Shigeru Onishi

Shigeru Ōnishi (1928-1994) was born to an established family in the city of Takahashi, Okayama Prefecture. By middle school he was already studying advanced mathematics, while he also wrote poetry and had a passion for the I Ching, or Book of Changes, a foundational text commonly recognized in Confucianist and Taoist philosophies.1 In 1953 Ōnishi graduated from Hokkaidō University’s Department of Mathematics and upon graduation, continued to research topology at that University. Around that time, he took up photography, and became active in an amateur photography club in Sapporo.


His first solo exhibition was held at Nabis gallery, Tokyo. The influential art critic Shūzo Takiguchi contributed a poignant text for the show, later included in the anthology of the critic’s writing.2 The exhibition was called “the most impressive photography exhibition held that year”3 by Tatsuo Fukushima, a photography critic considered as a cutting-edge voice among his contemporaries. In the following year, Ōnishi’s work was included in the International Subjective Photography Exhibition held at Takashimaya Nihonbashi (1956). In 1957, Ōnishi’s solo exhibition was organized by the Shūzo Takiguchi at Takemiya garō, a gallery that ran from 1951 through 1957 per the direction of Takiguchi. That year, the art periodical Atelier published a feature including the work and writing of Ōnishi,4 and another photography journal Photo 35 published six works by Ōnishi and reissued the writing of both Ōnishi and Takiguchi.5 In that text, Ōnishi describes his existential theory regarding his photographic purpose. His photographic technique also attests to his complex artistic theory: montages made in the camera via multiple exposure, prints developed with a brush and heated chemical baths of up to eighty degrees, discoloration induced by acid, along with other extreme processes.


Ōnishi further continued to experiment with mediums other than photography including ink-abstractions,6 which caught the eye of the French critic Michel Tapié, who visited Japan in 1957 with Tōru Haga, Sam Francis, Toshimitsu Imai and Georges Mathieu in the 1950s at which time he became acquainted with Jirō Yoshihara and other artists of the Gutai group and connected Japanese artists, most famously of the Osaka-based group Gutai, with European artists, mainly those associated with the Art Informel movement. One of the fruits of this collaboration was the Contemporary World Art exhibition (Bridgestone Museum of Art, October 11th – November 10th, 1957; Osaka Daimaru Hyakkaten, December 16th – 22nd, 1957), which featured Ōnishi’s abstract ink-paintings. After this, Ōnishi’s ink-paintings were shown in the International Sky Festival (Osaka Takashimaya Namba) organized by Gutai. He participated alongside Gutai artists in other exhibitions like Continuité et avant-garde au Japon (International Center of Aesthetic Research, Turin, March 1961), but he never became a member of the famous group. Michel Tapié (who founded the International Center of Aesthetic Research) had a deep knowledge of mathematics, and was one of the few people who understood Ōnishi’s topology-based theory of art. Tapié contributed a foreword to the anthology Logic of Continuum (1), a Study of Meta-infinite (International Center of Aesthetic Research, Turin, 1969), which reproduced the handwritten, bilingual (Japanese/English) essay of the same name: an authoritative study of Ōnishi’s calligraphic works and topological symbols. Ōnishi’s career thereafter took on an international dimension, that is, consequently, difficult to track exclusively through published material and printed matter available within Japan and requires looking into international art archives.


Despite his impressive career beginning in the 1950s, Shigeru Ōnishi never found a place for himself in the world of photography. And although acclaimed for his contributions to the Gutai group’s spectacular international activities, it is fair to say that he is now forgotten. That may well be because he refused to situate his own creations within critical frameworks that fit their visual style or methods, such as “Gutai” or “subjective photography.” However, as we continue to rediscover his accomplishments, his photographs draw us into a world-view which we have never witnessed before.



1.    Kokushi (Tadao) Ogura, “Ōnishi Shigeru no purofīru [Profile of Shigeru Onishi],” in Photo 35 (July 1957).

2. Shuzō Takiguchi, “Through the Mechanism of Photography,” in Marginalia (Tokyo: Misuzu Shobō, 1966). And Takiguchi, Shūzō, and Ōoka Makoto ed. Korekushon Takiguchi Shūzō. Tokyo : Misuzu Shobō, 1991-1998.

3. Tatsuo Fukushima, “Saron shashin wa saisei suru ka [Will Salon Photography Return?],” in Camera (June 1956).

4. Shigeru Ōnishi, “Sakuhin [Work],” in Bes’satsu [Special Edition] Atelier 34 Atarashii Shashin [new photography] (May 1957).

5. ”Ōnishi Shigeru shashin-ten yori [from Ōnishi Shigeru exhibition],” Photo 35 (July 1957).

6.     Toru Haga, “Shinjin Ōnishi Shigeru [The newcomer Shigeru Onishi]” in Geijutsu-Shincho (July 1960).


Shigeru Onishi
A Metamathematical Proposition

Edited by Manfred Heiting
Text written by Ryuichi Kaneko
192 pages, 195 images
Hardback 23 × 28 cm
English / Japanese
Published by Steidl
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