MORIO MATSUI

Out of exile, into a Tokyo art space

by Chris Cook

For artist Morio Matsui, life has almost turned full circle. After four decades in “exile” in France, this currently Corsica-based Japanese artist’s ties with his homeland have strengthened with the opening earlier this year of an art space, Espace Morio Matsui, in Shimo-Meguro, Tokyo.

And now — besides the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, which he received in 2000, and the Legion d’Honneur awarded in 2003, both from the French government — Matsui can add another feather to his cap: A recent exhibition at Paris’ Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore, which attracted some of the creme de la creme of the French art world.

This year holds special meaning for him: Exactly 40 years ago he went to France to study at Paris’ Fine Arts College, after which he stayed in the French capital. Then, 10 years ago, he abruptly packed his brushes and easel and migrated south to the sun-blessed Mediterranean island of Corsica, the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte.

So now he’s celebrating four decades of living overseas, a decade in Corsica and a new art space.

“One of the reasons for establishing this space is to change the way in which Japanese approach art,” Matsui says. “Japan needs to develop the eye to look at art.”

Matsui believes that compared with the established markets in New York, Paris or London, Tokyo does not have the same level of artistic sophistication.

“Because of that, I would like Japan to have a strong art community in which it produces well-known artists,” he says.

The Toyohashi, Aichi Prefecture-born Matsui credits the pace of life in his adopted Corsica for allowing him to think clearly and relax — which has manifested in a change of direction in recent works. If you look at what he has created since he set up his studio in Paris, you’ll see that the style of his canvases has evolved over the years: in the early era, intricate but calming pieces, where literally tens of thousands of delicate brush strokes covered every single square centimeter of huge canvases; a “blue stage,” in which he captures the deep azure of the Corsican sky and sea; and more recently, Corsican landscapes infused with subtle Oriental elements.

His huge Paris canvases — some 5 meters long and 2 meters high — were born out of thousands of hours stretched over maybe two or three years. With that period behind him, Matsui has embarked on a new direction, and his easel now holds vaguely lunarlike creations overwritten with long ribbons of indecipherable kanji and hiragana characters, much like the beautiful, flowing calligraphy traditionally seen in Oriental art.

Looking ahead to next year, Matsui will show 15 of his works at the Chanel Nexus Hall in Ginza from January 16 to February 11 to mark the 150th anniversary of French-Japanese ties.

Michel Dauberville, director of Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, refers to Matsui as “a rainbow between Japan and Corsica,” and says he chose Matsui to show at the gallery “because he is a great painter.”

“Matsui is a contemporary artist who has managed to combine Japanese ‘graphism’ and European influence through his paintings,” Dauberville says in an e-mail interview. “I am seduced by the rhythms, the emotions and the great mastership of this artist.”

The last decade has clearly been an important one for Matsui, and there is no doubt that his relaxed lifestyle, coupled with the Corsican landscape and lighting, has contributed to his boundless energy. To see a kimono-clad Matsui standing at his easel on a sun-drenched beach, paintbrush in hand, is to see him in his element.

“Corsica has truly been a relaxing place where I have been able to think,” he says. “It’s like living in a bubble and I am seeing such beautiful things. Corsica is truly one stop from heaven.”

www.matsuimorio.jp. Matsui’s 2008 exhibition will be at Chanel Nexus Hall, Chanel Ginza Building, 3-5-3 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo ([03]) 5447-3079); Open 11 a.m.-8 p.m.