychologically, UFOs represent an attempt by one domain to establish contact with another—not, however, an attempt by some civilization in outer space to visit earth but an attempt by one part of the mind to visit another.” There’s hardly a more concise description of the fragmented ego using the imagination’s technology in an attempt to integrate, heal, and salvage itself, or its selves.

Ionel Talpazan, For NASA, UFO Watching, 1999, oil crayon, marker, poster paint, pencil, and ink on paper, 14 1/2 x 27". Photo: Daniel Wojcik.

Leonardo himself bears witness to the long history shared by trauma, art and invention. In a passage made famous by Freud, he recounts, “When I was in the cradle . . . a kite came to me and opened my mouth with its tail, and struck me several times with its tail inside my lips,” citing the memory as the source of his preoccupation with flight. Leonardo’s encounter with the bird was traumatic, terrifying; given the brutality of the event preceding Talpazan’s encounter, his experience was salvific. Significantly in both cases, the psychological impact was one that ordered the artists’ creative impulses. Taking the combined names of the man who came to his aid and another who shared in the spirit of his vision was just one more way in which Talpazan exercised the artist’s penchant for self-creation.

Oana Sanziana Marian is a writer based in New Haven, Connecticut.