Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Abstract art expressing real emotion

For the first time in 20 years, a large-scale retrospective of an important Japanese artist of the 20th century, Koshiro Onchi, has opened at The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo.

Onchi (1891-1955) is recognized as probably the first and certainly one of the most prominent pioneers of abstract expression in Japanese art in the first half of the 20th century, and in that regard, an artist certainly worthy of a major retrospective of this type. Onchi became a favorite artist among American collectors during the Occupation following World War II, as the exhibition’s curator, Toru Matsumoto, explained at the opening press preview.

American collectors appreciated Onchi’s art in the context of Japan’s prewar movement known as “sosaku hanga,” literally “creative prints” but primarily meaning prints for which the entire creative process, from conception of the composition to the woodblock carving, the pigment application and printing was performed by the artist’s hand alone. Thus, many prime examples of Onchi’s woodblock prints found their way initially into collections in the United States. Museums such as the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Fine Art, Boston, and the British Museum have been tapped for important print series for this retrospective.

“The primary focus of this exhibition is Onchi’s prints. Onchi was an artist who worked in a number of media throughout his career, including oil painting, book design and drawing, and he always carried a camera on his travels to capture images as well. However, it is his series of prints titled ‘Lyric’ that are especially important in his development of abstract expression,” noted Matsumoto.

This exhibition brings together 250 prints, along with 11 impressive oil paintings, 27 watercolors and drawings, 20 photographs and 79 book designs. There are figurative works like portraits, including the artist’s self-portraits, landscapes and still lifes, but most of the prints are abstract compositions, and as a retrospective, the main interest lies in the development of Onchi’s abstract compositions.

“It is important to note that, like the early Western proponents of abstract expression such as Kandinsky, who titled his works with terms like compositions and improvisation, Onchi always avoided using the term ‘abstract’ with regard to his own work, preferring ‘non-figurative’ even in his late years,” Matsumoto said. Onchi’s earliest influence was Takehisa Yumeji, who introduced him to the concept of “jojo” (in Japanese), as the equivalent of the English term “lyric.” Matsumoto explained that for Takehisa and Onchi it meant the act or moment of expression of the artist’s emotions, be it in song, poetry or art. “I believe that in his compositions that we now call abstract Onchi was always seeking to create expressions true to his heart and mind,” he concluded.

Onchi’s early print series that bore the title “Jojo” in Japanese from as early as 1914 were largely composed around figurative images like the human form or eyes. By 1915, around the time when Onchi would have seen reproductions of Kandinsky abstract works, we see what is considered to be Onchi’s, and perhaps Japan’s, first purely abstract composition, titled “Jojo ‘Akarui Toki’” in Japanese and now bearing the subsequent English title “Lyric: The Clear Hours.” The transition from figurative to abstract motifs appears seamless in the development of Onchi’s print images at that period, however.

Onchi supported himself largely through book designs, which he began early in his career. An important starting point in his artistic career came while studying at the Tokyo School of Fine Art (predecessor of today’s National University of the Arts, Tokyo), when he joined with fellow students Kyoichi Tanaka and Shizuo Fujimori to publish a magazine of woodcut prints and poetry titled “Tsukuhae” (Reflections of the Moon). It was in the fifth edition of this magazine that the abstract work “Lyric: The Clear Hours” appeared.

Matsumoto points out how the subtitles in the “Lyric” series works such as “fragile hope,” “something like sorrow” and “forced despair” suggest how Onchi tried to express emotions that couldn’t be put into words. He also discusses later print series like the “Poem” series, in which Onchi dealt with emotions aroused by pieces of the natural world, the postwar “Allegory” series — with the powerful “Allegory No. 2” that is an allegory or requiem for the bombing of cities during WWII — and the “Form” series that explores movements such as rising, floating and drifting, while other series dealt with themes like musical composition.

This exhibition is about a rarely seen Japanese artist whose work spanned the tumultuous first half of the 20th century with clarity and vision.


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