WRIGGLING PAINTINGS: THE ART OF MASATOSHI MASANOBU
Axel Vervoordt Gallery presents its first exhibition of Gutai artist Masanobu Masatoshi (1911-1995). This text is written by the independant curator and Gutai Scholar Koichi Kawasaki and translated by Christopher Stephens on the occasion of the upcoming monograph MASANOBU MASATOSHI that will be published following this solo exhibition.
Among the early-period Gutai members, Masatoshi Masanobu had a modest presence. Even in the group’s outdoor and staged exhibitions, Masanobu’s works were not as conspicuous as the other artists’ efforts. Nor did he make any historic performances or paintings that stood at the forefront of the era. But this is not to say that Masanobu was any less radical than the rest of the group. One reason for his restrained image is that Masanobu was 43 when Gutai was formed in 1954, and he had already been painting for close to twenty years. Masanobu was a rather orthodox Japanese painter, who tried to make a living as an artist while supporting himself as an art teacher. Yet, Masanobu’s creative approach appears much more idiosyncratic to younger viewers than the artist could ever have imagined. The proof lies in his early abstract paintings. In this essay, I would like to discuss these works, and Masanobu’s involvement with Gutai, which grew out of a meeting with Jiro Yoshihara after the war.
Masanobu was born in Susaki in Kochi Prefecture, a temperate area with a flourishing shipping industry on the southern tip of Shikoku in a region known as Nangoku Tosa. Masanobu’s father, Miokichi, was a kimono merchant and worked in the local area as well as in Kyoto. Masanobu said that after his mother died when he was 13, his older brother primarily raised him. After graduating from normal school at age 19, Masanobu found a job as a teacher at a local elementary school. However, he quit two years later and returned to his alma mater to enrol in a post-graduate course. There is no way of knowing exactly what he was thinking at the time, but we do know that Masanobu had already become interested in painting. Around 1932, while attending the school, he and some friends took part in a summer course offered by the Dokuritsu Bijutsu Kyodai (Independent Art Association) in Osaka and he submitted some sketches to an exhibition organized by the Kochi Prefectural Artists’ League. He also showed his work in the RT Group exhibition, formed by an older painter named Seiichi Nobukiyo. Nobukiyo, who had studied painting with Ryusei Kishida in Tokyo, returned to Kochi with a naturalistic style that was reminiscent of Dürer.
Masanobu was clearly becoming increasingly enthusiastic about art during this period. After completing the one-year post-graduate course, he once again began working as an elementary school teacher. Then in 1935, Masanobu moved to Tokyo, where he also supported himself by teaching. He apparently hoped to enrol in art school but was never able to satisfy this aspiration.
It’s interesting to note that Masanobu painted one landscape work (figure 1) in 1937 while living in Tokyo, which has a very similar composition to a work he showed Jiro Yoshihara over a decade later in 1949.1 The leaves on the trees have a round appearance, as if they have been trimmed, and this aspect is even more pronounced in the later work. The picture is far removed from the highly realistic, decorative work of Sotaro Yasui and Ryuzaburo Umehara, the leading figures in painting. During this era, artists who had studied in France relied on French techniques to explore Japanese oil painting. Choosing to forego this path, Masanobu used his unique viewpoint to focus intently on himself, while continuing to work as a teacher during the war. It’s at this point that we begin to see signs of an uncommon ability unlike that of any other artist.2
Moving to Kobe
During the war in 1944, Masanobu moved to Kobe. Again, he taught at an elementary school before evacuating to Kato Gun in Hyogo prefecture at the end of the war. Two years later, in 1947, Masanobu started attending the Kobe Citizens’ Art Course, which was held at a nearby elementary school. It was there that he first met Yoshihara, who was a teacher in the program. We can assume that this meeting fuelled Masanobu’s fervent desire to study painting. Around 1946, he began to actively submit his works to invitational exhibitions, one of which was organized by the Ashiya City Art Association. Yoshihara served as a judge at the event, which would later become a gateway of success for Gutai members. Yoshihara offered the following memory of the era:
Just after the end of the war, at a time when shortages were rife, Masanobu, with the look of a peddler of that era, arrived at my studio with a large furoshiki [wrapping cloth] filled with paintings. As I remember it, the majority of the dozens of works he brought, mostly painted on about size-3 canvases, were pictures of morning glories, showing groups of two or three, round red or blue flowers seen from head-on. All of them were painted with more or less the same thing in mind, and the exceedingly persistent nature of this pursuit became rather tiresome. Why was it necessary to repeatedly depict the same morning glory in that way? Even more surprising was the fact that the critical comments I made proved to be of no use. He simply brought back the same heap of morning glories, which he had retouched to an imperceptible degree.3
From this response, we get a sense of how Yoshihara struggled to deal with a quality that was markedly different from other artists. But at the same time, Yoshihara also acknowledges Masanobu’s unique characteristics. Yoshihara was not alone. Together with a friend from the figurative-based Kobe art course, Masanobu submitted his work to the Lapan Group Exhibition, alongside artists such as Rikuichi Kaihara and Masaru Nakanishi, who were exploring new forms of figuration. Additionally, he submitted his work to the Babel Exhibition and with the abstract painters Waichi Tsudaka and Kokuta Suda, he submitted work to the Seikatsu Zokei Exhibition. He continued these efforts for some time after joining Gutai without ever deviating from his basic approach.
Kobe had a different culture than Masanobu’s home area of Kochi. The city had opened to the outside world as a trading port in 1868, was home to many foreign residents from places like Europe, India, and China, and had been strongly influenced by Western culture. Even today this influence continues to permeate the lives of people in the area.
Toward Wriggling Paintings
Against this backdrop, in about 1950, Masanobu developed his work further, while focusing even more intently on himself. There are many clay sculptures visible in a snapshot in one of Masanobu’s photo albums (figure 2). Though he did not express much interest in spatially aware, three-dimensional work of the kind that was included in Gutai’s outdoor and staged exhibitions, Masanobu’s planar work of the 1950s was uniquely inspired by sculpture.
Rather than being naturalistic, the paintings he made from 1952 to 1954 dealt with motifs like flowers and landscapes. These were explorations of painting based on three-dimensional objects he had made. This is clear from the works contained in the Museum of Art in Kochi and the Otani Memorial Art Museum, Nishinomiya Collections, and Masanobu’s “Experiments in Sculpture: Studies Based on Three-dimensional Objects.”4 He reused the same motifs over and over in various paintings.
Then, around 1954, these shapes suddenly disappeared and were replaced by lines and planes. But this was not the end of concrete concepts, as suggested by the following memo (figure 3) from a 1955 photo album in which Masanobu lists the kind of things he would like to express in his work:
*Cloth, linen, handwoven fabric, knitted material (necktie), and necktie material roughly knitted out of silk
*The surface of quartz trachyte, rough sandy soil
*Bark (shaved with metal)
*Bushes and ground with gross vegetation
*Handwoven materials commonly found in folk crafts, things with a plain, neat, and strong feel like straw products
*Yarn from a small bird’s nest, straw scraps, string, feathers, various warm, rough, and soft materials knitted in layers
*Smooth pieces of glass, materials with a natural feel that might be called fresh, and materials that convey something human
*The surface of an unglazed vessel
Rather than sensual abstractions, the artist’s works in the first issue of Gutai and the 1st Gutai Exhibition are made up brushstrokes with a wriggling aspect. This tendency continued until April 1958, when the shapes evolved into round, symbol-like forms.5
Another photo album from around the same time contains a picture of two abstract works labelled, “For the New World of Paintings exhibition”, along with the note, “not exhibited”.
The previous fall when Michel Tapié visited Japan, he had lauded Gutai’s works. But how did he evaluate Masanobu’s paintings? Tapié’s focus on Kazuo Shiraga and Atsuko Tanaka may have conversely functioned as the driving force between these new developments in Masanobu’s work. A picture of a subsequent work titled, Yellow Dots on Red (figure 4) was inscribed with two comments by Yoshihara: “Very good” and “Good work for Gutai”. These are followed by Masanobu’s own note: “But rejected in the end.”6 Then on the next page, there is the following inscription: “Later, in the unpainted area, create a sense of movement throughout the painting by covering it with a scattering of symbols.” Using a tube of paint to apply and erase pigment from the canvas, he produced an uneven surface, leading to Masanobu’s trademark style of wriggling signs.
The year beginning in the fall of 1957 was a time of great change for Masanobu. The allure of the exhibition, New World of Paintings, and the Gutai show (6th Gutai Exhibition) held in New York pushed Masanobu to further challenges (figure 5). In reference to the work he showed in the exhibition, 15 Contemporary Artists Presented by Tapié 7 (figure 6), Masanobu wrote comments such as “a new kind of freshness” and “a fresh feeling”8, which clearly convey his pleasure with these new changes.
Some five years later, Masanobu’s work displayed an even more fruitful development. In a leaflet for Masanobu’s 1965 solo show at the Gutai Pinacotheca, Yoshihara praised the artist’s use of circles and dots, writing: “More than symbols, they seemed like properties that might emerge when the logical structure of the ground was magnified and reproduced.”9
As with solo exhibitions by other Gutai artists, pictures of the event suggest that Masanobu displayed works that he had put a great deal of effort into. The fact that he was asked to hold a solo exhibition at the museum is reflective of his standing in the group.
In the 1950s, Masanobu, who continually searched for new forms, repeatedly made use of accidental effects and intentional operations to verify the sense of strength, depth, subtlety, eloquence, intensity, and freshness that resonated within him. While honestly confronting himself during this brilliant era in Gutai’s career, Masanobu took early retirement from the elementary school where he had long worked in an effort to live a freer life. This turning point arrived when he was 58. The evolution of Masanobu’s work is evident from his highly accomplished Gutai solo exhibition, but he was still not satisfied that the level of completion he had achieved was able to convey a “sense of life” through the intensity of the colours, shapes, and material. He wrote. “I want to bring my work closer to a place where you can sense the unutterable depth of the sprit and life that truly conveys a sense of life.”10
During the Gutai era, Masanobu used his body rather than his mind to confront Yoshihara’s discerning eye, the rivalry with his cohorts, Tapié’s acclaim and encouragement, and the information he received from foreign friends.11 We can imagine that these pressures built up inside of him.
Masanobu was born in 1911, making him six years younger than Yoshihara. Based on the fact that most of the Gutai members were born in the 1920s, Masanobu and Yoshihara were essentially part of the same generation. Because of this, Masanobu’s modest work and distance from the rest of the group had the effect of enhancing his presence. After Gutai disbanded in 1972, Masanobu taught painting locally and was invited to hold solo and group shows in Nishinomiya and Kobe. This suggests that he was the type of person who maintained relationships with the Kobe artists and galleries he had become acquainted with during the Gutai era.
The symbols on his canvases are the product of repeated hand movements, but they also represent the interplay between natural expression and calculated composition that was occurring in his mind. Masanobu’s work was underpinned by the methodical character that he had developed as a teacher. We might also say that this same methodical quality imbues his art with its uniqueness.
1. Mizuho Kato, “Masatoshi Masanobu in the 1950s”, Satoshi Masanobu, Mizuho Kato, and Yuzo Kurashina, eds. Masatoshi Masanobu 1911-1995, Masatoshi Masanobu Collected Works Publication Committee, 2014, p. 76.
2. I am greatly indebted to Tsukasa Ikegami, “Masatoshi Masanobu’s Western-style Paintings”, Masatoshi Masanobu: A Gutai Painter, exhibition catalogue, Otani Memorial Art Museum, Nishinomiya City, 2015.
3. Jiro Yoshihara, “Masatoshi Masanobu Solo Exhibition,” Masatoshi Masanobu Solo Exhibition leaflet, Gutai Art Association, Osaka, March 1965.
4. Masanobu’s photo album, 1951-1954, p. 2.
5. Masanobu’s photo album, 1954-1957, p. 20.
6. Masanobu’s photo album, 1954-1957, p. 21.
7. 15 Contemporary Artists Presented by Tapié, September 21-30, 1959, Gendai Galley, Tokyo.
8. Masanobu’s photo album, 1954-1957, p. 29.
9. Jiro Yoshihara, “Masatoshi Masanobu Solo Exhibition,” Masatoshi Masanobu Solo Exhibition leaflet, Gutai Art Association, Osaka, March 1965.
10. Handon, no. 40, Handon-no-kai, Kobe, December 1968, p. 60.
11. Yoshihara Jiro and Contemporary Artists of Gutai, exhibition catalogue, Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Modern Art, Kobe, January 1979, p. 99.
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