Kegon No. 11, 1970s
While the exuberance of youth has played its part in countless artistic breakthroughs, the power of the mid-life crisis should not be underestimated either; especially in a society like Japan, where the wisdom or follies of age have traditionally carried much more weight than those of youth. This awkward period of reflection and renewed experimentation that comes to most of us is certainly evident in the career of Teppey Ujiyama (1910 – 1986), an artist who finally evolved an abstract style that, it is claimed, has deep resonances with Buddhism.
For Ujiyama, whose art is now on display at one of my favorite stops, the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum, the crisis came towards the end of the 2nd World War. Part of this was, no doubt, the death of his 6-year-old daughter, killed in the cruel American bombing of civilian centers like Fukuoka, where he was living at the time. But a larger part was artistic, as he struggled to find a satisfactory means of expression.
In his youth, he had taught himself the techniques of woodblock printing and succeeded in producing beautiful little works, like Rural Train Station (1930) and Mackerel Sky (1931), richly evocative of the countryside around his native town of Hita in Kyushu's Oita Prefecture. He also seemed comfortable, producing expressionist oil landscapes, full of an animist yearning, of the mountainous terrain of Kyushu's Kuju Highlands.
Rural Train Station, 1930
But, like Japan itself, with the end of the War, Ujiyama entered upon a period of uncertainty, during which he questioned his art and tried new styles. According to Japanese art critic, Seigow Matsuoka, who has written an essay for the catalogue, this period of uncertainty lasted 15 years. But, if this was one of the longest midlife crises on record, Ujiyama didn't spend it buying Ferraris or chasing after younger models. He merely struggled with his brushes, knives, and canvases.
This is evident at the exhibition, with works that evoke comparisons with Paul Klee or Joan Miro, or others that are clearly offshoots of Cubism, like Konin-period Buddha (1957). But, as the title of this latter work suggests, Ujiyama wasn’t merely on an artistic quest. He was also on a spiritual one.
The turning point, according to Matsuoka, was the painting Stone Flower (1960), painted as a tribute to his patron Baron Shigetaro Fukushima, the man who had championed his art at the Kokugakai exhibition in 1939, which had established him as an artist. Matsuoka sees in this work, which contrasts a delicate but glowing white flower with surrounding darkness, the transition of the soul from Edo (the impure world) to Jodo (the pure land).
Different from all previous and all subsequent paintings, it also stands as a convenient watershed, marking the division between Ujiyama’s earlier stylistic wanderings and his mature style. From this point onwards, his art becomes increasingly focused on brightly-colored geometric shapes deployed around the canvas.
Based on the titles of many works, including the Kegon series painted in the 1970s and 80s, and Ujiyama's own statements, Matsuoka connects this development to Ujiyama's deep interest in the Kegon school of Buddhism, following the precepts of the Avatamsaka or "Garland Sutra," which teaches that ultimate principles (the ‘spiritual’ world) and concrete manifestations (the material world) are interfused, and that the manifestations are mutually identical.
In artistic terms this can be taken to mean that the abstract and the figurative are one and the same, or that simple shapes and colors can symbolize or express complex worldly realities. As with much Buddhist philosophy, there is a strong strand of reductionism, with everything being, on one level, identical, making Kegon Buddhism an ideal philosophy for abstract art.
Unfortunately, an appreciation of this element of Ujiyama's art requires more than a casual glance at his canvases. While he may have had the correspondence between the earthly and the spiritual in mind as he painted, it is much harder for viewers to share this. Sometimes the title gives a clue, as in Memorial Flowers (1982), where the name immediately sets us off interpreting the large black shapes as tombstones. Also there are certain visual motifs that recur, most notably the two dots and three whiskers that he uses to symbolize himself. But, ultimately, Ujiyama's art defies comprehensive attempts at decoding, leaving us to take it on trust that this is the interpenetrating world of the spiritual and the material outlined in the Garland Sutra.
When faced with any over elaborate explanation like this, my first reaction is always to reach for my Occam's razor, and look for simpler or, at least, more down-to-earth explanations. When the average rationalist materialist encounters these paintings, the eye and its attendant 'software' initially strives to sort the visual data into unifying figurative patterns, only to be thrown back by the random, abstract elements.
In the absence of formal unity, the various elements of the paintings - the discrete shapes and colors and the beautiful textures of the paint - start to speak up on their own, as first one shape or color, then another, fades in and out of focus. Inevitably the temporal and positional spacing of these elements starts to build various visual ‘melodies’ and ‘rhythms’ in a rather haphazard and subjective way.
The tendency of the paintings to create this kind of visual polyphony, combined with highly suggestive titles like Kegon and Endlessly, the Universe Interacts, Expands, and Flows (1984), may have misled over-sympathetic critics like Matsuoka to see in these works valid depictions of the essence of reality and its supposedly deep spiritual interconnectivity and harmony.
Ultimately these collections of shapes and colors strike me as charming ad hoc accumulations of discrete acts of painting, guided by aesthetic principles of balance and harmony, suffused with the subjective emotions of the painter. Now, what’s wrong with that?
The Japan Times
16th February, 2006