Regardless of one’s own relationship to religion, many of us are disposed to believe we can transcend the present world, rising above it to another super-reality, to a surreal world.
A striking visual corollary to that idea is made by painter Hiroshi Asada’s “Landscape of Fallen Soil” (1970) in the “Hiroshi Asada Retrospective” at the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, till Sept. 17. In the work there is a multiplication of horizons, piled into a few layers that are somehow incongruously continuous with each other.
One landscape at the top is upside down and seems to nourish the landscape below, feeding it clods of dirt. Composite forms, inscrutable and half-realized, congeal in the surrounding terrains. This is a land of illusion, but one still close to nature.
Asada (1931-97) was born into a family of nihonga (Japanese-style) painters, though his father, Benji Asada, lacked the kind of talent that could place him among the top painters of his age — a status which evaded Hiroshi’s older brother, Takashi Asada, too. Initially Asada declined to follow in the family tradition, enrolling instead in the economics course at Kyoto’s Doshisha University. He imagined himself the financially stable type, supporting his painter-brother as Theo van Gogh had supported Vincent.
While at school, though, he became a member of a traditional painting circle and took lessons from a painter with eclectic stylistic allegiances, Michio Kuwada — a rising figure in the Shinseisaku Kyokai (Association of Artists for New Works). Asada would begin exhibiting with Shinseisaku Kyokai from 1954 as a Western-style painter.
His earliest phase dabbled in figurative painting, before he headed into geometric abstraction combined with the thick paint that characterized the European Art Informel movement. In the late 1960s, there was a rapid development in Asada’s work, in which reality asserted itself in place of abstraction, before the unreal takes over in 1970. This opened the way for warped topologies and fantastic visions that incorporated Surrealistic approaches that would define the rest of his years.
A particularly compelling and monstrous example is “Le Trottoir No. 2” (1974), a pavement that is strewn helter-skelter with oddities and a confusion of debris; the disembodied eyeballs which live among the disorder suggest some kind of voyeuristic experience.
In 1971, Asada became an expatriate in France, where he set up a studio that he worked in for 11 years. As he learned the laborious techniques of copperplate printing, Asada’s super-realism — a form of obsession — became ever more exacting and intricate.
He exhibited to some acclaim throughout Europe, all the while sending pictures back to Japan for Shinseisaku Kyokai exhibitions. He also began to develop the theme of a “world landscape” from 1973 onward and took to the study of Old Masters. The results are most apparent in much later works, such as “Four Corners — Light” (1995), which — in its skulls and foliage — draws on the morbid still-lifes from 17th-century Holland. Asada directly acknowledges his interest in the Renaissance Flemish landscape painter Joachim Patinir in “Distant Landscape (Homage to Patinir)” (date unknown).
The long stay abroad, combined with Asada’s demanding painting processes, contributed to a mental and physical deterioration that brought him back to Kyoto in 1983. Painting in what was now his trademark style, Asada’s thematic choices first became suffused with Christian religiosity in the mid-’80s in works like “Earth — After the Flood” (1985-86) and “The Wrongdoer’s Homecoming” (1988), an allusion to a biblical painting by Hieronymus Bosch, who was another inspiration for 20th-century Surrealism.
Asada took his own life in 1997. His final completed work, “Marsh — Moon” (1997), was signed “Hiroshi Asad” with the final “a” omitted, making it so oddly incomplete. His last uncompleted work, “Original Tree” (1997), found on his studio easel, alludes to the biblical Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil — an apple floats and a snake winds its way around the tree. There is a strong psychological appeal to these late dreamscapes which are as suggestive as they are interpretatively slippery.
But without knowing the dreamer’s associations — as Sigmund Freud admonished the early French Surrealists — it is pointless to interpret Asada’s final signature and late works to reveal his secret life. Pictures, however lamentably, do not explain anything. Besides, the wealth of imagery in his paintings would never allow full comprehension, divided as it is between the real and the imaginary.
“Asada Hiroshi Retrospective” is at the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto till Sept. 17; open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. (closed Mon.). For more information visit www.momak.go.jp