Storm clouds over an artist’s life cut short

Was melancholic and ailing Yuzo Saeki Japan's unsung and maligned Van Gogh?

by Matthew Larking

In the summer of 1924, fresh out of art school in Japan and settling into the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere in Paris, Yuzo Saeki (1898-1928) was taken by his classmate Katsuzo Satomi to have his work critiqued by the Fauvist painter, anarchist and journalist Maurice de Vlaminck. Just when he was getting under way as an artist, it was to be a decisive moment in Saeki’s painting career. What the French painter said about what Saeki showed him was a typical Vlaminck outburst: “What academicism!” he said, referring to the style taught in the major schools in Paris.

The provocateur continued to rant at Saeki, who was still acclimatizing to French, for another hour and half. Exactly which work so chafed Vlaminck remains unknown, but two pieces from “Dreams of Art, Yuzo Saeki in Paris,” running at Osaka City Museum of Modern Art till March 25, show Saeki’s sudden change in artistic direction — one that hastened his death.

Saeki had first studied painting under Rinsaku Akamatsu while at middle school, learning the Impressionist style of its Japanese innovator, Seiki Kuroda. “Distant View of Paris” (1924) is a carefully arranged landscape with rocky foreground, a middleground composed of various buildings, and a somber sky that rises behind.

The brushwork and the structural development suggest influences back to Cezanne and the post-Impressionists popular in France and Japan in the early 20th century.

“Standing Self-portrait,” from the same year, represents Saeki’s altogether different approach. The artist stands alone, arms at his side, palette in one hand, brush in the other, a street receding into the middle distance. The brushwork and application of color is terse and the face is blackened, obscured beneath a veiling brushstroke.

Psychological appeal

The piece has a distinct psychological appeal, not least because the abrupt change in artistic style might indicate tumult within the artist, but also because, in the paintings, a previous “look” has been erased.

After graduating from the Tokyo School of Fine Arts in 1923, Saeki, along with his wife of two years, Yoneko Ikeda (a painter herself), and their child, set out for the cultural center of Paris as so many other would-be artists did. His decisive stylistic break marked the beginning of an extraordinarily intense four-year period of creativity.

Saeki’s artistic trajectory borrowed from Vlaminck’s dramatic approach to landscape painting, which he had learnt from Van Gogh and Cezanne, and Maurice Utrillo’s subject matter, which often turned to the back streets of Paris and its suburbs. On to this Saeki applied a psychological heaviness most readily discernible in the ever-present threat of a storm in the skies. The pervasive sense is that the artist nursed a tempestuous melancholy throughout these sometimes bleak though elegant works.

Back in Japan in 1926, Saeki, his Parisian classmate Satomi and others, grouped together to form the “1930 Society,” named after a French organization from 100 years earlier. Scores of Fauvist works brought back from Europe were exhibited in Tokyo, shocking many of the conventional Western-style painters versed in Seiki Kuroda’s plein-air Impressionism or earlier academic styles.

Also in 1926, Saeki won the Nika prize at the 13th Nikaten, an exhibition held by The Second Society in opposition to the more conservative, government- sponsored Bunten exhibition.

But Japan at the time was never really going to be open to the kind of hard-edged architectural subjects Saeki strove to capture. In a letter, his wife worried: “He could only accomplish the task remaining to him during his life by going back to Paris in order to paint the soiled walls and loosely-fixed posters he found on the backstreets.”

In August 1927, traveling via the Trans-Siberian, he returned to France, where his final period of frenetic activity led to a deterioration in the tuberculosis he had long suffered from. Then he had a nervous breakdown, which sent him to a nursing home in the Paris suburbs where he died.

Overwrought reaction

Such an ending has turned Saeki into a Van Gogh figure in Japan’s art world, complete with the well-worn biography of a romantic artist devoted to his work, even as his own death comes too early. Though, in light of his paintings, such a reaction seems overwrought, the art critic Robert Hughes was probably too unkind when, in 1988, he described Saeki’s work as “not much more than a sensitive pastiche of those two arch bores of the Ecole de Paris, Maurice de Vlaminck and Maurice Utrillo.”

In France, Saeki was a progeny; in Japan, an innovator. Modernism was generally at the mercy of the culture looking at it. Saeki’s essential contribution, while very short-lived, was to usher in a period in Japanese Modernism that overthrew the pre-existing reliance on the Impressionist model and encouraged freer Fauvist Expressionism.

Although the supporting cast of characters that preface this exhibition, like the always popular Picasso and Monet, surely give Saeki’s achievements context and bring added luster, Saeki is an engaging enough painter without such support.