One good point about public museums in Japan having “funding issues” is that rather than pulling in the art that the public really wants to see and turning themselves into virtual Musee d’Orsays or ersatz Guggenheims, they instead focus on more academically valuable and locally relevant work.

A good example of this is the Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo (MOMAT), which, since a major van Gogh exhibition in 2005 — that allowed most people to intimately study the back of each others’ heads — has dedicated its main exhibitions to worthy modern Japanese painters like Kunitato Suda, EI-KYU and Kokei Kobayashi. MOMAT’s present exhibition continues this trend by celebrating the centenary of Ai-Mitsu, an important but still comparatively unknown Japanese artist from the early 20th century.

“One of the reasons he is not generally known is that he has more of a cult popularity, while the general public tends to find his works grotesque,” points out Shogo Otani, one of the exhibition’s curators. “With this exhibition, I hope when people take a closer look they will discover his attractive points.”

But with Ai-Mitsu, who was born Nichiro Ishimura in Hiroshima in 1907, his grotesqueness is one of his attractive points. His most famous and powerful work, “Landscape with an Eye” (1938), looks at the viewer as the viewer looks at it. The unnerving piece, which hangs in MOMAT’s permanent collection, shows a large eye looking out from a jumble of ambiguous forms which are only given a sense of reality by being set in a landscape with a sky as the background. No one work has been as important in establishing his reputation as: first, a Surrealist painter; second, an artist who ignored the martial and patriotic mood of the times to pursue individual expression; and, third, as a tragic figure — after a life of poverty, Ai-Mitsu was drummed into the army in 1944 and died of a fever two years later in Shanghai. According to Otani, the point of the exhibition is to look beyond this reputation, which inevitably simplifies things, and see Ai-Mitsu as a more complex phenomenon.

The paintings at the exhibition fall into two categories: one of which supports the impression created by “Landscape with an Eye” that Ai-Mitsu was a dark, tragic Surrealist; the other which shows he could explore other styles, such as a series of wax paintings he created in 1934 by melting bits of crayon in a can and applying them with an extremely thin Japanese brush along with pigments for nihonga (Japanese-style paintings).

Since these works have the required cuteness needed to establish a rapport with a wider audience, “Woman Knitting” (1934), a portrait of Kie, Ai-Mitsu’s newlywed wife, has been selected as the main publicity image. While the artist’s strong interest in Asian painting is revealed in the stylization and textures of such pieces, it becomes even more clear in nihonga-influenced portraits such as “Portrait of Mr. Masasuke Hatakeyama” (1941), which mixes watercolor with Indian ink in large, flat blocks of color.

Still, interest in Ai-Mitsu will always lie in his Surrealist paintings, the dark, tortured still lifes, and the images of the natural world that often have an unwitting Surrealist atmosphere. Though the style was very popular in Japan when he was painting, compared to other painters influenced by it, Ai-Mitsu remained oblivious to much of the intellectual baggage that the movement carried.

“Ai-Mitsu neither copied the image of Surrealism superficially nor studied and adopted its methodology. He was inspired by Dali and Max Ernst intuitively in a way of his own,” says Otani.

Surrealism gave him the confidence to follow his own inclinations, which were to paint obsessively, often scraping off the surfaces and repainting them or painting a new image over an existing one. This gives even simple oil paintings of plants, animals and insects a dark, heavily textured, dream-like quality: Surrealism but without the smug intellectualism of Parisian cafe society. This natural, unaffected approach also lies behind the dark, swirling shapes and colors of “Landscape with an Eye.”

“I think that when he started to paint this work, maybe he was painting some different objects,” Otani speculates. “Perhaps quinces or a stump of tree, a lion, a dragonfish — I don’t know. Then, as he painted, the form of the objects broke down into a nameless thing.”

Such a collapse could have been an artistic disaster, and it is easy to imagine the artist staring hard into this increasingly chaotic canvas wondering what to do next. Perhaps this is what led him to paint the great eye in the center, an inspired touch that brings the whole work back into focus and lifts it into the category of genius.

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