Art Asian Art News
By Lucy Birmingham
"Hisashi Tenmyouya and Fuyuko Matsui at Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo"
Among the invited group of artists at this year’s Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo (MoT) “No Border” exhibition which showcases an annual selection of distinguished young Japanese artists, were the nihonga (Japanese-style painting) works of two particularly unforgettable painters. Fuyuko Matsui’s spine-tingling, ghost-like apparitions of women, animals and flowers and the phantasmal creatures, weaponry and warriors of Hisashi Tenmyouya bring to light not only a fresh contemporary approach to Japan’s ancient painting traditions but a frightening reminder of the thin paradoxical veil between beauty and evil.
Both painters employ inspiration and elements of traditional Japanese schools of painting like the Kanou School (14th -19th centuries) and Rimpa School (17th-19th centuries) but with 21st century themes and materials. Their work, called nihonga is based on a term officially coined in the mid-1800’s, defined to formally distinguish itself from the “yoga” or Western-style painting gaining popularity among Japanese painters at that time. But in fact, when the term nihonga was established, traditional style painting was in transition. Like now, artists were forging their own modern interpretations and counter culture within the traditional nihonga precepts.
40-year-old Hisashi Tenmyouya is now widely known for his recent biographical feature-length documentary film and his poster design chosen among a selected 14 world-wide, for the 2006 FIFA world soccer games held in Germany. The poster depicts two soccer players dressed as traditional Japanese warriors painted in a style he calls neo-nihonga similar to the graphic and rich styles of the ancient schools. In adoration of Japan’s traditional fighting spirit, Tenmyouya favors samurai-like themes and weaponry. Among his work exhibited at the MoT show, iconic Buddhist figures are cunningly adorned with modern machine guns, rifles and knives, as seen in his “Neo Thousand-armed Kannon,” commonly worshiped as the Goddess of Mercy. Potentially sacrilegious, the images are shocking and yet beautifully crafted in traditional painterly style. Half-naked, tattooed samurai in sword-wielding poses and a kamikaze Zero fighter plane decorated with truck lights and horns, jockey with mythical beasts and a pop art-style work titled “Contemporary Japanese Youth Culture Scroll –“Para Para Dancing (Great Empire of Japan) vs. Break-dancing (America)”
He says, while “fighting” with his brush in an anti-establishment, rebellious stance he likens to the warriors of the Kamakura (1185-1333) and Muromachi 1333-1568) periods, Tenmyouya defines his work within a new school of art he has dubbed Buto-ha (fighting school.) He calls himself Gakyo (strong painter), borrowing from the tradition of honoring esteemed painting masters with a descriptive title.
But one is left to wonder in these uncertain and violent times if in fact his work is anti-establishment. Japan has a proud and tragic history of conquest and violence. The guardians of this recent 60-years of peace, now largely in their 80's — the generation of ageing WWII survivors — is now slipping away. Will a young generation untouched by war and fascinated with the powerful and romantic imagery of weapons ultimately turn back the pages of history?
Equally as frightening but of the ghoulish variety are the sumi ink paintings of 32-year-old Fuyuko Matsui. Japan has a rich history of ghost stories, seeded by cultural superstitions, the Shinto worship of animistic spirits and a belief in the afterlife. Some of the most popular and hair-raising stories, dramatically performed in Kabuki theater and in classic films, involve the spirit of a jealous, revengeful women dressed in a tattered white filmy kimono with long unkempt black hair and no feet. The woman painted in Matsui's "Nyctalopia" (night blindness) is a dead ringer, so to speak, for that traditional character, with a face eerily similar to the artist herself. In "Keeping up the pureness" we see her face again, but this time she lays dead in whole human form, surrounded by delicate flowers and sliced cleanly open with exposed entrails, organs and a jewel-like womb. Her eyes are set wide open in a defiant, hypnotic stare towards the viewer. Mesmerized, one is captured between aversion and fixed fascination. For Matsui, this is not a ghost but in fact a state of madness, the true visual intent of her skillful hand. Nihonga contains madness, she says, with its obsessive attention to detail, repetition and excessive realism. But she finds the objectivity, flatness and observational stance shown by the nihonga masters appealing. So rather than envelope us in fear and sadness, Matsui stops short at the cemetery gate. There, she offers us a cold, sane peer into her ghostly world brushed by visions of madness.
Matsui's paintings will next be exhibited at the Yokohama Museum of Art from July 15-September 20.