Koji Kinutani’s entire career — from his student work to his metaphysical portraiture, which inaugurated a manga trend in contemporary art; his Styrofoam sculptures; the “Goddess of the Silvery Peak” (the basis for the official 1998 Nagano Winter Olympic Games poster); and his sometimes frightening Kyoto landscapes — is up for review at The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto. All this led to his appointment to The Japan Art Academy in 2001 and recognition as a Person of Cultural Merit in 2014.
Kinutani was born in Nara in 1943 to the proprietors of the famous Meishukan restaurant, which catered to the elites of the day — statesmen, such a the London-educated Hirobumi Ito, and the writers and painters of the White Birch school of artists. When his parents divorced, he was raised on the premises by an aunt, uncle and nannies, instilling in him feelings of impermanence and disorientation that lingered into adulthood.
He found early inspiration in Vincent Van Gogh and went on to study oil painting under luminary Ryohei Koiso at the Tokyo University of the Arts. His graduation in 1966 was coincident with the somber mood of his near monochromatic “Blue” period paintings of erotically posed, geometrized nudes, like “Blue Interstices” (1966). And then things changed.
Sparks of interest in ancient art were raised when Kinutani saw the remains of the seventh-century Buddhist murals of the Golden Hall of Nara’s Horyuji Temple, which burned down in 1949. He enrolled in a master’s program in Tokyo in mural painting, devoted himself to fresco, and then studied its classical and contemporary forms in Venice with Bruno Saetti. Color quickly flooded his work.
Returning to Japan in 1973, he exhibited paintings copied after Italian masters Giotto and Piero della Francesca, and was awarded the painting equivalent of literature’s Akutagawa Prize for a portrait of an altogether unusual kind. “Portrait of Mr. Anselmo” (1973) depicted a painter Kinutani had befriended in Italy, who subsequently went to India and then disappeared.
The painting had graphic representations of speech ushering from the figure’s mouth. It seemed to feed off the flourishing of modern manga by Osamu Tezuka and Shotaro Ishinomori during the late 1940s and ’50s, and TV animations of the ’60s. Though divisively received at the time for apparently betraying the anti-narrative thrust of austere modernist experiments, Kinutani is now credited with triggering the manga-in-contemporary-art thread that still characterizes much of the international reception of recent Japanese art. “Angela and the Blue Sky II” (1976) has been heralded as Kinutani’s masterpiece of this kind with its assemblage of semi-intelligible fragments of romanized and hiragana scripts.
War, suffering and destruction, filtered through a pantheon of Buddhist imagery, informs much of Kinutani’s most recent output. In “Rebuking” (2015), the fearsome three-headed, multiarmed Buddhist guardian deity, Ashura, rampages before an apocalyptic explosion while squashing an evil spirit underfoot. Such dramatic pieces are said to sound modern-day alarms of terrorism and natural disasters while directing attention to life’s impermanence. The show culminates with Kinutani’s equally vivid “New Japanese Landscapes,” which re-mythologize contemporary Kyoto tourist sites with fantastic religious and mystical dimensions.
“Koji Kinutani: A Journey of Color and Imagery” at The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, runs until Oct. 15; 9:30 a.m.- 5 p.m. (Fri. and Sat. until 9 p.m.). ¥1,400. Closed Mon. www.momak.go.jp/English