Ryuji Tanaka

24.08.2016 - 04.11.2016
Ryuji Tanaka
Text written by Koichi Kawasaki - art historian and Gutai scholar - on the occasion of the monograph RYUJI TANAKA published by Axel Vervoordt Gallery in collaboration with AsaMer, 2016.
Using traditional mineral pigments, a traditional type of Japanese paint, Ryuji Tanaka’s works convey a keen awareness of nature. Tanaka’s life was marked by a constant and deep curiosity in a variety of genres, and his continual efforts to participate in competitive exhibitions. In this essay, I would like to provide more insight into Ryuji Tanaka by tracing the path he pursued.
Tanaka born on November 29, 1927 to Shokichi Tanaka and his wife Toyono in Higashi Futami, Futami-cho, Kako-gun, Hyogo Prefecture (now part of Akashi City). His real given name was Susumu.1 Futami, located in the eastern part of the Seto Inland Sea, was a small village that thrived as a cargo port in the mid-19th century. Though Tanaka was part of a generation that received military training in his late teens, World War II ended before he was drafted. He later graduated from Konohana Commercial junior High School in Osaka and went on to study nihon-ga (Japanese-style painting) at the Kyoto Municipal School of Painting (now Kyoto City University of Arts). Based on period photographs, Tanaka’s works deviated from traditional nihon-ga composition, displaying a bold quality that presaged his later style.
When he graduated from the school in 1948, Tanaka joined a number of friends who had also majored in nihon-ga to found an avant-garde art group called Pan-real2 in an attempt to revolutionize the conservative world of Japanese-style painting. The following year Pan-real made a new start as a group that was restricted solely to nihon-ga painters.3 It was an era of new movements in which young artists associated with many different genres searched for new forms of expression and freer structures. However, due perhaps to some difference of opinion, Tanaka parted ways with Pan-real only three years later. After completing a post-graduate course in 1952, he found work as a teacher like many other artists of that era. Tanaka joined the art faculty at a junior high school in Kobe, and then found a job at Motoyama Junior High School. In 1955, after passionately courting Shoko Saitou, a music teacher at the same school, the two were married. The family soon welcomed two daughters, and in the 1960s, Tanaka entered a highly productive period in his art. He subsequently submitted his paintings to various group shows and displayed his work in the Shin-Bijutsukyokai (New Art Association) exhibition, which focused primarily on nihon-ga.
As it happens, Tanaka’s graduation from the Kyoto City Specialist School of Painting coincided with that of Kazuo Shiraga. Though Shiraga was three years older, he had been drafted and had also taken a one-year leave from the school after the war was over, so the two men ended up in the same graduating class. Tanaka seems to have been closer to Shiraga than any of his other painter friends, and the older man influenced and guided him in various ways. Shiraga also studied nihon-ga, but he switched to oil painting after graduation. Tanaka, on the other hand, made use of the special characteristics of nihon-ga pigments to develop a new method of painting. Tanaka held his first solo show in Kobe in 1960, and in 1962, he was awarded the nihon-ga Contest Prize in the 5th Contemporary Japanese Art Exhibition. That year marked the introduction of the contest division, and Tanaka’s was rewarded for his bold effort. In April 1963, he held a solo exhibition at Takekawa Gallery in Tokyo which included a total of 25 works. Tanaka continued to pursue the style he developed during this period for the rest of his life.
His materials were mineral pigments, which he applied to a washi (Japanese paper) or canvas support medium. In standard nihon-ga, glue is mixed with the pigment to act as a fixing agent, and the paint is applied with a brush. Though the powdery texture was different, Tanaka added pebbles to expand the pigments and also used adhesive. And rather than a brush, he used a feather, making the paint stream, and blurring the picture. This was apparently inspired by bonseki, a traditional form of interior decoration.4 In later years, Tanaka added glass powder to the pigments to create white blurs. Oil painting lacked the rough quality of nihon-ga, and while he did make some figurative nihon-ga paintings before the war, Tanaka became known for his non-figurative work.
Nineteen sixty-three marked a major turning point in Tanaka’s career. He left his job as a public school teacher and moved to a private junior high that was affiliated with a high school. This afforded him more free time, and led to an even closer relationship with Shiraga, who Tanaka asked to help instruct students in the school’s art club every year. It was probably also in 1963 that Tanaka began making frequent visits to the Gutai Pinacotheca on Shiraga’s invitation, and participating in group meetings. Eventually, in October 1965, Tanaka became a member of the Gutai Art Association. In essence, this meant that he had been recognized by Jiro Yoshihara. At the same time, he became a member of the Ashiya City Art Association, and served as a judge for the Ashiya City and Dobiten exhibitions.5 But after showing his work in the 19th Gutai Exhibition two years later, Tanaka left the group. Like his break with Pan-real, the reasons are unclear, but one might imagine that it had something to do with his personality. His notebooks only contain a single reference to this event: “I’m feeling doubts and would like to put feeling in order.”6 Tanaka’s style remained unchanged, and he continued showing his work in Shin-Bijutsukyokai exhibitions as well as frequently holding solo shows in the Kobe area.
In about 1975, Tanaka developed an interest in haiku and studied the poetic form with the director of a haiku group called Hototogisu7 who he was a fellow teacher. His interests continued to expand, inspiring him to get a boat license, learn about antiques, and watch many movies. He was also interested in Saburo Hasegawa8, a graduate of the school where Tanaka was teaching at the time, and began studying the artist’s work and reading about him. While Tanaka believed in his work was a struggle between natural and human power, and an attempt to capture the “soft and hard aspects within nature,” Hasegawa set out to express what he called controlled accidents. Tanaka’s research resulted in several privately published volumes such as Research Notes on Saburo Hasegawa: The Man and His Art.
From the late ’70s to the ’90s, Tanaka devoted himself to making a contribution to the local community. In addition to holding his solo shows and actively submitting his work to competitive exhibitions, he taught (primarily nihon-ga) at museums and study centers to older painting enthusiasts. He was a generous teacher who also provided his students with a place to show their work, and continued educating until just before his death.
In the ’60s, Tanaka’s works combined the intensity and delicacy of various hues of black, but in the ’80s and ’90s, they took on a brighter and airy quality through his use of many colors. As Tanaka constantly confronted natural power, he seems to have locked horns with human (or his own) power, and attempted to express beauty through his work while grappling with nature.
1. Around 1956, the artist changed his name to Ryuji, which was made up of two kanji characters, the first meaning “dragon” and the second “child.”
2. Pan-real was formed in March 1948 by a group of eight artists: Takashi Yamasaki, Makoto Mikami, Seikichi Aoyama, Kazuo Yagi, Osamu Suzuki, Shingo Hoshino, Shigeya Fudo, and Tanaka.
3. Yagi and Suzuki were the only ceramic artists among the founding members, and left Pan-real after forming the Sodeisha group.
4. Bonseki is a kind of traditional Japanese art form in which a natural scene is reproduced with natural stones on a black tray that is displayed on the floor. Using feathers and white sand, the works convey various aspects of nature.
5. The Ashiya Art Exhibition was a competitive event in which Jiro Yoshihara served as a judge. Beginning in the late ’50s, it became a gateway for artists who hoped to join Gutai. The Dobiten was an exhibition of paintings and sculptural works by preschool-age children that was largely judged by Gutai members. The participants attended kindergartens throughout the Kansai region that appreciated the concept of children’s art. The last edition of the exhibition was held in 2004.
6. Excerpted from a notebook that Tanaka also used as a schedule book.
7. Hototogisu is a haiku group that preceded a magazine of the same name. It was launched in 1897. Members at the time included Shiki Masaoka and Kyoshi Takahama. Haiku lovers all over Japan continue to take part in the group.
8. Saburo Hasegawa (1906-1957) was a graduate of Konan High School, where Tanaka worked. He was a painter and critic who introduced European modern art to Japan. After the war, he became friends with Isamu Noguchi, and explored Western and Eastern thought, and traditional arts and their contemporary qualities.
Ryuji Tanaka
Ryuji Tanaka
Ryuji Tanaka
Ryuji Tanaka
Ryuji Tanaka