When it comes to selecting “tortured artists” — those driven to create from the deep wells of their souls by immense suffering — the 20th-century Japanese painter Jiro Oyamada must seem like a shoo-in. The Fuchu Art Museum, in the western suburbs of Tokyo, is now celebrating the 100th anniversary of the artist’s birth because he had a close connection to the area before his mysterious disappearance in 1971.
The images he created seem to come from a nightmarish world. Dark, ravenous, angular creatures appear through the brush strokes and scoured surfaces of his canvases like visitations from a disturbing netherworld, a sensibility that would have been at home in medieval Europe, creating gothic visions of hell. Adding to the grim aura is the artist’s own appearance. The only image of him — a photograph — shows him with the disfiguring effects of the illness, under which he labored.
“He suffered from Weber’s Syndrome from his birth,” museum curator, Mayu Kobayashi, explains. “This caused the chronic lesions on his face and the swelling of the lower lip. He was raised by his grandparents because of the disease. His complex about his disfigurement appears in the figure of the deformed creatures in his art, especially the bird women. From one perspective, these are also his self-portraits.”
The exhibition presents more than 160 of his works. The “bird woman” — usually appearing as a giant — anthropomorphic crow-like creature, is in more than a score of them. The exaggerated size of the lower part of the creature’s beak suggest that it had some sort of biographical relevance for Oyamada, either as an avatar or an artistic reflection of the fear and distaste that others felt for his unpleasant appearance.
But, against this black backdrop, there are also subtle elements of humor that hint at a different narrative, and which suggest that Oyamada may have come to terms with his condition, even to the point where he might have started taking a perverse pleasure in it.
This is something that it is hard to put one’s finger on, but the artist’s psychological complexity also appears in a number of his major works that were clearly inspired by Christian motifs, such as one of his most famous and impressive works, “Charity” (1956). In this painting a great black figure stretches out its arms across a pile of skulls, with naked figures in the foreground. Other powerful works are “Hand” (1950), which shows the hand of Christ with the hole made by the nail of crucifixion, and “Pieta” (1955), the eternal theme of the Virgin Mary cradling the body of Jesus.
It is tempting therefore to see Oyamada as someone who found comfort for his deformities in the Christian message, but Kobayashi is quick to point out that he was far from being a Christian, and may have actually been unsympathetic toward the religion.
“He seems to have had slightly negative and ironic feelings toward it,” she says. “He said that he used the Christian motif just for the convenience of representation. For example, he depicted a poor man and his sufferings in the form of the crucifixion.”
Again, the idea of Oyamada as the damaged soul seeking salvation or consolation doesn’t quite fit the facts. The painting of the crucifixion that Kobayashi refers to, as well as “Past Christ” (1956), which shows a seated Christ with puppet strings through his wounded hands, suggest that Oyamada had a devilish streak of sarcasm.
While his large canvases from the 1950s are done in dark and heavy oils, he resorted to watercolors for his later and smaller works. The lighter touch required for these brought out his more whimsical side. While the ghastly elements still remain, they are joined by something more cheerful and comic, and are suggestive of an artist having fun with his art.
The colors are brighter and you can’t help getting the impression that however “tortured” he may have been when creating his earlier, darker works, Oyamada ultimately found a lot more than mere solace in his painting. Some of these pieces bring to mind the works of Paul Klee. Even the artist’s avatar of the bird woman, with its jutting lower jaw, seems to have a spring in its step.
This takes us to the end of the story and his connection with Fuchu, where he lived with his wife and daughter for around 10 years before disappearing from his home. But rather than the sad suicide that this fact on its own seems to point to, Oyamada simply ran off with a younger woman, according to Kobayashi.
“They never revealed where they were, moving from place to place under false names, and they had a daughter,” she says. “Sometimes he sent some works to art dealers, which was the only news people ever had of him.”
“100th Anniversary of the Birth: Oyamada Jiro” at Fuchu Art Museum runs till Feb. 22; 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. ¥700. Closed Mon. 042-336-3371; www.city.fuchu.tokyo.jp/art