Robert Coutelas (1930-85) was born into a poor French family who lived in a single room, and he died in a similar, pathetically impoverished, way. Nearly every opportunity life afforded he either abandoned or would broker no compromise for the sake of art. Now, 160 small works pay tribute to his vision at Asahi Beer Oyamazaki Villa Museum of Art.

Coutelas left elementary school at age 11 during World War II, and when the war was over he worked in a spinning factory in Theirs, Auvergne. Fascinated by what was known as “arts populaires” — items by unknown craftspeople, that included portraits, tarot cards and votive images — he spent his pocket money amassing his own collection. His parents, however, initially opposed his artist aspirations and threw the collection away, which led to an attempted suicide with an electric cord that left him unconscious for three weeks.

In 1947 he enrolled in a vocational industrial design program and taught himself casting, carving and painting before becoming a stonemason. He then quit the latter believing the medieval spirit of the craftsperson was irretrievable in his day and age. His time at the prestigious Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts de Lyon from 1953 was also short-lived, with him quitting in his second year. But by 1955, he was exhibiting with members of the new Lyon School of painting, who straddled figuration and abstraction, something that can be seen in the work “Flowers” (1959).

After hitchhiking to Paris in 1958, Coutelas received an honorable mention in the 1959 E. Othon Friesz Prix competition and then an exclusive gallery contract that provided him a place to work while he painted the Parisian streets and took trips to Venice and Cannes to work on gallery commissions such as “Gondola on the Grand Canal” (1960). Hailed and promoted by gallery PR as “today’s Utrillo” and the “second Bernard Buffet,” he broke the contract to pursue artistic freedom and found himself, again, in several years of extreme poverty.

From 1967, using cardboard and wood that he found on the streets, he began his “Cartes” series of playing card-sized paintings with rounded corners that today look a little like smart-phone covers. The cards, covered in mystical, symbolic and medieval subject matter, would be arranged for works such as “Composition of My Nights 24-b” (1973).

Although he won a 1973 contest run by the playing-card maker Grimaud, Coutelas refused to have his works marketed by them, fearing his art be degraded. Later, when a gallery owner told him he would sell his cards if only he made them bigger, he broke off discussions. Even when Andre Malraux, former French Minister of Cultural Affairs, showed interest in 1975 and Coutelas was told to write him, he didn’t.

Essentially, Coutelas, while outside the art system, was not even part of the postwar “art brut” or outsider art scene. In his mind, he was moved to create a “personal eternity” in art. Tasked with explaining what that meant, he referred, bizarrely, to portraits hanging on the walls of a castle where a girlfriend once lived. Adding specificity, eternity, he had explained, was in the sitter’s silk clothes, laces and hairstyles.

“Robert Coutelas: I Seek the Small Golden Hand” at Asahi Beer Oyamazaki Villa Museum of Art runs until March 12; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥900. Closed Mon. www.asahibeer-oyamazaki.com/english

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