Art

Miwa Komatsu: An artist's vision of Shinto and its divine beings

by Katherine Whatley

Contributing Writer

‘When I was in elementary school, I was taking a nap under a tree in my garden. Then I had a dream, that would later come true, of having an exhibition as a painter and being an artist. That felt very real, and I realized this was foreshadowing my future. I felt that if I continued on the same path, I’d become an artist like in my dream.”

Miwa Komatsu’s childhood dream did become a reality. Komatsu, now an emerging artist, is becoming known for her vibrant depictions of Japanese Shinto symbolism and frequently has exhibitions and live painting performances both in Japan and overseas.

“My older brother was interested in art and my mother liked to go look at art. Plus Nagano, where I am from, has many museums,” Komatsu tells The Japan Times.

Thanks to early exposure, and her belief in her elementary school dream, Komatsu focused on becoming an artist from a young age. She later attended Joshibi Art University. “I became very interested in copperplate printing at that time,” says Komatsu.

It was around the same time that Komatsu found her thematic focus — Shinto symbolism and divine creatures, or shinju. “I started drawing shinju from when I was 18, when I came to Tokyo for art school,” she says. Though Komatsu’s work spans multiple mediums, including copperplate printing, painting and sculpture, shinju and Shinto ritual are constant themes.

“I use many Shinto themes and symbols including shinju, creatures that protect us, koi fish, water and daggers,” she says.

Best known for her paintings, Komatsu depicts shinju with high contrast, pop-bright acrylic painting style and saturated styling. She creates almost collage-like textured paintings with smatterings of color surrounding the central creature. These aggressive-looking creatures are both auspicious and frightening in Shinto teachings, and Komatsu’s work clearly tries to harness that contrasting nature. Perhaps in order to create the awe that the creatures deserve, Komatsu’s works can be very large. Last year marked the permanent installation of Komatsu’s biggest work to date, seven by seven meters, at the Iwate Education Center.

Komatsu’s work has a unified aesthetic sense. Her paintings are not inspired by the long tradition of Japanese subtlety in painting, especially in the intricate paintings of Buddhist religious depictions of mandalas or other iconography. Instead, they are more clearly connected to, and perhaps inspired by, American pop art, graffiti culture or popular artists such as Takashi Murakami or Jeff Koons.

As to her interest in shinju, she says: “In my paintings, the eyes of these shinju are really big. They feel our heart and feelings, not just physical things. Humans express love through things that cannot be seen, through the connection of two hearts. That’s what the shinju feel. So I made their eyes big to reflect that.”

Now, Komatsu wants to share Japan’s culture of holy spirits with the world. “You see shinju everywhere in Japan at temples and shrines,” she says. “But you can see gargoyles or griffins in Europe as well. There have been wars and a long time has passed, but they still exist. Their ability to see and understand our souls is really foundational. And there are griffin-like creatures in the Old Testament as well. These creatures are beyond culture and nation. I think that’s fascinating.”

This month sees both a live painting performance by Komatsu at the Cleveland Museum of Art’s “Shinto: Discovery of the Divine in Japanese Art” exhibit and her participation in a new group show in Venice. The show, curated by the Karuizawa New Art Museum, is titled “Diversity For Peace!” and seeks to explore the stories behind the artists represented and their work fusing art and life as we challenge the notion of normality. Komatsu has created a series of paintings and sculptures for it.

“I adjust my shinju to the place I’m going to be presenting. For example, my recent painting depicts a shinju with gills and water — that’s been inspired by European gargoyles and griffins because it’s going to be displayed in Venice.” This Venetian inspired shinju is one of the selection that will be featured in the “Diversity For Peace!” exhibition.

In addition, on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Arita style of pottery making in 2015, Komatsu collaborated with master craftsmen of Arita pottery to create a set of komainu, deity dogs that often guard temples and shrines. This set of sculptures titled “Guardian Lion Dogs: Heaven and Earth,” is now in the permanent collection of the British Museum, after being displayed at the British Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show as part of Kazuyuki Ishihara’s “The Edo Garden.” The dogs utilize Komatsu’s pop-color, high contrast style in a three-dimensional porcelain context.

As for her upcoming plans, Komatsu says she’d like to keep making art and “getting it in collections and shows worldwide. It’s an uphill struggle to be in collections internationally. This is just the start.”

Komatsu works with Ginza’s Whitestone Gallery which has branches in Hong Kong, Taipei, Tokyo and Karuizawa and owns the Karuizawa New Art Museum. Though she does show in Europe and the U.S., her career seems to have a decidedly Asian focus. She has had shows in Whitestone’s gallery spaces abroad and has done live painting performances in her trademark white hakama clothing.

“I’m working on my English so that I can explain the understanding behind my works. I’d like to explain what shinju, holy spirits, are in English, in my own words. It continues to be hard to explain, but I’m working my hardest through my words and through my work. I’m not so good with words, so I also try to connect and explain through my live painting performances.”

For Komatsu, the focus continues to be the propagation of Japan’s Shinto religious culture through her pop-color vibrant works. She hopes to spread her understanding of Japanese culture throughout the world using her beloved shinju.