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Sunday, May 11, 2008


Brushwork ethereal as the London mists

YOSHIO MARKINO: A Japanese Artist in Edwardian London, revised edition, by Sammy I. Tsunematsu, preface by Ross S. Kilpatrick. London: The Soseki Museum, 2008, 208 pp. ¥1,850 (paper) Born in 1869, died in 1956, Yoshio Markino, an artist better remembered in England than in Japan, spent much of his life abroad.

Though he had lived in San Francisco, New York, and Paris, it was London that he most loved.

Here, he wrote, nobody shouted at him, nobody spat, nobody threw stones, as they had in San Francisco, perhaps mistaking him for a Chinese. Here he at once knew he had come to a better place because in contrast to his American experiences the customs officers were so pleasant. Indeed, he was later to write, "I felt I had come to paradise in this world, and I was quite melted with comfort."

Particularly, he liked the mists and fogs of the place. "I think London without mists would be like a bride without a trousseau," he once wrote, adding that "I do not feel I could live in any other place but London."

And once there, he attempted to picture what he found so attractive. "It is most difficult for me to show my impression of this wonderful misty town by my pen or my brush, but I have more self-confidence to succeed with the latter."

This brush then produced a whole series of watercolor sketches that eventually attracted the attention of the more art-loving inhabitants. Oscar Wilde had just said that the American painter James Whistler had invented London fog — meaning that he was the first to delineate it — and the public had decided that what had been a nuisance was actually an advantage. In Markino was found an artist whose deliquescent drawings perfectly depicted the newfound attractions of London fog.

Later he divulged how he contrived his effects. "I can achieve a very soft color by mixing in oils the strongest primary color with its opponent color . . . I made many other discoveries and was able to achieve some sense of light while trying to draw a silken veil."

These effects found the painter his public. They saw their familiar sights through a new and refreshingly alien eye. Markino went on to paint Oxford and discovered Japanese metaphors — he found the old pavements "cracked like turtle backs" and discovered Oriental color in Occidental England. And when H.G. Wells bought one of his canvases the celebrated author told a friend: "I want to carry London to my Paris flat and this picture is the concentrated essence of London."

This Japanese eye was particularly turned to London's fair sex: "The cherry blossom would be too shy before their complexions. These golden hairs are fairer than chrysanthemum flowers, and the contrast of the dark hair with milk-white complexions is more beautiful than the pear blossom on a moonlight night."

The infatuated artist even changed his name to accommodate his new public. "Markino" is an Anglicization of his Japanese family name. He added the "r" to prevent the English from calling him "Maykino."

And he was indeed taken by society. In the 1919 edition of "Who's Who" he was one of the five Japanese mentioned (the others were Admiral Togo, Marquess Okuma, Sutemi Chiba, the then ambassador to Britain, and the Emperor). He did not become wealthy. He was often seen sustaining himself on "Bovril" and rice. Artist though he was, he had no head for business.

Of this he was quite aware and blamed himself. "If your cat steals your fish," he said, "it is not the fault of your cat, but the fault of your own self, and you can love your cat well if you are cautious enough!" So, "the best way is not to have any business matter with my English friends. As long as no business is concerned, they are all perfect darlings!"

Markino in his near half-century in London painted, published and, in his own fashion, prospered. He had many famous friends and he has been posthumously much honored. Among those who have done most to preserve and present this artist and his work has been Sammy Tsunematsu. He has helped keep Markino's books in print and has written a number of monographs. He is also the founder of the Soseki Museum in London (devoted to the famous author Natsume Soseki, a man whose London adventures were in many ways the opposite of Markino's).

Tsunematsu here offers a biography built largely upon Markino's own writings and reminiscences. In it he ably presents the painter who "captured misty early mornings and rainy twilights" but can give us no illustrations of this. For reproductions of Markino's work one must turn to the current reprints of the several books he produced during his life. These are available through In Print Publishing in London.

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