Tilting the balance back to darkness

Artist Fuyuko Matsui turns her back on the cute and quirky for the mysterious

by Donald Eubank

In the minds of casual observers, Japan is simple. Between lovers of tradition and those enraptured by Japan’s quirky window into an urban future, it’s either the former land of austere, honorable warriors or the current one of air-headed, emotionally overwrought manga characters.

But there must be something missing in these easy extremes.

What about a darkness that lies deep in the art of nihonga, the Japanese form of painting? Behind the beautiful presentations of the four seasons done in gold, pigment and sumi ink on paper, of the birds and flowers of the kachofugetsu genre of paintings, behind even the joyful eroticism of shunga prints, there is another world. It is spread broadly throughout the nihonga genre, and more specifically in yurei-ga, the genre of ghost paintings, representing a common darkness that points to a more mysterious side of Japanese culture.

Fuyuko Matsui, who currently has an exhibition of new nihonga, “Narcissus,” at the Naruyama Gallery near Kudanshita, Tokyo, taps into these less explored corners of the Japanese tradition of painting.

“Takashi Murakami, otaku (obsessive enthusiasts), manga . . . we know about the subcultures of Japan, but we don’t know about real nihonga,” she says at a recent interview at the gallery. “I feel that Japanese culture is more than these subcultures; it can be scary and cruel.

“Real, traditional nihonga is more cool and weighty, like, for example, in works by Hasegawa Tohaku or Kawanabe Kyosai. Or take Kano Sansetsu’s painting of a tree at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, how it’s gnarled and painfully bent over.”

Matsui’s paintings typically portray visceral scenes in the meticulous technique that many Japanese artists have foregone for more modern Western methods. (Along with Murakami, she is one of only two people to have gotten a Ph.D. in nihonga from the Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music.) In the centerpiece of the new exhibition, “Scattered Deformities in the End” (2007), a woman running through a shady forest is chased by birds and a dog that tear at her hair and flayed skin. In another, pieces of disembodied flesh that represent successful and unsuccessful suicides act as untrustworthy guides through the dense Aokigahara forest near Mount Fuji that is famous as a place where people take their own lives.

Matsui describes her works with complex, philosophically loaded ideas that often confuse as much as enlighten. But the best way in is simply the Greek myth of Narcissus that she has used as an inspiration for these latest paintings. Cursed by spurned lover Echo, Narcissus dies after falling in love with his own reflection in a pool of water, unable to bear his own beauty. The 34-year-old painter uses the story to explore vanity, self-preservation and the desire for death.

Another new work shows Matsui’s own backbone with the skin removed to reveal a metallic replacement for a cracked vertebrae. Though she has suffered from such an injury, she herself doesn’t have a prosthetic; but she uses the idea to suggest the vanity of wanting to live beyond your body’s natural limit. Discussing these pieces, she suggests that in comparison to the rest of the world, Japan is a place where people have the will to die.

Fascinated by such macabre themes, most of Matsui’s works can be considered an updated version of the ghost genre, one of the subjects of her doctoral dissertation at Tokyo University.

“When I wrote my dissertation, most of the teachers didn’t understand it. There was a clear divide between those who did and those who didn’t,” she says. “A lot of them don’t consider the ghost genre of paintings to be high art. But I am not trying to replicate traditional ghost paintings, I want to express something in a very modern way.”

This is what makes her a contemporary artist despite working in an age-old Japanese art form. As her approach to the nihonga tradition is more open-ended — “When you start thinking about yoga [Western-style painting] versus nihonga, it just becomes an ongoing, endless chain of thought, so I don’t really think about the politics of it,” she says, “For me, it simply describes the technique” — she feels no obligation to keep Western elements out of her works. That’s good, because when asked to list any contemporary Japanese artists she looks up to, Matsui comes up almost blank. Instead, she is a fan of Renaissance Period artists such as Italy’s multitalented Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) and the German painter Lucas Cranach (1472-1553).

“I look at a lot of current art, and the reason I make the works I do is because I don’t find anything that interests me by other artists. If there was something like this, then there would be no reason to make them,” she says. “I look at things and pick up on what is really good. But mainly I am inspired by classical works, Japanese and Western, and not so much by contemporary works.”

Like fellow nihonga-trained artist Murakami then, Matsui rummages through Eastern and Western pasts to create her own style. The difference lies in her intent and results. Rather than come up with a new Pop formulation — like the international art star — in an attempt to tell people about otaku Japan, Matsui eschews easy historical theories and contemporary images to dig into the more mysterious parts of the nation’s psyche.

Fuyuko Matsui’s “Narcissus” exhibition is at Gallery Naruyama in Kudan-Minami, Tokyo till Feb. 23; open 1-9 p.m. (closed Sun.); For more information, call (03) 3264-4871 or visit www.gallery-naruyama.com