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Fuyuko Matsui
Photo courtesy of Naruyama Gallery



By C.B. Liddell

TOKYO, 9 OCTOBER 2007 —Art, despite all its complexities and convolutions, is and always has been simply a mirror of humanity. While one artist expresses hope, another gives voice to fear. While one explores our love of order, another expresses our fascination with chaos: together all these fragments make up something resembling the human psyche.

"In a way I’m doing something that the viewer can’t do himself. It’s like people who occasionally think about jumping under a train. In my art I’m actually jumping under the train. That shock – I’m doing it for you."

This also explains artistic trends and why they never last. An artistic trend is, in essence, an exaggeration of one element or aspect of the human psyche reflected by art, and, because it is a distortion, its duration is always limited. It is a cast iron rule that what is trendy today will wither and fade in the future. This is especially true of Japanese art, which is more trend-driven than anywhere else.

Contemporary Japanese art is, of course, complex and diverse, but there are no denying its salient features – its cutey-ness and its manga-esque qualities – typified by artists such as Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara, the two most established artists of today. Their cartoonish creations reflect the playful otaku sensibility of Japan’s consumer culture, itself an expression of childish desire combined with a voluntary alienation from reality.

But anyone who thinks their humor-inflected creations represent the totality of what the Japanese are all about is sadly mistaken. The truth, as always, is that large swathes of the Japanese psyche are not being represented by mainstream artistic trends, and it is from these dark, secret lands that future trends will inevitably emerge.

What they will be it is hard to predict, but, by the very nature of things, they will be markedly different. As people get bored with the comedic irony and pop-art immediacy of current trends, and tire of its cheery atmosphere of cuteness and consumerist accessibility, it is a reasonable assumption that they will head somewhere in the opposite direction. One rising artist who is an almost polar opposite to established trends is Fuyuko Matsui, who finds her visual vocabulary in the painstaking artistic traditions of Nihonga (traditional Japanese-style painting) and her subject matter in the her own dark and troubled mind, as well as Japan’s ghostly past.

Fuyuko Matsui: Carved Limbs on an Altar, 2007
Photo courtesy of Naruyama Gallery  

"I don’t like sweet and cute art," she tells Culturekiosque on a visit to the Naruyama Gallery in Tokyo’s Kudanshita, a mere stone’s throw from Japan’s controversial Yasukuni Shrine. "Japanese art nowadays is like that, but if we think in centuries, in the Kamakura period for example, it was scarier, more ghostly. I want to return to that taste in my art."

Insane Woman under the Cherry Tree (2006) typifies her approach. Beautifully and painstakingly painted, using traditional Japanese pigments on silk, it depicts something quite horrifying, namely a woman who is in the process of vomiting out her innards, including the embryonic form of a child.

"It’s a madwoman under the cherry blossom," she says. "It should be Spring, but there are Autumn momiji leaves on her kimono."

As Japanese people often compare the hands of babies to the five-fingered leaves of the momiji (Japanese maple), this is a characteristically subtle and ironic touch that may not be apparent in such an obviously shocking piece.

With works like this and the equally shocking Keeping Up the Pureness (2004) – a sensation at the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art’s From Nihonga to Nihonga group show last year – it might seem that Matsui is out to shock and repel. But, on the contrary, the artist sees the impact her images have as a device to bridge the gap between artist and audience.

"I want to create a sympathy, a strong feeling, between the viewer and myself," she explains. "In a way I’m doing something that the viewer can’t do himself. It’s like people who occasionally think about jumping under a train. In my art I’m actually jumping under the train. That shock – I’m doing it for you."

Fuyuko Matsui in front of Nyctalopia, 2005  

While many Japanese artists are influenced by things that are happening in their contemporary environment, Matsui’s artistic influences go back centuries. For example, Insane Woman under the Cherry Tree is inspired by Ogress under Willow Tree, a painting by Soga Shohhaku (1730-1781), the iconoclastic Edo-period painter, who was himself deeply influenced by the past, in his case, by the Muromachi Era painter Soga Jasoku (d. 1483). Part of her interest in the past comes from her background. She grew up in Shizuoka Prefecture in a house that had been in her family for 14 generations.

"There were a lot of sansuiga [Indian ink landscape paintings] in our tatami mat rooms," she recalls. "But the biggest influence I got was from a fake Mona Lisa in the public library that I saw when I was in the 3rd or 4th grade of elementary school. I studied Western oil painting until I was 20, then I turned to Japanese painting."

Unlike Western painting, Nihonga tends to be more conservative. Despite her growing success and popularity – underpinned by her stunning good looks – Matsui has had to dedicate recent months to successfully graduating from the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, where she finished as the top graduate in her class. This has meant learning to excel at techniques and styles from the centuries–old canon of Japanse traditional art.

Although the techniques and styles of Nihonga remain heavily traditional, innovative young artists like Matsui and her colleagues from last year’s show at the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art, like Kumi Machida and Hisashi Tenmyohya, are showing much greater freedom in subject matter. This is giving the genre a freshness that it has often lacked in the past. While Tenmyohya’s richly decorated images reflect modern working class culture – garish trucks, youth gangs, tattooed samurai and dance crazes – with a touch of irony, Matsui’s paintings recast the traditional elements of Nihonga – flowers, animals, women, trees – into powerful and often horrific works that have all the shock value of the most cutting edge modern art. So, from which deep, dark place do her pictures journey forth?

"There are various things that inspire my paintings: first a strong concept, second I have a mental picture and a concept, and third I just randomly paint until something starts to appear, and, then, there are all of these different ways combined."

According to Matsui, the image for Keeping Up the Pureness was originally a mental image that occurred to her one night as she was trying to get to sleep. Initially it looks like a murder scene, with a young naked woman cut open to reveal her minutely painted organs. But, rather than an image of female as victim, it is actually something more empowering, she explains.

Fuyuko Matsui:  Keeping Up the Pureness, 2004 
Photo courtesy of Naruyama Gallery

"Men and women are different. A man’s power is throughout his body, but a woman has her power in her uterus, so I think a women’s body is centred in the uterus. In a way, she is actually showing off, just like the flowers in the picture are showing off their sexual parts."

Despite this, she denies that it is a feminist painting.

"I don’t have any message," she affirms. "I just want to tell how it feels to be a woman. Because I’m a woman and I don’t have a man’s body, I can only paint a woman’s feeling."

Regarding the ultimate purpose of the uterus that she paints in these pictures, Matsui, like a growing number of young Japanese women, is unmarried and childless, and seems inclined to stay that way.

"No. I don’t feel a bit of responsibility to have a baby. If 80% of the people all around the world think they were happy to be born, then I might. Also if I were more happy, I might have more children. I’m not usually a happy person."

This moroseness is also apparent in Nyctalopia (2005), another potent image that appeared at the MOT show. In this work a ghostly-looking woman is apparently engaged in the act of garrotting a chicken. While nyctalopia is a medical word meaning night blindness, in Japanese the same meaning is conveyed by the term torime or "chicken’s eyes." Matsui connects this to emotional numbness caused by pain or overexposure of the emotions, hence the poker-faced callousness of the woman’s action.

With such dark and powerful emotions powering her art, a more directly expressive medium of art would seem natural. Why, then, has she been attracted to a style that requires patience, precision, delicacy, and control, rather than something heavier and more gestural?

"The mainstream of Nihonga today is iwa enogu [stone powder pigment that does not dissolve in water and needs to be applied with a thick glue solution]. Instead of iwa enogu , I felt I should paint very thin. Also, using strong strokes is not the strongest way. Taking time and care leads to deeper expression. It’s like torture – sticking pins in, is more painful than big punches."

C. B. Liddell is a Tokyo-based journalist who writes on culture for the International Herald Tribune Asahi Shimbun newspaper. He last interviewed the American photographer Steve McCurry in Thailand for

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