The enduring reputation of Shigeru Aoki’s brief career

by Matthew Larking

Special To The Japan Times

Shigeru Aoki’s short life was “beset by all manner of bad luck, and he passed through it like a shooting star” wrote Hanijiro Sakamoto (1882-1969), one of the giants of post-WWII Western-style painting. Shigeru (1882-1911) was only 28 when he passed away, and his active period as a painter was all the more short-lived — 1900-07.

He died of tuberculosis after wandering between acquaintances in his native Kyushu, where he had returned and was mired in tensions within his own family within those of the family of his mistress and infant son. Those issues were never resolved and all the while, he was hoping to return to the art circles of Tokyo.

Sakamoto considered himself the superior painter when he studied with Aoki under Miyoshi Mori, an artist who trained in Western-style painting in Kyoto and then returned to Kurume to teach local children. However, Aoki left for Tokyo in 1899 to study in the Fudosha painting school and in the following year gained entrance to the Tokyo School of Fine Arts. Sakamoto was surprised by Aoki’s development and followed the same institutional route.

While a student in 1903, Aoki debuted in the prestigious Hakubakai exhibition and won its prize. The following year, he displayed “A Gift of the Sea,” a painting that was ultimately designated as an Important Cultural Property during the postwar period — a first for a Western-style work. Portraying 10 naked men ceremoniously carrying three sharks, “A Gift of he Sea” was as controversial when it was originally painted as it remains now, and it was exhibited in a special room made available only to members of the art scene, given the misgivings around the display of nudity.

The larger controversy, however, was that while some found the work beautiful, it was unfinished, and even as we see it today in a slightly more finished state — Aoki added brushstrokes to the central figures in 1906 — how Aoki intended the piece to be resolved is unknowable. That he exhibited the work, however, is of course suggestive of a conviction that it was ready for display. He was certainly aware of the “aesthetic of the unfinished” that became a hallmark of Impressionism and his near pointillist works of seascapes done in 1904 also are suggestive rather than detailed. These works insinuate an intimacy with the painting tenets of Claude Monet commensurate with the quick application of brushstrokes and disregard for the varnishing and “finish” of 19th-century academic salon painting.

This theory, however, is somewhat problematic when Aoki’s reverence for mid-19th-century England’s Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) is considered. The PRB sought superlative, conservative finishes and it has been suggested that Aoki stylized himself after the group. His signature of “T.B.S. Aoki” on some works may even have stood for “True Brotherhood’ with the “S” referring to Shigeru. The clearest stylistic debt to the PRB can be discerned in his 1907 painting “Paradise Under the Sea,” which is arguably influenced by the works of Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98) or Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82).

It would be best to say that Aoki synthesized a variety of period trends, including Art Nouveau, realism and symbolism, with his penchant for Japanese myth and tradition. Intriguing examples of the latter are his use of watercolors for “Colored Woodblock-like Picture” (1905), which apes ukiyo-e prints, and his 1905 “Seascape” burned nail drawing on the wooden doors at Enkoji temple in Kyoto, which appear similar to the effects of sumi ink on wood.

After his death, Aoki’s reputation was quickly established with a 1912 retrospective instigated by his contemporary Sakamoto and the poet Kambara Ariake. “I thought of his genius,” said the novelist Natsume Soseki, commenting on how he felt on seeing Aoki’s works. And in Japan, the posthumous legend of the self-destructive virtuoso’s short life took hold with an exaggerated emphasis on a par to that myth of Van Gogh’s deranged temperament. Aoki’s biography, compiled in the 1960s by the famous art historian Kawakita Michiaki bolstered his status as a postwar artist, as did the art-book publishing boom in the ’70s.

Being a somewhat incomplete or limited artistic oeuvre, Aoki’s stylistic repertory is difficult to firmly grasp. His works are something of an artistic Rorschach test in which a variety of possibilities and directions may be intuited. A less conjectural approach would be to confirm that Aoki was at the fore in opposing the prevailing naturalistic trends of the early 20th century in favor of Romanticism, and that he maintains a stable of devoted admirers who ensure his “genius” status remains intact.

“Aoki Shigeru: Myth, Sea and Love” at The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto runs till July 10; admission ¥1,200; open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Mon. For more information, visit www.momak.go.jp.