The printer who wished to paint

by Matthew Larking

Masuo Ikeda’s polymath abilities in the arts — ranging from printmaking to writing and ceramics — is mirrored in his diverse depictions of feminine eroticism. Posed provocatively in Ikeda’s works are his versions of Venus, virgins, brides, generic types and femme fatales, the Madonna of the Annunciation and Yang Guifei, the renowned Chinese beauty who led the Tang Dynasty emperor Xuanzong to neglect his affairs of state.

All this is laid bare in the exhibition “Masuo Ikeda’s Prints: Recent Acquisitions — The M&Y Collection” at The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, which is until Dec. 24 displaying around 350 of the 800 or so works bequeathed to the museum by Ikeda’s partner, Yoko Sato.

Soft porn was a mainstay of Ikeda’s printmaking oeuvre, and it formed part of his literary one too — for which he won Japan’s esteemed Akutagawa Prize in 1977 for the novel “Offering in the Aegean.” In 1979, he branched out further, directing the film adaptation of his novel with a bit-part given to Italian porn-star La Cicciolina, former wife of the contemporary art-star Jeff Koons. For the film’s showing in Japan, censorship required Ikeda to scratch out pubic hair from the celluloid, which appears to have bolstered his desire to portray it in print. In “Homage du” (1980), one subject’s pubic hair looks more like full-grown foliage, perplexing her male companion.

Ikeda (1934-1997) was born in Fengtian, Manchuria, and moved back to Nagano Prefecture with his parents at the end of World War II. He nurtured an early desire to become a painter, and moved to Tokyo in 1952, where his three attempts to enter the Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music were roundly rejected. Ikeda was encouraged to change mediums by avant-garde artist Ei-Q and artists/supporters at his Democratic Art Association.

Success with prints came swiftly. In 1957 Ikeda participated in the first Tokyo International Print Biennial and won the Ministry of Culture Award at the next. He later became the first Japanese artist to have a solo exhibition at the prestigious Museum of Modern Art, New York, and then won the International Grand Prix in the Prints Section at the 33rd Venice Biennale, when he was still only 32 years old.

Ikeda’s early work from 1956-’66 is heavily focused upon dry-point engraving, and these are arguably the best works in his career, except perhaps the “Fruit” series of the mid-1970s, which the artist paired with poems. Although primarily a figurative artist, many works are thoroughly abstracted, sparse on color, heavy on scratchy black line work — surprising given that dry-point engraving is a kind of drawing. Elsewhere, works evince a penchant for caricature, as in the exaggerated peculiarities in faces and figures in “Birds and Woman” (1960).

For 10 years, until 1976, Ikeda was immersed in lithograph and mezzotint mediums. Here color becomes a much more prominent feature, as does heightened fidelity to realism at the expense of earlier nervous line work. New themes emerge, and a particular urge to play around with motifs of Surrealism. One dominant artistic concern is the cloudy blue skies of the Belgian Rene Magritte, and also Magritte’s picture “The Treachery of Images” (1929). Under the painted smoker’s pipe was inscribed, “This is not a pipe,” to which Ikeda responds in kind with “Miss Margaret not Magritte” (1970) in which his phrase is similarly inscribed beneath several figures, and more eccentrically, beneath the rear-end of a horse.

In a strange turn of events, in Ikeda’s mature years, he became much more indebted to other artists — usually a feature of an artist’s early career — creating as well “Homage to Picasso” (1982) and “Window of Matisse” (1986). Japanese influences came out too, as in his “Sotatsu Sanka (Ten),” (1985) which in the catalog is romanized, but not translated — sanka meaning “song in praise,” and ten, “heaven.” Sotatsu was an Edo Period (1600-1868) painter in the decorative Rimpa style, and the domineering Picasso influence emerges in the form of Cubist collages that took guitars as their central motif, among others. While all this laying bare of stylistic and conceptual allegiance is intriguing, it also seems to inadvertently point out that Ikeda’s reserves of creativity had become a little bankrupt.

More sympathetically, Ikeda’s praise is mostly for painters, and while earlier prints can also be strikingly painterly, his painterliness was even more prominent in this final period. Ikeda seems to be reaffirming his commitment to his early aspiration, and in prints such as “Shining Sea” (1986), he reproduces in lithographs the appearance of Matisse-style brush-stroke designs as if they had been painted in the pigments of Rimpa painters. Fittingly, these late works stand more as a tribute to those Ikeda most admired and his own unrealized ambition than to the revered print artist he was.

“Masuo Ikeda’s Prints: Recent Acquisitions — The M&Y Collection” runs till Dec. 24 at the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto; admission ¥830; open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. (closed Mon.; open Dec. 24.) . For more information call (075) 761-9900 or visit www.momak.go.jp