Art / Events

Ryonosuke Shimomura: An eclectic rule breaker

by Matthew Larking

Contributing Writer

Born to a noh actor, Ryonosuke Shimomura (1923-98) was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps. He preferred baseball. Disliking study and with poor grades, he went to art school, thinking it would be an easy ride.

Enrolled in two successive courses of study in Kyoto from 1936 to 1943, he conceived techniques that both alarmed his teachers (one thought him color blind, he wasn’t) and saw him awarded the lowest grades in his classes. This unusual artistic career is the subject of “Shimomura Ryonosuke: In Praise of Play,” (in two stages, the second beginning Jan. 7) at BB Plaza Museum of Art in Kobe.

In 1948, Shimomura saw the first exhibition of the avant-garde nihonga (Japanese-style painting) group Pan Real Art Association, formed by Mikami Makoto (1919-72) and Yamazaki Takashi (1916-2004). He became a principal member later that year, subsequently giving the organization leadership over decades until his death. While consisting of nihonga painters, Pan Real’s artistic sensibilities were frequently Western, as were Shimomura’s early interests. This is seen in his prewar sketches, influenced by Leonardo da Vinci and Honore Daumier, and in the exaggerated features of a weathered and weary laborer in “Worker-san” (1946), resembling an oil painting.

Postwar, Shimomura pursued fusions of cubism and surrealism, as in the fragmented and theatrically staged reclining female bodies of “Morning A” (1952), then geometricized and abstracted birdlife, like “Water and Bird” (1957). Birds were one of Shimomura’s lifelong loves. In paintings from the later ’50s, he produced less recognizable species of birds than universalized creatures in flight, often with sinister appearance.

Shimomura’s stylistic breakthrough came in 1959. Inspired by techniques he taught school students in his charge, Shimomura began creating low-relief painting-sculptures made from papier-mache on plywood, over which he painted. The early pieces approximated the appearance of fossilized glyphs surviving a pre-modern culture. For later works, Shimomura developed a set of metal tools for impressing patterns into the papier-mache, allowing him to create intricate stenciled effects, like in the perforated wingspan of “Flying by Moonlight Na (1988).

With the arrival of Shimomura’s relief works, he had created something that was neither specifically nihonga nor yōga (Western-inspired painting), or even painting or sculpture proper. And with these genre-collapsing art works, Shimomura and his Pan Real colleagues began pushing the postwar definitions of nihonga into territory determined more by positional, conceptual and interpretative relations, rather than the earlier essentialist uses of specific painting media, formats and subjects.

Shimomura’s later career was in pursuit of eclecticism. His abstracted bird paintings became incrementally more realistic, he caricatured the usually elegant depiction of maiko (trainee geisha) in “Chopstick” (1979), in which the attendant squishes a chopstick between her nose and top lip, and illustrated serial stories in newspapers. Added to these were his voluminous cutesy images of his beloved owls, strange-form ceramics (what the artist termed “burnt wares”), New Year cards, and later-year self-portraits.

“Self-portrait: Sixtieth Birthday” (1983) is homage-like, visually assembling all of the disparate accouterments of Shimomura’s life, and mildly humorous for its seeming “obituary in advance”-type address, made by the yet-to-be deceased.

“Shimomura Ryonosuke: In Praise of Play” at BB Plaza Museum of Art runs through Dec. 22, with a second stage from Jan. 7 through Feb. 16. For more information, visit bbpmuseum.jp.