The multifaceted talents of Seiji Togo

by Matthew Larking

Contributing Writer

Seiji Togo (1897-1978) has been characterized as having two distinctive career phases corresponding to youth and maturity. The first was as a pioneer of European modern movements in Japan. The second was as a postwar painter of simplified and smoothly contoured female beauties that received popular acclaim in Japan. The retrospective at the Abeno Harukas Art Museum, Osaka, addresses the artists’ spread, but focuses on the transitional decades of the 1930s though to the ’50s that correspond to Togo’s middle age.

Togo acquired a reputation as a child prodigy at Aoyama Gakuin middle school in Tokyo when one of his early nude oils was featured in a magazine. At age 18, through an introduction by a musician friend, he was able to establish his own studio within the premises of the Akasaka Institute of the Tokyo Philharmonic.

Introduced to and influenced by European modernism through black-and-white journal reproductions, Togo’s cubist and futurist disfigurations led to him exhibiting in the third annual Nika-kai (Second Society Association), a major forum rivaling the conservative, government-sponsored Bunten exhibitions. “Woman Holding a Parasol” (1916) was awarded that year’s top prize.

Later, during a seven-year study period in France that began in 1921, Togo met big names, including the poets and Dadaists Tristan Tzara and Philippe Soupault and, in Turin, Italy, the lead futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. Togo participated in futurism for a month before returning to Paris, disappointed with the group’s philosophy. Back in Japan in 1928, he became a foundational surrealist painter. “Surrealistic Stroll” (1929), on show in the exhibition, depicts a simplified figure floating in the sky, reaching for a crescent moon.

Togo’s unusual bohemian lifestyle aroused public curiosity and, in 1929 a failed attempt to gas himself and his lover, Mitsuko, led the writer Chiyo Uno to call on him while researching her serialized newspaper novel that involved suicide. Though Togo and Mitsuko were discovered in time by a maid, Togo went on to live with Uno in a much publicized modern home built for them in the geometric Bauhaus style.

From the 1930s, Togo embarked on extensive mass-media collaborations that included bookbinding, popular magazine illustration, and the swastika-stamped cover of a 1946 edition of Junichiro Tanizaki’s novel “Manji.”

His foray into public mural painting was given direction by Tsuguharu (Leonard) Foujita, with whom Togo also designed women’s swimsuits for the Takashimaya Department Store in 1934. Together, the two artists created accompanying murals for Kyoto’s Marubutsu Department Store in 1936, themed on “Gifts of the Seas and Mountains.” Togo’s mural-painting career soared in 1952, with his largest work sprawling the facade of the Asahi Kaikan shopping building in central Kyoto. Though it was torn down in 1972, “Peace and Unity” was so monumental that Togo directed his scaffolding-scaling assistant painters from a distance using binoculars and a wireless radio.

It was the “Togo-style” female form, however, that defined the artist’s postwar output, though it had, in fact, punctuated his oeuvre all along. “Thirst” (1953) features a beautiful but gaunt woman holding a newborn — a response to the hardships of the American Occupation. Subsequent decades of painting resulted in somewhat de-sexed women in increasingly romanticized images that were cute, stylish and popular. In Tokyo, these are still used on Takase biscuit tins, Mont-Blanc’s cake and confectionery boxes and the bags and wrapping papers of the French-style patisserie, Flammarion.

“The 120th Anniversary of the Birth of Seiji Togo: A Retrospective of Togo’s Depiction of Women” at Abeno Harukas Art Museum, Osaka runs until April 15; ¥1,300. For more information, visit www.aham.jp.