One of my favorite cliches about art is the one that says great art comes from great suffering, something that is perhaps overlooked by today’s modern art scene with its emphasis on novelty and playfulness.

Works by Harue Koga
“Innocent Moonlit Night” (1929)
“Birdcage” (1929)

Suffering clearly played a role in the lives of several of the key Japanese Western-style painters of the early 20th century, including Harue Koga (1895-1933), a restless and ever-changing artist whose work is featured in a small but interesting exhibition at one of Tokyo’s best art museums, the Bridgestone.

Recently, I wrote about Narashige Koide and Ryusei Kishida, two artists of the same generation who suffered debilitating illnesses that led to their untimely deaths. Koga’s life, too, was short and sickly, but, in addition to this, he faced a host of other tragedies.

Two of his earliest masterpieces, “Entombment” (1922) and “Buddhist Service” (1923), were painted in response to the stillbirth of his only child. Also, although born and based in Kurume in Fukuoka Prefecture, he was unlucky enough to be in Ueno during the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Indeed his visits to Tokyo appear to have been almost cursed. During an earlier stay, in 1914, his roommate committed suicide. Then in 1924, unhappy with his wife back in Fukuoka, he rented a house in Tokyo with a mistress, only to see her die there the next year. These and other experiences, such as his near death from influenza in 1917 and the fact that he was the son of a Buddhist monk, combined to give him an unusual outlook among artists of his generation.

The raw natural talent of his youth is clearly evident in “Avalokitesvara” (1921), a mysterious and spellbinding picture of a Buddhist statue, and “From the Upstairs Window” (1922), a very Japanese view of a beautiful bay obscured by the roof of a neighboring building. The interpenetrating lines of the former work show that he was being influenced to some degree by Cubism, while the flatness and warm tones of the latter recall elements of Gauguin.

While contemporaries like Kishida were trying to absorb and master the entire back catalog of Western painting, Koga was more interested in the last few pages. The exhibition documents this with two small copies of pictures by Picasso and Paul Klee that Koga painted in 1925. Klee’s influence became dominant in some of the most charming pictures on show, the naive, dreamlike “The Moon and Flowers” (1926) and the beautiful blended tones of “Window” (1927).

Despite the effectiveness of these pictures, Koga was too unsettled a character to stick with this style, although he later returned to it in the enchanting clutter of “Innocent Moonlit Night” (1929).

A more characteristic strand in his work derived from the world of science, which, in the 1920s, was starting to impinge increasingly on the popular consciousness. Koga embraced this phenomenon, copying images from graphic magazines and scientific journals. In “Makeup Out-of-Doors” (1930), parachutes and radio masts vie for our attention with an oversized flapper dancing on top of a modern office building. Koga’s interest in science became almost fetishistic as he focused on machinery, airships or submarines, placing them in his paintings as totems or decorations, rather as a primitive artist of the cargo cults of the South Pacific might.

The ultimate merit of his work is that he did not accept the surface of reality, but sought to be, in his own words, a “hyper realist.” “Birdcage” (1929), a work showing a naked woman in a birdcage hooked up to an elaborate Heath Robinson contraption, seems to reveal the invisible machinery of female subordination. In other works, he throws together elements of abstract geometry with human vignettes. Works like these may seem confused, but in them Koga was searching for a new aesthetic in keeping with the disharmonies of modern life. In this he was clearly echoing the contemporary work of surrealists like de Chirico and Dali in Europe.

Suffering might indeed be instrumental in producing great art, but in the case of Koga, perhaps a little less tragedy and a longer life would have allowed him to establish and develop his unique aesthetic.

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