Takanori Oguiss: The Japanese Utrillo

When I first saw the oil paintings of Paris by the Japanese artist, Takanori Oguiss (1901-1986), I was strangely reminded of the neutron bomb, a weapon notorious for its ability to annihilate humans without damaging buildings. Like the so-called 'clean bomb,' his paintings of deserted city scenes seem to have a marked preference for buildings over people. However, Oguiss's work is very much concerned with 'La Vie,' the life of the earthy and elegant city that became his adopted home and was the inspiration for the great majority of his work. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth, an exhibition of 128 of his works is visiting 8 venues in Japan over the next year, starting at the Meguro Museum of Art, Tokyo.

Originally named Takanori Ogisu, the painter, the son of a rich landowner, regarded the French capital as the fountainhead of art. In 1927, after completing his studies, he moved to Paris and soon started signing his pictures with the more Frenchified version of his family name, 'Oguiss.' In the same way that America is now attracting the cream of Japan's baseball talent, young Japanese painters of the early 20th century felt challenged to test their skills in the 'Major League' of Western art, which, at that time, was undeniably Paris.

One of the advantages of living in a foreign land is that everyday objects are invested with a special alien charm. Rather than paint some over obvious landmark like the Eiffel Tower, Oguiss felt more fulfilled painting mere alleyways and street corners. An early work, Colonne Morris (1928), showing a kiosk or column plastered with posters, reveals the excitement the young artist found in the mundane elements of his foreign existence. His thick, heavy brushstrokes and bold use of color give the column body, while sharper, feverish strokes convey an impression of the confusing jumble of letters on the posters and advertisements.

Among early influences, he counted such luminaries as Renoir, Sisley, and Degas, and these artists clearly inform the range of his brushstrokes, but in terms of subject matter he falls into the same territory as Maurice Utrillo, the French artist who predated him so much in his Parisian subject matter as well as in certain elements of his style.

In the 1930s Paris was alive with a ferment of new ideas from the worlds of physics, psychology, and politics, impacting on and fragmenting the artistic community. Amid this chaos, Oguiss followed his own personal muse in a way that expressed his Japanese character.

One of the characteristics of his style is his lack of pretension or showiness, invoking the very Japanese qualities of wabi sabi – quiet, austere simplicity. This is particularly evident in his paintings of semi-derelict buildings as in Rue St. Gervias (1937) and run down garages, as in Le Garage (1937). Where he departs from this aesthetic of humble beauty, such as in his painting Tour de Cesar a Provins (1964), an impressive looking castle, his work becomes too self-consciously 'arty,' reminding one of stage scenery.

Obsessed with painting buildings, often at close range, the main danger he faced was that of the solid and static qualities of the objects emerging too strongly. In a work like Fruiterie (1930), a depiction of a fruit shop, the energy of his brushstrokes and the vividness of his textures help prevent the painting becoming too settled. There is also a slightly off balance quality that enlivens many of his works. In these ways Oguiss succeeded in his goal of "Painting La Vie without painting people," indirectly capturing a sense of the spirit of everyday human life.

His reason for leaving people out of his paintings can partially be explained by the Japanese concept of ma or emptiness, where an absence is thought to add to the aesthetic appeal.

"If the picture has an empty space, the painter feels inclined to fill it up with people," he once complained of other painters.

Oguiss loved Paris and its people, but he also sensed that there is something transitory and insubstantial about the flow of human life. His way of capturing it, therefore, was to paint the objects most shaped by it, the streets and houses with their beat-up, warm, and lived-in look. Little wonder then, that the supposedly inanimate objects painted by Oguiss still vibrate with life today.

Takanori Oguiss runs until Jun. 3, 2001 at the Meguro Museum of Art, Meguro

Japan Times
23rd May, 2001
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