Looking back at the Renaissance

by C.B. Liddell

To the receptive, an old painting can sometimes seem like a time machine, giving a vivid sense of the hand and mind that created it, as well as the social milieu and atmosphere behind it. But this time- traveling analogy doesn’t just extend to the viewing of venerable art. Even the creation of new paintings can enable the gifted artist to travel — in a formal and imaginary sense — to the distant past. Both forms of time travel seem to have defined the career of one of Japan’s most unusual painters, Tosio Arimoto, whose encounter with early Italian Renaissance art struck a chord with which his own art ever afterward resonated.

Wisely, “Tosio Arimoto: A Celestial Music” is held at the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum. In the modern metropolis of Tokyo, this is a relatively archaic building (1930s Art Deco) and has an elegant ambience of times past that suits Arimoto’s retro Renaissance painting. The artist, who was born in 1946 but tragically died in 1985 at the age of 38, can best be described as a modern Japanese Giotto (c. 1267-1337) or a Showa Era Fra Angelico (c. 1395-1455). His paintings try to evoke the style and texture of the tempera panel paintings and frescoes of that bygone era, even to the point of carefully simulating time-worn effects such as cracking and fading.

To some, it may seem perverse that Arimoto chose to lodge his oeuvre on these particular pages of the history of Western art, and it is legitimate to ask why he didn’t seek inspiration instead from the more developed art of the High Renaissance or some subsequent period. The explanation given at the exhibition is that he was attracted to the paintings of this period because they reminded him of Buddhist temple paintings.

However, this sounds more like an attempt to maintain the painter’s cultural integrity by basing his love for Renaissance art on something rooted deep in Japanese culture. It seems there is always a lingering suspicion about anyone who completely abandons their own native cultural traditions in favor of those of a foreign and — in terms of time — remote land.

In paintings such as “Day of the Showering Petals” (1977), which shows a woman ascending a spiraling tower, and “Way to the Theater” (1980), where a nude descends a staircase leading underground, a formal simplicity and touching naivity are juxtaposed against a sense of mystery. What does the tower signify? Where do the steps lead?

These are questions that can never be answered, but the ingenuousness of the formal elements creates a sense of reassurance and control. Rather than being mixed together in an unmanageable sensory equation, each color, shape and motif seems almost isolated, allowing the artist to indulge in relatively stress-free variation from painting to painting.

Perhaps, as suggested by the exhibition’s title, a clue can be found in Arimoto’s musical tastes. A keen musician who played the recorder, he was especially drawn to Baroque music. Although this creates a temporal mismatch of around 200 years between his artistic and musical tastes, there are actually a lot of similarities between early Renaissance art and Baroque music.

The continuity of mood and rhythm of Baroque music, the “terraced dynamics” (sudden changes in tempo that resemble steps) and the absence of gradual changes, such as crescendos and decrescendos, as well as the repetitiveness of motifs, all find their visual counterparts in early Renaissance art and in the works of Arimoto.

As our eyes scan the pictures, we move from one block of color to another with very little gradation. Within the entire oeuvre there is a frequent repetition of motifs. Arimoto’s pictorial language is relatively limited: curtains, tables, stairs, clouds, trees, and similarly- attired figures account for most of the visual vocabulary. There is also a pristine, unvarying, slightly-stilted mood to each work, which, to a modern audience, can’t help evoking a dreamlike surrealistic quality.

Occasionally, we catch Arimoto transporting himself back into the minds of the early exponents of Renaissance art, reliving the challenges and visual conundrums that they experienced firsthand, but which he, as a modern painter and the beneficiary of the centuries-long traditions of Western art, had long since progressed beyond.

In “Chamber Music” (1980), a naively painted nude is seated at a grid-patterned table inside a room with a striped floor. Here Arimoto plays gentle tricks with perspective. While the left side of the table matches the angle of the stripes, the right doesn’t. This suggests that Arimoto craved the relative artistic ignorance of the early masters, possibly because it created a sense of visual mystery and wonder, with which the later successes of the Renaissance largely did away.

“Tosio Arimoto: A Celestial Music” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum runs till Sept. 5; admission ¥1,000; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (till 8 p.m. 14-20 Aug), closed 2nd and 4th Wed each month. For more information, visit www.teien-art-museum.ne.jp/exhibition/arimoto/english/html