The fickle hand of artistic fate is seen not so much in whom it plucks from the depths of obscurity, but in how high those chosen are raised up. A case in point is the multidisciplinary avant-garde artist Hideo Sugita, better known by his alias Ei Q (1911-60).
Thanks to 100 years having accrued since his birth, this important artist, who has largely been out of the limelight since his death, is now enjoying a major retrospective at two of Saitama Prefecture’s larger museums: Urawa Art Museum and the Museum of Modern Art, Saitama. The location choice for this joint exhibition reflects the fact that Ei Q, who was born in Miyazaki Prefecture, spent the last 10 years of his life in Urawa City, which was merged in 2001 into Saitama City.
A visit to either one or both of these venues reveals that Ei Q is a neglected giant of Japanese modern art. If the big names of 20th-century avant-garde in Japan, such as Taro Okamoto and Yayoi Kusama, were on display you could be sure that these museums would be busy; but, as it is, this show is so poorly attended that visitors are likely to be outnumbered by the museum attendants. Yet on the basis of the art presented here, the argument could easily be made that Ei Q was more talented, more original and more significant to Japanese art than his rivals.
This is most apparent in his “dot paintings” at both venues, which show Ei Q, channeling the lyrical abstraction and love of color of Orphist painters such as Robert and Sonia Delauney to develop an attractive style of painting that makes the entire career of Yayoi Kusama look like mere uninspired cribbing.
Like Okamoto, who was born in the same year as him, Ei Q served as a conduit for foreign avant-garde influences, employed different styles, explored various artistic mediums and even wrote art criticism. But whereas Okamoto’s art often seems forced and overly self-conscious, Ei Q’s various expressions are characterized by a natural organic quality that makes them seem not only more enchanting but also more original.
The two shows include oil paintings, etchings, drawings and various kinds of photo art, including photograms, made by placing objects directly onto the surface of a photographic plate that is then exposed to light.
Many of Ei Q’s works, in whichever medium, have a dreamy quality. This is not surprising as his chief initial influence was Surrealism, then very much in vogue. His photograms owe an obvious debt to Man Ray, but while the Paris-based artist’s work was often clinical, ironic and comedic, Ei Q developed his photograms in a more lyrical direction, using stencils and cutouts, as well as drawing directly onto the photographic plates to create images that work better as art.
The results of this work were published in 1936 in his poetically titled “Nemuri no Riyu” (“The Reason for Sleep”), his artistic debut. This marks the change from his earlier career as an art critic, with articles published under his real name, to being an artist under that enigmatic moniker Ei Q. The keen understanding of the latest developments in avant-garde art, which he had developed as a precocious writer for art magazines Muzue, Atelier and Miyazaki Kensue Hyoron, soon filtered through into his diverse artistic output.
“He knew every movement in world art,” Hajime Morita, the chief curator of Urawa Art Museum explains, “but he himself had never been abroad. He had a very tall and wide antenna.”
If Ei Q had merely been a hack copier of foreign artistic trends then there would be good reason for his relative obscurity. But, while his antenna was attuned to international trends, his art has its own voice, which also expresses a subtle Japanese sensibility that contrasts favorably with the often cartoonish art of his more famous contemporary, Okamoto.
Why, then, does his reputation lag behind the likes of Kusama and Okamoto? Morita explains this conundrum by citing two factors rooted in Japanese culture: veneration of specialization and respect for seniority.
“One of the traditions of Japanese culture is that Japanese people don’t esteem multi-disciplinary artists,” he points out. “Also one of the reasons for the greater success of Okamoto is that Ei Q died very young, at the age of 48. If he could have lived longer, many people would have found his talent and discovered his wonderful world.”
“100th Birth Anniversary, Q Ei Retrospective” at Urawa Art Museum and the Museum of Modern Art, Saitama, runs till Nov. 6; admission ¥630 for UAM and ¥800 for MOMAS. UAM is open 1 0 a.m.-5 p.m. (Sat., Sun. till 8 p.m.), closed Sun. MOMAS is open 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m., closed Mon. For more information, visit www.uam.urawa.saitama.jp and www.momas.jp (information on exhibitions is in Japanese only).
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