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Morio Matsui

by Vivienne Kenrick

In times of difficulty and pain, Morio Matsui says he has always been saved by his painting.

Difficulty and pain may be the lot of an artist, even one so acclaimed as Matsui. But they would seem to be distant from him now that he is living, drenched in color and light, on the Mediterranean island of Corsica. Indeed, he said, “I have the impression that I have arrived in paradise without dying.”

“My life is painting,” Matsui continued. “I am responsible for my choice. Anything else would have been impossible. The day when I no longer paint, I will die.”

As a boy, he considered several “impossible” alternatives for his life’s work. Music? He came to it too late. Acting? Theater audiences were too small, and for Hollywood film standards his nose was not straight enough. Writing? You had to be tubercular. Singing? The singer was too dependent on his manager. Sculpting? He doubted his physical strength. Painting offered him the liberty to choose his subjects, his techniques, his life. He wanted freedom, his own way, and to be the best.

Born in wartime Toyohashi, Matsui was the sixth in a family of seven children. His father, after returning wounded and an amputee from war, refused a disability pension. His mother died when he was 14. Home circumstances helped inculcate in the boy his sense of being different, highly individual and nonconformist. He did well at school, and struck out for himself when he entered the Musashino College of Fine Art in Tokyo. In 1967 he was awarded a French government scholarship and, to take it up, followed the trans-Siberian route to Paris.

Difficulties and pain beset him in Paris. He had language to contend with. He had to cope with different teaching methods and Western subjects. He got into trouble with his professor, and over his residence permit and tax payments. He faced deportation. As an artist, he says he was saved by his painting. “It allows me to forget everything, and means that I am afraid of nothing,” he said. As an immigrant, he was saved by the people who knew him and believed in him. “He is an artist, and should not be treated as a common mortal,” one of his defenders argued.

He traveled. He met Picasso, who reportedly said to him, “Your work is in your eyes.” He received commissions from the French Ministry of Transport to design the first-class interiors of two Air France Boeing 747s. During the 10 years that he stayed away from Japan, he exhibited in Hong Kong as well as in Paris. Thereafter, in solo and group shows, his work appeared widely in Europe, America, Canada and Japan. For four years, the Japanese Ministry of Education selected Matsui’s work to illustrate the covers of school calligraphy textbooks.

Whilst Matsui works on a grand scale with oil paints on huge canvases, his Japanese training remains for him a basic discipline. Some of his largest paintings take up to 2 1/2 years to complete. He says that painting and martial arts are alike in requiring physical as well as mental effort. He is a solitary figure in Japanese dress, at his easel in his studio and on the beach in Corsica. The director of a Parisian art gallery call him “a rainbow between Japan and Corsica.”

Some Matsui lithographs are in the National Library collection in Paris. Twenty years ago, a Geneva daily newspaper hailed him in front-page coverage. He was a jury member in the 1991 International Comic Strip Festival in France. Composer Yosuke Yamashita paid homage to him in his piano recording “Canvas in Quiet.” After painting desert themes in the United Arab Emirates, Matsui was invited by Prince Hamad bin Hamad al-Nahyan to the palace in Abu Dhabi. Four years ago, he designed the official poster for the Monte Carlo Open Tennis Tournament, saluted the millennium in a triptych for Ajaccio Cathedral in Corsica, and received elite honors from the French government. He is named a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters, and a Chevalier in the Legion of Honor.

Matsui says that love is happiness followed by pain, and painting is pain followed by happiness. A contemporary artist, he wants to be timeless. “I hope to create paintings which are living objects and which can change according to the light, in morning, afternoon and evening. I want my paintings to be calming by day and troubling by night, open and suggestive, existing on their own and yet endlessly renewed and extended according to the person looking at them,” he said.