By Lucy Birmingham
"Plagiarizing Painter Stripped of Award"
For the first time in the award's 56-year history, Japan's Agency for Cultural Affairs revoked its prestigious Ministry of Education Art Encouragement Prize from painter Yoshihiko Wada on June 5th after determining that his paintings were plagiarized. The Agency learned through an anonymous source soon after the award was announced on March 15, that Wada's moody figurative works described as "new baroque realism" were virtual copies of paintings done by Italian artist Alberto Sughi whose studio Wada had first visited in the 1970s. The selection committee concluded that 23 of Wada's works were "basically" copies of Sughi's paintings because of striking similarities in composition and coloration.
A relative unknown whose paintings sold in the $15,000 range, the 67-year-old Wada had won the prize based on the Agency's review of his exhibitions held last year at three major Japanese museums. The Sompo Japan Fine Art Foundation quickly followed by stripping him of their important 2002 prize, and the Japanese media seized on the scandal, splashing comparisons of the two artists’ work—for instance, Wada’s 1996 Boshizou (Mother and Child) placed next to Sughi’s 1995 Virgo Laurentana—in the newspapers and on national TV.
But Wada has maintained his innocence in Japanese news reports, stating even before the prizes were revoked that his paintings were not copies but done as a “homage” to the 77-year-old Italian painter. If that is the case, however, Sughi says he was unaware of the honor. “Wada introduced himself as an academic, a lecturer in Western art history. I did not know he was a painter." Sughi told ARTnews. “He is like a thief, a sick man.” Contrarily, Wada has written in a website posted by his friend, novelist Seiichi Morimura, that Sughi knew well that he was a professional painter and that he advised Sughi on painting techniques. Niche Gallery owner Tomiya Nishimura, a 30-year friend, describes Wada's approach. "Wada is well known as an excellent copyist with superb technical ability," he says. "His copies of Rubens paintings at the Prado Museum in Spain are almost better than the originals."
As a result of the incident, the Agency for Cultural Affairs has decided to improve the award selection process by increasing the number of jury members. While requesting anonymity, a gallery owner who has handled Wada’s paintings told ARTnews, “We are shocked by this plagiarism scandal. We don’t know how to handle this legally since it is considered plagiarism and not an imitation or reproduction.” Yoshindo Ajioka, Chief Curator of The Shoto Museum of Art, one of three venues where Wada exhibited last year, says that the painter's deception took him by surprise. "We had absolutely no idea that Wada's work was plagiarized,” he says. “The Italian painter is not famous, so no one could instinctively connect the two artists.” Sughi himself says that he is not considering legal action against the artist. “I don’t plan to sue Wada because the problem is not just Wada,” he says. “It is the whole system, the organizations surrounding him. The selection committee should have been more careful and researched more deeply.”
In the meantime, Sughi says he has received many offers to do an exhibition in Japan. "I would consider having an exhibition after things have cooled down, if someone still remembers me and likes my work."