Shindo Tsuji: From the trees to the earth

by C.B. Liddell

In 1948, the respected Zen elder Ian Kishizawa told the sculptor Shindo Tsuji, “Forget whatever you can and express whatever remains.” Despite its enigmatic and paradoxical quality, this typically Zen-like admonition nevertheless manages to sum up the career of Tsuji (1910-1981), an important Japanese sculptor whose centenary is being celebrated by a major retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art, Kamakura.

Tsuji’s early career is the familiar tale of a young provincial coming to sup at the fountain of metropolitan sophistication and seeking to make a name for himself by acquiring the expected styles and techniques. After moving to Tokyo from his home village in Tottori Prefecture in 1931, he studied Western-style painting at the Independent Institute of Art, before switching to sculpture, for which his main influence was the naturalism of French sculptor Auguste Rodin.

Working in wood, early works, such as “Summer Morning — Master Denchu Hirakushi Aged Seventy” (1941) and “Poet — Study for Yakamochi Otomo” (1942), won praise for their realism, despite the fact that the statue of Otomo looks very different from how we would imagine the Nara period (710-794) poet to have been. By this time, Tsuji was exhibiting his work as a member of the Japan Art Institute Exhibition.

Having learned much, the rest of his career, in accordance with the instruction given by Kishizawa, was a kind of forgetting. This journey led him to greater expressiveness as well as a more profound interaction with his materials. A key event in this respect was moving to Kyoto, where in 1949 he took up a teaching post at the Kyoto City School of Art (today’s Kyoto City University of Arts). At that time, even in the center of Kyoto you could find kilns turning out pottery. To someone like Tsuji, who had already sculpted in wood, plaster, and bronze, it seemed only natural to turn to ceramics as a medium of expression.

There is something anthropomorphic about wood. It seems to cry out to be carved into humanlike figures, as is evident in Tsuji’s work. But clay is a different matter. With ceramics Tsuji’s sculpture was able to take a more abstract route, and his work provided inspiration to avant-garde ceramicists, such as Kazuo Yagi and the Sodeisha group, who wanted to escape from functionality and treat their works as pure objets d’art.

Working with clay freed Tsuji from what he had known before. He responded to the qualities of the new material with a sense of discovery and originality. Rather than working from models, as he had done when sculpting in wood, he used his own internalized concepts as points of departure for increasingly abstract pieces. While “Cat” (1956) is still recognizable as a cat, “Head of Cat” (1956) is not. It is only after reading the name plate that we perceive, with a sudden pleasurable jolt, the sculpture’s feline essence. Tsuji’s ceramic sculptures from this period represent the acme of his art, something that was recognized when he was selected to represent Japan at the 1958 Venice Biennale.

His work also shows a noticeable tendency toward chunky, blocklike sculptures, such as “Man Sitting on a Chair” (1957) and “Mountain Man” (1957). These have an architectural feel, looking like the kind of buildings you might find on some alien world. As a devout Zen Buddhist himself — he had become a priest in 1938 — some of the ideas that spurred such abstract pieces were from Buddhist traditions. For example, one of the works shown at the Venice Biennale, the bulky-looking “Han-shan” (1958), was inspired by the 9th-century Chinese poet Han-Shan, revered in Zen Buddhism as an incarnation of the Bodhisattva Manjusri.

Despite their abstract style, these works retain a hint of the figurative, something that helps to unlock them for most viewers. However, Tsuji yearned for greater esotericism. In his subsequent career he produced pieces that moved toward greater abstraction through their flatness. Looking like pieces of wall removed from some adobe desert village, these works combine warm textures with reticent formal qualities. Somewhat limited as works of art, they seem more conducive to states of Zen meditation, perhaps expressing whatever remained after a lifetime of forgetting.

“Tsuji Shindo: A Retrospective” at The Museum of Modern Art, Kamakura, runs till March 27; admission ¥800; open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Mon. For more information, visit