Shindo Tsuji: A Lifetime of Forgetting

Face, 1956

In 1948 the respected Zen elder Ian Kishizawa told the sculptor Shindo Tsuji, “Forget whatever you can and express whatever remains.” Despite its enigmatic and paradoxical quality, this typically Zen-like admonition nevertheless manages to sum up the career of Tsuji (1910 – 1981), an important Japanese sculptor whose centenary is being celebrated by a major retrospective at Kamakura Museum of Art.

Tsuji’s early career is the familiar tale of a young provincial coming to sup at the fountain of metropolitan sophistication, and seeking to make a name for himself by acquiring the expected styles and techniques. After moving to Tokyo from his home village in Tottori prefecture in 1931, he studied Western-style painting at the Independent Institute of Art, before switching to sculpture, in which his main influence was the naturalism of the French sculptor Auguste Rodin.

Han-Shan, 1958
Working in wood, early works, like Summer Morning – Master Denchu Hirakushi Aged Seventy (1941) and Poet – Study for Yakamochi Otomo (1942), won praise for their realism, despite the fact that the statue of Yakamochi Otomo looks very different from how we would imagine a poet of the Nara period (710 – 794) to look. By this time Tsuji was exhibiting his work as a member of the Japan Art Institute Exhibition.

Having learnt much, the rest of his career, in accordance with the instruction given by Kishizawa, was a kind of forgetting. This journey led him to greater expressiveness as well as a more profound interaction with his materials. A key event in this respect was moving to Kyoto, where in 1949 he took up a teaching post at the Kyoto City School of Art (today’s Kyoto City University of Arts). At that time, even in the center of Kyoto you could find kilns turning out pottery. To someone like Tsuji, who had already sculpted in wood, plaster, and bronze, it seemed only natural to turn to ceramics as a medium of expression.

There is something anthropomorphic about wood. It seems to cry out to be carved into human-like figures, as evident in Tsuji’s work. But clay is a different matter. By switching to ceramics, Tsuji’s sculpture was able to take a more abstract route, while also providing inspiration to avant-garde ceramicists like Kazuo Yagi and the Sodeisha group who wanted to escape from functionality and treat ceramic works as pure objets d’art.

Head of a Cat, 1956
Working with clay enabled Tsuji to forget what he had known before and to respond afresh to the qualities of the new material. This gives these works a particular freshness and sense of discovery. Rather than working from models, as he had done with his wood sculptures, he now used his own internalized concepts as points of departure for increasingly abstract sculptures. While Cat (1956) is still just recognizable as a cat, Head of Cat (1956) is not. Only after reading the name plate, do we perceive with a sudden pleasurable jolt the sculpture’s feline essence. His ceramic sculptures from this period represent the acme of his art, something that was recognized when he was selected to represent Japan at the 1958 Venice Biennale.

His work also shows a noticeable tendency towards chunky, block-like works, like Man Sitting on a Chair (1957) and Mountain Man (1957). These have an almost architectural feel, looking like the kind of buildings you might find on some alien world. As a devout Zen Buddhist himself – he had become a priest in 1938 – some of the ideas that spurred such abstract sculptures were from Buddhist traditions. For example, one of the works shown at the Venice Biennale, the bulky-looking Han-shan (1958) was inspired by the 9th-century Chinese poet Han-Shan, revered in Zen Buddhism as an incarnation of the Bodhisattva Manjusri.

Despite their abstract style, these works retain a hint of the figurative, something that helps to unlock them for most viewers. However, Tsuji yearned for greater esotericism. In his subsequent career he produced pieces that moved towards greater abstraction through flatness. Looking like pieces of wall removed from some adobe desert village, these works combine warm textures with reticent formal qualities. Somewhat limited as works of art, they seem more conducive to states of Zen meditation, perhaps expressing whatever remained after a lifetime of forgetting.

The Japan Times
11th February, 2011

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