Narashige Koide: Loving the Alien

Nude Lying (1930)

White rappers used to be a joke until the recent advent of Eminem, whose rapping skills are now widely respected across the racial divide. In a similar way, early Japanese artists trying to master Western oil painting ended up looking extremely ersatz, clumsy, or derivative; their paintings mere experiments or study pieces rather than true works of art.

The urge to slavishly imitate, however, given time and talent, becomes the urge to emulate. In the case of Japanese Western-style oil painting, this can be seen in the work of Narashige Koide (1887-1931), currently showcased at an extensive exhibition at the Yokohama Sogo Museum.

His early pencil and watercolors – see Sketches of the Three Nights Trip (1906) – show a delightfully light touch, more in keeping with Nihonga, setting a contrast with the dark, heavy, ornate style of oil painting he later favored.

A constant factor is his art was his poor health. Suffering from congenital heart disease, he was a partial invalid for most of his life. It is perhaps for this reason that a great many of his paintings, even his landscapes, have an indoor feel. He was attracted to dark, somber tones like those apparent in View of the City under the Snow (1925). The pre-war architecture of his native Osaka, rendered in thick, dark brushstrokes, gives the city almost an atmosphere of the dark, Nordic winter.

His portraits, like The Family Portrait of N (1919), showing him, his wife and his son, are typically lugubrious with a subtle note of distortion that is all the more potent for being barely perceptible. Koide paints his own face elongated and slanted to one side. His Portrait of Omme (1920), with its long head and swollen eyes, creates a feeling of a child old before her time.

Sea (1930)
Despite his poor health, between 1921 and 1922 he made a pilgrimage to the font of Western art, visiting France to pay homage to artists like Cezanne and Matisse who influenced him. His landscapes from this period, like Landscape of Cagne (1922) show some influence of the brighter climes, but the feeling conveyed is often of the dead air that precedes a Summer storm.

The still lifes, like Vegetables and Fruits on the Table (1927), which uses a characteristically ornate Chinese table, intensify the indoor atmosphere of his work, giving us a picture of a sickly artist confined to painting the same objects again and again. This table, whose complex geometry seemed to fascinate Koide, appears in countless works hosting the picked flowers, fruits, and vegetables that seem, like him, sadly separated from the natural world. Feeling ephemeral himself, the artist seems to be attempting to solidify these objects in his consciousness in as an act of visual incantation.

Although these works seem dull to the modern viewer, this same mantric urge to isolate and realize natural objects, when applied to the female nude, produced some truly worthy oil paintings. Nude Lying on a Chinese Bed (1930), which features another recurring piece of furniture, shows alluring skin tones and a beautiful sense of line in a form suggestive of Matisse’s best work. Nude Lying (1930), a work from the same palette, shows a nude from behind in tones warm and intimate. Koide also painted excellent miniature nudes on glass, such as Nude Reclining on Sofa (1930) with its strong element of the voyeur in it.

Of course his illness was an important factor in creating his style, but it is nevertheless painful to reflect that these nude masterpieces were all painted only a year or so before his death at the tragically early age of 43. Death perhaps deprived him of becoming a great artist, but Koide, despite many mediocre works, was also one of the first Japanese artists to truly excel in a formerly alien medium.

The Japan Times
27th March, 2001
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