On the streets of Oguiss' town

When I first saw the oil paintings of Paris by the Japanese artist, Takanori Oguiss (1901-1986) I was strangely reminded of the neutron bomb, a weapon notorious for its ability to annihilate humans without damaging buildings.

“Au Bon Vivant” (1985) by Takanori Oguiss
“Fruiterie” (1930) by Takanori Oguiss
Meguro Museum of Art photos

Like the so-called “clean bomb,” his paintings of deserted city scenes seem to have a marked preference for buildings over people. However, Oguiss’s work is very much concerned with la vie, the life of Paris — the earthy and elegant city that became his adopted home and was the inspiration for the great majority of his work. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth, an exhibition of 128 of his works is visiting eight venues in Japan over the next year, starting at the Meguro Museum of Art, Tokyo.

Originally named Takanori Ogisu, the painter was the son of a rich landowner. Regarding the French capital as the fountainhead of art, he moved to Paris in 1927, after completing his studies, and soon started signing his pictures with a Frenchified version of his family name, “Oguiss.” In the same way that America is now attracting the cream of Japan’s baseball talent, young Japanese painters of the early 20th century felt challenged to test their skills in the “Major League” of Western art, which, at that time, was undeniably Paris.

One of the advantages of living in a foreign land is that everyday objects are invested with a special alien charm. Rather than paint some over-obvious landmark like the Eiffel Tower, Oguiss felt more fulfilled painting mere alleyways and street corners. An early work, “Colonne Morris” (1928), showing a column plastered with posters, reveals the excitement the young artist found in the mundane elements of his foreign existence. His thick, heavy brushstrokes and bold use of color give the column body, while sharper, feverish strokes convey an impression of the confusing jumble of letters on the posters and advertisements.

Among early influences, Oguiss counted Renoir, Sisley and Degas, and these artists clearly inform the range of his brushstrokes. In terms of subject matter, though, he falls into the same territory as Maurice Utrillo, who predated him so much in his Parisian subject matter as well as in certain elements of his style.

In the 1930s Paris was alive with a ferment of new ideas from the worlds of physics, psychology and politics, which had an impact on and fragmented the artistic community. Amid this chaos, Oguiss followed his own personal muse in a way that expressed his Japanese character.

One of the characteristics of his style is his lack of pretension or showiness, invoking the Japanese aesthetic of wabi and sabi — quiet, austere simplicity. This is particularly evident in his paintings of semiderelict buildings, as in “Rue St. Gervais” (1937) and run-down garages, as in “Le Garage” (1937). Where Oguiss departs from this aesthetic of humble beauty, such as in his painting “Tour de Cesar a Provins” (1964), an impressive-looking castle, his work becomes too self-consciously “arty,” reminding one of stage scenery.

Obsessed with painting buildings, often at close range, the main danger Oguiss faced was of the solid and static qualities of the objects emerging too strongly. In a work like “Fruiterie” (1930), a depiction of a fruit shop, the energy of his brushstrokes and the vividness of his textures help prevent the painting becoming too settled.

It is this slightly off-balance quality that gives so many of his paintings a special appeal. In these paintings, Oguiss succeeded in his goal of “painting ‘La Vie’ without painting people” — indirectly capturing a sense of the spirit of everyday human life.

His reason for leaving people out of his paintings can partially be explained by the Japanese concept of ma or space, where an absence is thought to add to the aesthetic appeal.

“If the picture has an empty space, the painter feels inclined to fill it up with people,” he once complained. Oguiss avoided this.

Oguiss loved Paris and its people, but he also sensed that there is something transitory and insubstantial about the flow of human life. His way of capturing it, therefore, was to paint the objects most shaped by it, the streets and houses with their beat-up, warm, lived-in look. Little wonder then, that the supposedly inanimate objects painted by Oguiss still vibrate with life today.

Coronavirus banner