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Tuesday, March 27, 2001


Excelling in a formerly alien medium

White rappers used to be a joke until a credible one -- Eminem -- came along. In a similar way, Japanese artists' early efforts to master Western oil painting ended up looking extremely ersatz, clumsy or derivative; their paintings mere experiments or study pieces rather than true works of art. The urge to slavishly imitate, however, given time and talent, becomes the urge to emulate. In the case of Japanese Western-style oil painting, this can be seen in the work of Narashige Koide (1887-1931), currently showcased in an extensive exhibition at the Yokohama Sogo Museum.

"Standing Portrait of Zhou Quilan" (1928)

His early pencil sketches and watercolors -- see "Sketches of the Three Nights Trip" (1906) -- show a wonderfully light touch, more in keeping with nihonga, setting a contrast with the dark, heavy, ornate style of oil painting he later favored. A constant factor in his art was his poor health. Suffering from congenital heart disease, he was confined indoors for most of his life. It is perhaps for this reason that a great many of his paintings, even his landscapes, have an indoor feel.

He was attracted to dark, somber tones like those apparent in "View of the City Under the Snow" (1925). The pre-war architecture of his native Osaka, rendered in thick, dark brushstrokes, gives the city almost an atmosphere of a dark, Nordic winter.

His portraits -- like "The Family Portrait of N" (1919), showing him, his wife and his son -- are typically lugubrious, with a subtle note of distortion that is all the more potent for being barely perceptible. Koide paints his own face elongated and slanted to one side. His "Portrait of Omme" (1920), with its long head and swollen eyes, creates a feeling of a child old before her time.

"The Family Portrait of N" (1919)

Despite his poor health, in 1921-22 he made a pilgrimage to the font of Western art, visiting France to pay homage to artists who, like Cezanne and Matisse, influenced him. His landscapes from this period, like "Landscape of Cagne" (1922), show some influence of the brighter climes, but the feeling conveyed is often of the dead air that precedes a summer storm.

The still lifes, like "Vegetables and Fruits on the Table" (1927), which uses a characteristically ornate Chinese table, intensify the indoor atmosphere of his work, giving us a picture of a sickly artist happy to paint the same objects again and again. This table, whose complex geometry seemed to fascinate Koide, appears in many works hosting the picked flowers, fruits, and vegetables that seem sadly separated from the natural world. Feeling ephemeral himself, the artist seems to be attempting to solidify these objects in his consciousness as an act of visual incantation.

"Nude Lying (B)" (1928)

Although these works seem dull to the modern viewer, this same mantric urge to isolate and realize natural objects, when applied to the female nude, produced some truly worthy oil paintings. "Nude Lying on a Chinese Bed" (1930), which features another recurring piece of furniture, shows beautiful skin tones in a stylized form suggestive of Matisse's best work. "Nude Lying" (1930), a work from the same palette, shows a nude from behind in tones warm and intimate. Koide also painted excellent miniature nudes on glass, such as "Nude Reclining on Sofa" (1930), which has a strong element of the voyeur in it.

Of course his illness was an important factor in creating his style, but it is nevertheless painful to reflect that these nude masterpieces were all painted only a year or so before his death at the tragically early age of 43. Death perhaps prevented him from becoming a great artist, but Koide, despite many mediocre works, was also one of the first Japanese artists to truly excel in a formerly alien medium.

Works by Narashige Koide, until April 2 at the Yokohama Sogo Museum (045) 465-2361, at Yokohama Sogo Dept. Store, 6F. Admission 900 yen, students 700 yen, children 500 yen.

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