The bigger picture is in the details

by Matthew Larking

Special To The Japan Times

Tetsu Fusen (1891-1976) was regarded as an unusual though gifted painter in his own time. In the decades since, however, he has largely been forgotten, mostly known to specialists or devoted connoisseurs of his technically brilliant, imaginative and emotional landscapes.

Much of his work was at least semi-autobiographical, filled with memories of places of his youth, family and friends, and treasured objects. His pictorial homage “Old Bicycle” (1968) is filled with an ode-like inscription as if his bicycle were a dear friend in possession of the profound secrets of shared experience. For the first time in 21 years, Nara Prefectural Museum of Art is providing a comprehensive opportunity to engage with Fusen’s unconventional career.

Fusen was born to a Buddhist priest in Koishikawa in Tokyo, and was sent by his father to a temple in a small fishing village near Chiba for Buddhist training at age 10. Moving back to Tokyo to attend school, his interest in art, however, trumped his father’s expectations for him in the priesthood. In 1914, he became a research member of the Japan Art Institute, and then he spent three years working himself out of impoverished circumstances as a fisherman on the remote island of Izu Oshima, southwest of Tokyo. Those experiences — the sea, its rhythmic movements and abundant creatures, poetically sentimental minka farmhouses and small village life — and an indigenized Chinese literati style of painting that combined idealized pictorial worlds in ink with self-expressive verse, characterized Fusen’s early output.

In 1918, he began a five-year course in traditional nihonga (Japanese-style) painting in Kyoto, and though older than his classmates by a decade or so, he outshone them in ability. Twice while a student he showed paintings in the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts (Teiten), a prestigious national juried exhibition. After graduation and while living peripatetically, he continued to participate in those exhibitions most years until 1934.

One Teiten-selected work was his rather unique image of Mount Fuji, “Mountains and Sea (Reminiscences of Izu)” (c. 1925). Beginning in the foreground is the Pacific Ocean that gives onto the shores of Japan, then a winter landscape of Mount Fuji framed by the Sea of Japan in the top distance. His realism is both myopic and encyclopedic — he painted everything under the Japanese sun, from foreground fish and lighthouses, trains and rice fields to far-off coastal settlements.

Less is known about Fusen’s wartime artistic career, though at some point he seems to have become estranged from Japan’s art world. He settled in Nara from 1946, embarked on a series of undulating seascapes that have an almost visceral impact on the spectator, and exhibited only locally. He was briefly a school principal, though abandoned the profession by the early 1950s; collaborated with local craftsmen by painting often elaborate Yakushiji Temple pagoda scenes on ceramics and kimono; and exchanged hundreds of elegantly self-illustrated postcards with young women he had befriended from a college near his studio. Fusen’s art, like his biography, is its own special world.

“Tetsu Fusen: A Retrospective — 40th Anniversary of His Death” at the Nara Prefectural Museum of Art runs until Nov. 5; 9 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥800. Closed Sept. 25, Oct. 2, 10, and 16. www.pref.nara.jp/11842.htm