The Fascist dictator Generalissimo Francisco Franco wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea — but he did manage the unusual feat of transcending time.
Franco’s restoration of the old aristocracy and the Catholic Church in Spain effectively turned the clock back, while his restrictive economic policies helped preserve Spain as a timeless land of beautifully aged buildings and clear brilliant skies.
This particular Spain also made a strong impression on the artist Ken Yabuno when he arrived there in 1970 with hopes of studying architecture. He ended up studying art instead, and his oil paintings — 52 of which have been collected for “Cities in Memory,” an impressive retrospective at the Fuchu Art Museum — create a world that resolutely stands aside from conventions of time by embracing memory and reminders of the past — while expressing a sense of the present and future.
“When I stayed in Spain, I wanted to go to the scenery that existed before the Spanish Civil War,” Yabuno told The Japan Times in a recent interview. “I visited the town of Belchite that was destroyed in a civil war battle. The damage was very great, so a new town was built in another place, while the ruins are preserved to keep the memory. Living people, dead people, people who will be born in the future, the things I want to paint are beyond time and space.”
Born in 1943, Yabuno is old enough to remember the wartime destruction of his own native city of Nagoya. He now lives and works in Tokyo, a city that has also seen more than its share of destruction and rebuilding.
“When I was small, I saw the bombed-out cities. That’s how I got interested in architecture,” he said. “When I started painting, I wanted to see old houses. When I returned to Japan, I was very aware of the difference between old and new buildings. At that time the main streets had a lot of new buildings, but behind them there were lots of old houses.
“Tokyo was built in 1603, but since then it has been rebuilt 50 times. This is quite different even from a new country like the United States, where places like Boston and Harvard still have buildings from the 17th century.”
Although his paintings invariably focus on Europe and the Mediterranean, the 51 pastel and watercolor sketches also included in the exhibition frequently show Japanese scenes and buildings, including Waseda University where he teaches. “Around Tokyo Station in Near Future” shows the old station dwarfed by an encroaching gang of skyscrapers, leaving you in no doubt where he stands on the city’s constant redevelopment. But what exactly is this fascination with buildings of a certain age?
“In old buildings you can see the daily life of people from generation to generation,” Yabuno explained. “After about 50 or 60 years, buildings reflect the character of the people. It’s similar to the lifetime of people.”
But while he paints scenes that may seem culled from tourist brochures of Europe, these are not over-reverential romanticizations of cherished locations. The way in which he puts his images together gives his paintings a contemporary relevance.
“Memory is fragmentary. In my paintings I combine fragments of memory like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. I sketch from many different locations and then compose the different elements,” said Yabuno. “In some of my paintings the architecture you see doesn’t actually exist.”
This creates offbeat assemblages of architecture and misaligned shadows that recall the works of the proto-Surrealist painter Giorgio de Chirico. When Yabuno paints buildings and scenes that do exist, he sets them in the context that his memory suggests. An excellent example is “Everything Appears If You Stand Still” (2005), a soaring view of the Bay of Naples.
“You can’t see this scene from that point,” he said. “The viewpoint is unreal but I wanted to see everything from this level, from above.”
An important feature of this work is Mount Vesuvius, shown erupting in the distance, as well as in a painting within the painting. This refers to the way a past eruption by the volcano destroyed, yet also preserved, the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum — so making them timeless.
“When I went to the Roman cities I wanted to dig and open them up,” he said. “I had a similar feeling when I painted this.”
Although the painting has the plume of an eruption, a characteristic of most of Yabuno’s works is a cloudless, azure sky devoid of all detail. “With the blue of the sky I am trying to express a sense of eternity and infinity,” he explained. But while he strives toward timelessness in his paintings, he also introduces elements of specificity, painting period costumes and specific makes of cars.
“This is a 1930 Cord,” he says pointing to a classic car in another painting. “And over here this here is ’54 Oldsmobile.”
The tension between the finite and the infinite, the moment and eternity, give these paintings a profound beauty. And if that’s not enough, there’s plenty of interest for students of architecture (or classic-car enthusiasts).
“Ken Yabuno: Cities in Memory” is showing till Oct. 8 at Fuchu Art Museum, Sengen-cho 1-3, Fuchu-shi, Tokyo, a 15-min. walk from Higashi-Fuchu Station on the Keio Line; admission ¥600; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (closed Mon.). For more information, call (042) 336-3371 or visit www.art.city.fuchu.tokyo.jp