Since impressionism had, at its extremities, given rise to the expressionists Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, the postwar painter Jean-Michel Atlan said great art could only be made in the margins.

In early postwar Europe, abstraction and figuration were the embattled avant-gardes. Working at their intersection, Belgian Pierre Alechinsky acquired notoriety in the short-lived Paris-based avant-garde group of artists Cobra — an acronym of the home countries of its participants, Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam. This eponymous exhibition is the artist’s first Japan retrospective.

Cobra, which only lasted from 1948 to 1951, included Karel Appel, Christian Dotrement and Corneille Guillaume Beverloo, who all loathed communism’s maligned social realism and opposed banal imitations of reality. They also rejected the abstract orthodoxy of geometrical forms reduced to formulaic decoration and held suspicions about American abstract expressionism.

They were expressionists — neither specifically figurative nor abstract. They believed the origins of art to be instinctual and so practiced disfiguration following primitivism, children’s scrawls and the drawings of the mentally ill — forms they believed to be faithful to content. As such, Cobra was a residual thread of prewar surrealism that adopted outsider-art concepts and aesthetics. Alechinsky’s early series of prints of archetypal, mythic forms, “Les Metiers” (1948), is suggestive of the latter’s Jean Dubuffet.

As the exhibition commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Belgium-Japan signing of the 1866 “Treaty of Amity, Commerce and Navigation,” it diplomatically references a friendship from 1952, when Alechinsky began corresponding with the Japanese avant-garde calligrapher Shiryu Morita. The oil painting “The Night” (1952) indicates Alechinsky’s initial calligraphy-type interests, though he was always more a painter than a writer.

When Alechinsky visited Kyoto in 1955, he made a short documentary, “La Calligraphie Japonaise” in which he appears to have found an extension of Cobra ideals. The cinematography focuses on the lettering on signboards of shops and eateries in Kyoto alleys, then shifts to children learning to write the character for “quiet” in an elementary school classroom. Calligrapher Chikuka Morita, attired in kimono, then performs the brushing of kana script on paper laid out on tatami mats, while she kneels formally. Subsequently Shiryu Morita and associate Sogen Eguchi, in baggy trousers and rolled-up shirt sleeves, produce nearly unreadable abstractions

Alechinsky had discovered an art that could be both figurative and abstract, and stretched from mainstream to margins, from street front to avant-garde. Much of the next decade he scrawled loosely formed designs in black ink on white backgrounds.

Starting with “Central Park” (1965), Alechinsky began dividing his picture surfaces into comic book-style frames or adding complementary box-enclosed imagery around the borders, as in “Against the Photography” (1969). These were apparently evocative of Belgian tapestries, and supposedly resonated with Japanese manga.

Alechinsky’s later paintings became bigger, more colorful and occasionally took the appearance of overblown postage stamps. Aged 89, he continues to print and paint today, seemingly by adopting the format and aesthetics of floor furnishings such as carpets and mosaics.

“Pierre Alechinsky” at The National Museum of Art, Osaka, runs until April 9; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (Fri. until 7 p.m.). ¥900. Closed Mon. www.nmao.go.jp/en/index


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