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Wednesday, June 26, 2002


Finding a style of their own

Special to The Japan Times

Next year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Vincent van Gogh, popularly regarded in Japan (as elsewhere) as the quintessential artist. Unfortunately, it will be difficult for Japanese galleries to borrow works from abroad to celebrate this event, with insurance costs now three times higher than before Sept. 11.

News photo
"Woman" (1929) by Katsuzo Satomi
News photo
"Self-portrait in a Standing Posture" (1924) by Yuzo Saeki

Bad news, too, for Nishi Shinjuku's Yasuda Kasai Museum of Art, which, as owner of one of van Gogh's highly prized "Sunflowers," (acquired by the Yasuda Fire & Marine Insurance Co. at Christie's, London, some 10 years ago for the then-record sum of $40.3 million), has a local association with the Dutch painter and ties with the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

"We wanted to have a van Gogh exhibition," laments chief curator Masaru Igarashi. "Instead, a year early, we have an exhibition related to van Gogh."

"Vlaminck / Satomi / Saeki," running till July 25, spotlights the work of Maurice de Vlaminck (1876-1958), a French painter strongly influenced by van Gogh, as well that of Katsuzo Satomi (1895-1981) and Yuzo Saeki (1898-1928), two Japanese artists who studied under Vlaminck and shared his fascination with van Gogh's genius.

The Dutch artist's influence is particularly evident in the wide, vivid brush strokes of Vlaminck's "Seine River at Chatou" (1904), in the brilliant rippled colors flowing through Satomi's "Olive Tree" (1960-62), and in Saeki's paintings, "Church in Auvers-sur-Oise" (1924) and "Postman" (1928), both of which directly reinterpret motifs used by Van Gogh.

It might seem, therefore, that this exhibition is about imitation. Certainly both Japanese painters trained at the Tokyo School of Art, not known for encouraging stylistic experimentation, and at a time when good reproductions of Western art were hard to obtain. "At that time Japanese artists didn't have room to develop their own style," Igarashi says. "So both artists went to France on a quest to find an individual style."

That being so, Satomi's chance meeting with Vlaminck in Auvers-sur-Oise in 1921 was fortuitous. Vlaminck, formerly a professional cyclist, soldier and busking violinist, with no formal art training, had -- along with Andre Derain and Henri Matisse -- made his name as one of the original Fauves. The Fauviste group was inspired by van Gogh and pioneered a style that used brilliant unmixed colors in vigorous, expressive compositions.

Although most of the Vlamincks on display at the Yasuda Kasai come from his later period, when his palette darkened, the rawness and dynamism of his earlier style can be seen in works such as "Landscape in Snow" (1930), where the paint, applied straight from the tube onto the canvas, is scored and rutted to capture perfectly the effect of old snow in a street.

Vlaminck was forthright in his criticism of some of Satomi's early works: "You have the same bad characteristics as the other Japanese painters in Paris," he told the young artist. "You have to get rid of that character. It is academic, unhealthy, sentimental, fragmented and flat overall. Your work has no sense of the physical properties of objects!"

Satomi's response was to start echoing Vlaminck's style in works such as "Pontoise in Snow" (1924), where the slant of the church tower gives the viewer a palpable sense of its mass. While his master's example helped him break free of earlier conventions, however, it was only after Satomi returned to Japan and started painting the brilliantly colored nudes displayed here that he finally attained a distinctive style of his own.

For Saeki, who was probably aware that he was slowly dying from tuberculosis, the benefits of Vlaminck's robust criticism came even sooner. In 1924, Saeki, who had been introduced to Vlaminck by Satomi, brought one of his nudes to show the bluff Frenchman. It was quickly dismissed as "academism!" The sensitive and sickly young artist was reduced to tears, and the shock he suffered can still be seen in his pathetic "Self-portrait in a Standing Posture" (1924), a work that strives to avoid all such academic mannerisms.

His subsequent attempts to "realize the physical properties of objects" led Saeki to paint Parisian buildings and streets in smudged and earthy tones. Although at times reminiscent of the works of Maurice Utrillo, these pieces possess a directness and sense of freedom that render them instantly memorable.

Saeki also incorporated elements of Oriental art to distinguish the style of his works. Igarashi points out how, in "Street" (1927), the artist employs the kuki-enkinho (air perspective) technique of sumi-e ink painting, creating a sense of perspective by representing the receding street in the center with indistinct lines. The curving brush strokes he uses for the lettering on posters and signs also recall Japanese calligraphy.

If imitation is the attempt to reach the same point as a person one admires, perhaps emulation is the desire to depart from the same point. With the help of Vlaminck, Satomi -- and especially Saeki -- were able to achieve something of the purity that led van Gogh on his great artistic journey, and to embark upon a journey of their own.

"Vlaminck / Satomi / Saeki" runs till July 25 at the Seiji Togo Memorial Yasuda Kasai Museum of Art, Yasuda Kasai Bldg. 42F, near the West Exit of Shinjuku Station; (03) 3349-3081. Open 9:30 a.m. - 5 p.m (Friday till 7 p.m.); closed Monday. 1,000 yen for adults, 600 yen for students; admission free for children.

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