The emotional cadence of Nambata’s abstract score

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

When you visit Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery (TOCAG), you half expect to get a concert, simply because of its name. But such conflation is not as crazy as it sounds. The aural and visual arts have many affinities, and the language of painting and music even share some terms in common, such as tone, rhythm and composition.

This, and the fact that the gallery is located in a multimedia arts complex, which includes concert halls, may have inclined the gallery’s curators to favor shows with lyrical or musical qualities. This was certainly the case with one of the earliest exhibitions held here, “Tatsuoki Nambata: Symphony of Life — Creation and Development of Japanese Abstraction,” which looked at the art of an abstract painter whose work has been noted for its musical resonances.

Now, 12 years later, TOCAG is showing the work of Nambata’s son Fumio, whose paintings have strong lyrical and symbolic elements that seem directed at the aural and subconscious side of our brains, rather than the visual and conscious part.

Viewed in strictly visual terms, the younger Nambata’s works tend to disappoint. Most of the pieces on display are relatively small ink and watercolor works and often resemble elaborate doodles in their relaxed mixing of figurative and abstract elements. The absence of a clear direction gives many of the works a twee quality. But this is also the sort of tweeness that can often be found in the works of some of the most renowned artists of the 20th century, such as Paul Klee, Joan Miro and Wassily Kandinsky.

Specific paintings by Nambata evoke each of these famous painters in turn. For example, “White Sun” (1973) has the same layered, interwoven composition that Klee was fond of; while the blotchy, biomorphic forms that inhabit “Dreamland” (1961) and “Alien’s Conference: an Atomic Nucleus in Protoplasm at the Centre of a Cell” (1968) seem like watercolor cousins of Miro’s primitivist shapes.

The organic feel of these freely drawn works suggest that the more emotional side of the painter is being expressed. This contrasts with the precise draftsmanship found in other works, such as “Terminus Space Station” (1963) and “Unknown (10 parts series).” In these, the geometric elements suggest something more cerebral and even otaku-like with their obsessively neat lines. They also evoke the later work of Kandinsky and his theory that colors and shapes have a direct correlation to elements of music.

The variety of styles that Nambata employs shows a restlessness that hints at a desire to emerge from the artistic shadow of his famous father. There is also a suggestion of this in some of the signatures, where he signs his work “Fumio” in oddly large letters that contrast with the senior Nambata’s more modest signature.

The young man’s quest to be different, however, was cut short by his untimely death at the age of 32, when he fell off a ferry while crossing the Seto Inland Sea. This means that his career covers the period from the 1960s to 1974. In Japan, this was a period of rapid economic development and social turmoil, characterized by the student protests of the Solidarity Generation (Dankai no Sedai). As a student himself — first at Tokyo’s Bunka Gakuin College and then at Waseda University — Nambata was very much part of this radical milieu. In Japan, as in the West, this had an element of generational conflict that could be construed as an oedipal struggle.

One of the recurring motifs in his work is the sun. In earlier works, it was used as a conventional positive symbol, but it seems to take on an additional and more complex meaning for Nambata. “Praise to the Sun” (1967), shows the solar luminary at the center of a cacophonous riot of color that has Orphist and Op-Art overtones. A clear note of irony rises up between the painting’s title and the chaos it presents. The next year, influenced by his reading Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, he created “The Sun Series,” a group of works in which the sun becomes the symbol of the absurd and of a world unhinged.

In the context of the times and Nambata’s quest to define himself as artist on his own terms, there seems to be a strong suggestion that the sun in his work represents his father and reveals a complex and conflicted relationship. But Nambata is not the kind of painter to be easily pinned down. Any message that is there is never spelled out. Instead his work encourages us to listen to the melody of the lines, the tone of the colors, and to mix in our own subjective feelings to unlock his.

“Nambata Fumio: Works 1960-1974” at Tokyo Opera City Gallery runs till March 25; open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. (Fri., Sat. till 8 p.m.); ¥1,000. Closed Mon. and Feb. 12.