Surrealist painting began in Japan when the Nika-kai (Second Society Association), a secessionist art forum that focused on Western-style painting, exhibited such works by Harue Koga and Seiji Togo in 1929. It was bolstered in 1931, when Ichiro Fukuzawa returned to Japan from France to show his surrealist paintings inspired by Giorgio de Chirico and Max Ernst.
Initially Tokyo-centric, surrealism spawned in Kyoto, with the artists Gentaro Komaki (1906-89) and Noboru Kitawaki (1901-51) at its center. The former is the subject of a small-scale retrospective now showing at The Museum of Kyoto.
Komaki was the son of a Kyoto Prefecture silk crepe wholesaler. Ravenously consuming literature and philosophy while living decadently in his youth, he chose to pursue painting after viewing new art from Paris that was being shown in Kyoto in 1933. The Western surrealists Max Ernst (1891-1976) and Yves Tanguy (1900-55 ) enthralled him. As did the locally produced East-West fusion oil paintings by Kunitaro Suda (1861-1939), whom Komaki sought as a teacher at the Kyoto Institute of Independent Art from 1935. Thus Komaki’s painting vocation began at age 29.
For the first two years he followed the conventions of learning. He copied plaster casts in the evenings. His first painting, “Landscape, Kinosaki” (1935), pictured a few homes and businesses on a town street. “Study of Nude” (1936) was sketched from a model. Then 1937 bore witness to Komaki’s surrealist eruption: two paintings regarded among the best of pre-World War II Japanese surrealism — “Genealogy of a Race” and “Pathology of a Race (Prayer).”
The first depicted a monstrous, rearing larva praying over a desolate landscape, across which floated semi-transparent egg forms enclosing fetuses as symbolic wombs. The second borrowed Salvador Dali motifs of body parts, ruined buildings and a brightly lit horizon. In one instance, “Pathology of a Race (Prayer)” was removed from an exhibition in 1938 because, according to the police, it confused people. Komaki’s representation of a warplane and warped artillery were apparently too sensitive given the Second Sino-Japanese War.
Komaki’s surrealism later tempered into visually undulating optical art, as seen in the matchstick forms zigzagging across stylized wood grain patterns in “Ambiguous Figure” (1940). Over the rest of the 1940s, he turned to Buddhist themes, including the seated deities inhabiting scattering leaves in “Konoha Buddha” (1945).
Thereafter, new interests in esoteric beliefs, primitive cultures, psychoanalysis and folklore began to influence his work. These were fused into pictorial worlds in which he sought surrealist-related irrationalism and the substance of invisible matters. In such paintings he envisioned universes of his own creation, like “Espiritu Santo No.7-11” (1959), or used imagery featuring spermatozoan-like globs of paint. The latter appeared almost as a type of abstract expressionism, though Komaki’s titles, such as “Alma No. 17” (1962), referred to the Portuguese word for souls or spirits.
Later paintings, such as “Myo-ho-syo-zo-kan-jin-ge-man-nichi-rin-sou-ju” (1969), appeared to be secretly coded. While their titles at first seem familiar to Japanese, they were frequently nonsense words made up by Komaki. Having no meaning, they confounded audiences and critics. The imagery of such paintings was graphic, brightly colored and invested with symbolism suggesting the sun and moon, cycles of waxing and waning, change, birth and death. And as if to partially indigenize the mythic worlds of his own creation, Komaki would also occasionally add a little snow-capped Mount Fuji.
“Komaki Gentaro” at The Museum of Kyoto runs until March 3; ¥500. For more information, visit www.bunpaku.or.jp/en.