A passionate embrace of Nihon
Shinsui Ito (1898-1972) was a central figure in Japan's artistic identity crisis during the 20th century. As wave after wave of artistic 'isms' from overseas broke upon these shores, native artists felt compelled to either abandon their own rich artistic traditions or embrace them even more strongly. Ito, whose works are briefly on display at the Takashimaya Gallery in Nihonbashi, was one of those artists who chose the latter course, joining the Nihonga movement, which looked to Japan's past for inspiration rather than the confusing plethora of ideas pouring in from abroad.
When he was 18, he joined Shinhanga Undo, a group which aimed to revive the methods and styles of ukiyo-e. This had a profound influence on the style and themes of his paintings which abound with the images of nature and feminine beauty found in traditional Japanese wood block prints. Joshin (Unsullied Morning) (1930), a beautiful picture depicting a group of naked women bathing in a natural hot spring combines both of these aesthetics. The color of the bathers is so softened by the steam and blended into the surrounding nature, that it is only the blackness of their hair that first alerts us to their presence.
Nihonga differs markedly from Western painting in the materials used. The emphasis, as with so much in Japanese culture, is on the use of entirely natural materials. Paper and silk, mounted on board, wall scrolls or on folding screens, are used instead of canvas. Perhaps the most important difference, however, is in the paints. Instead of thick oils, Nihonga uses ground mineral pigments suspended in animal glue thinned with water. This gives the paint a sandy, smoky texture. The effects of this can be seen in Yubi (Fingers) (1922) which shows the almost ghostlike figure of a lady delicately examine her fingertips.
A Western viewer might be disappointed by the lack of expression in the faces of the women, most of whom seem to be hiding their feelings under a mask. But by paying close attention to other details, we are given enough clues to project our own feelings into these mysterious faces. Ideyu (Out of the Bath) (1950) shows a beautiful girl who has just emerged from a hot bath. She wears a yukata and dabs the sweat on her neck with a towel. Instead of having a relaxed face, however, her mouth remains closed and her hair is tied up in an elaborate hairdo. The only clue that she is really relaxed is given by two little strands of hair that hang down on either side of her face emphasizing her slight drooping posture. This is so subtle you might miss it if you blink!
Sakurabana(Cherry Blossoms) (1950) shows a young girl with the regulation poker face struck by the sudden beauty of the blossoms. The slight backwards tilt of her body combined with the hand raised to a pair of incredibly small, tight lips gives us a sense that a gasp of delight will escape from her the very next instant.
Ito tends to idealize women. The flip side of this, however, is that sometimes his paintings seem fetishistic, like Asagao to Shohjo (Morning Glory with Young Girls) (1948), a work depicting two young girls sucking on some flowers. A much more accomplished blending of the feminine and the natural is Reijitsu (Beautiful Day) (1934), a vast work stretching over 12 panels of a folding screen. Showing a woman looking at something lost in the tangled branches of an old plum tree, it is only by carefully following her gaze that we discover the small bird she is quietly watching.
Japanese art inspired by the imported artistic movements of the 20th century often looks derivative and dated, but the work of Shinsui Ito retains its sincere beauty and timeless appeal.
Paintings by Shinsui Ito until Feb. 6, 2001, at the Gallery on the 8F of Takashimaya Dept. Store in Nihonbashi
3rd February, 2001