Shortened version of The Sublation of Japan and the West: The Artistic View of Ryuji Tanaka by Shoichi Hirai, curator at the National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto Ryuji Tanaka
(1927-2014, Japan) was a noteworthy artist who was involved in two avant-garde groups that were indispensable to post-war Japanese art. One of the groups was the Pan-real Bijutsu Kyokai (Pan-real Art Association), and the other was the Gutai Bijutsu Kyokai (Gutai Art Association).
The former set out to revolutionize nihon-ga (Japanese-style painting). In the late 19th century, as Japan quickly moved forward with state-endorsed efforts to modernize the country based on a European model, nihon-ga was conceived as a counterpart to yo-ga (Western-style painting). In terms of specific characteristics, nihon-ga is marked by flat spatial expressions lacking in physical depth, fixed motifs such as beautiful natural elements, and natural pigments made out of crushed ore and other minerals dissolved in animal glue that are applied to paper or silk.
After modernization had largely taken hold in Japan’s economic and social systems, the 1910s and ’20s saw a heightened awareness in regard to personal freedom and the rise of a younger generation of nihon-ga painters who placed greater emphasis on subjective expression. But this, as it were, spiritual modernization, was not welcomed by the state, which was striving to create a national framework akin to Western countries under a totalitarian regime with the Emperor as its apex.
The formation of the Pan-real Art Association in 1948 was part of a sudden eruption that occurred when the desire for subjective expression, which had been suppressed during the war in the conservative, feudalistic world of nihon-ga underwent a complete turnaround in the wake of Japan’s military defeat. The group’s founding members were young people who had studied nihon-ga at the Kyoto Municipal School of Painting. One of them was Ryuji Tanaka (real first name: Susumu), who was 21 at the time.[i]
The group’s members aimed to loosen the restrictions on motifs used in nihon-ga, and actively introduce Western avant-garde expressions to the genre. Many of Tanaka’s works from the Pan-real era display the strong influence of Surrealist painting, and contain a fantastical, and at times, mysterious quality.
As the artists distanced themselves from traditional nihon-ga motifs and styles, and moved increasingly closer to yo-ga, the basis for the genre was eventually reduced to techniques and materials alone. In other words, though the works might have had the appearance of Western art, they remained nihon-ga in as much as they were made with natural mineral pigments, glue, paper, and silk. As time went on, the question shifted from the material concern of whether or not a work was nihon-ga to the mental one of whether or not the artist intended a work to be nihon-ga. The group continued approaching what might be called the end of the line, i.e., the negation of traditional techniques and materials, but Tanaka, seemingly aware of what lay ahead, quit Pan-real quite early on, in 1951, and decided to hold fast to the old ways. This indicates that Tanaka possessed a deep understanding of nihon-ga on a conceptual level.
Tanaka, who had already absorbed the influence of Surrealism during his time in Pan-real, next set his sights on abstraction, which constituted the mainstream of new painting in the post-war era. Beginning in the early ’60s, he evolved a unique style with a large, hard plane of colour made of a thick, heap of natural mineral pigments in the centre of his paintings.
As mentioned above, the main ingredient in natural mineral pigments is ore, and as these tiny particles shine brightly in the light, they create a hard yet delicate texture that is not possible with oil paints. Based on the combination of this texture and the lines that overflowed from the edges of the colour plane into the surrounding picture, Tanaka’s works of this period can be seen as a kind of Art Informel painting within the nihon-ga genre.
Having shifted from Surrealism to abstraction, Tanaka must have reassessed the material meaning of natural mineral pigments, which he had used as a medium to depict fantastical, mysterious images in the past and had only ever seen as iconic elements of nihon-ga. He also reinterpreted the pale colours and singular textures of these natural materials in terms of a uniquely Japanese aesthetic sensibility and as a symbol of a natural perspective. With this in mind, the colour planes in Tanaka’s abstract paintings are a symbol of Western culture, in which humans attempt to control nature, and nagashi is a symbol of Japanese culture, in which nature is accepted just as it is. In effect, his style was intended to extract a new type of beauty born out of the confrontational struggle between the two cultures’ opposing views of nature.
Having been recognized for his work, Tanaka shifted his focus to the Gutai Art Association, which was already internationally known by this time as one of the Kansai region’s preeminent avant-garde groups. Formed in 1954 under the leadership of Jiro Yoshihara, who called for the group’s members to do things that had never been done before, Gutai had consistently devised new forms of artistic expression. But feeling that the static membership was limiting the group’s activities, on the eve of Gutai’s tenth anniversary, Yoshihara invited new artists to join as a strategy for reactivating the group. Tanaka became involved on the invitation of Kazuo Shiraga, with whom we studied traditional nigon-ga at the same art school.[ii]
Following his stint with Gutai, Tanaka adopted another style of expression. After thinly coating the entire picture plane with natural mineral pigments, he added obscure forms that looked as if they had been sprayed on, before adding extremely minute scratches on top. Using the relationship between the margin and the forms, multiple fields of colour, and the colour field and the scratches as his subject, this style, evoking a fresh and profound lyricism, became predominant in Tanaka’s work of the early ’90s.
The stylistic change in Tanaka’s work signified the development of a distinctive Japanese view of nature from a material, which was intended to express opposing views between Japan and the West, to a subject. This was the last and greatest frontier he reached in his work.
[i] It was standard practice for nihon-ga artists to use a pseudonym instead of their real name. “Ryuji” means “dragon child,” but it is unclear who gave Tanaka the name or what sort of significance it had.[ii] From an interview the writer conducted with Tanaka at his house on May 21, 2003.
Press release courtesy Axel Vervoordt Gallery.