Matsui Fuyuko 松井冬子

Matsui Fuyuko’s work does not intimate in any obvious way that the history of Japanese art might change with a woman. Instead, its message seems grimmer: life is full of insanity, violence, pain, death.

And great beauty.

For many viewers, the grotesque and disturbing subject matter of many of her paintings overwhelms the great beauty of her technique. Female figures are torn asunder by their own hands or other creatures, or as if by the scalpel of an anatomist who has just finished a dissection. Guts spill forth. A uterus with a fetus lay exposed. Insects feed. But for Matsui, this isn’t terror of death; it’s confrontation of our reality. Just as innards lay exposed, so too does life’s beauty.

A better understanding of this approach may allow the viewer to draw closer to her work, rather than shrink away. Then the uniqueness and technique shines forth. Many art critics and historians rightfully draw comparisons of her work to Nihon-ga (literally, “Japanese painting”) and try to find precedents in other traditions, but often seem at a loss. Where does this all come from?

Matsui claims not to have any creative links with other contemporary artists, much less any friends among them, even asserting, “our work shares no similarities.” When asked about the notable increase of grotesque work and themes among young Japanese, especially evident at events like Design Festa, she is more revealing.

“I’ve been so busy with my work recently that I haven’t really had time to go see any other exhibits, but if you think of this in terms of a social movement, then I think it’s definitely because we live in a Japan that’s overly sterile. It’s almost as if we’ve taken everything that’s grotesque or makes us feel ill at ease and dispensed with it– it’s just all too clean. I think our senses have dulled. And so now I think maybe we’re seeing the emergence of work that stimulates sensations of pain. People want to affirm that they are alive.”

Her mention of “social movement” points to another possible source of her inspiration.

“I do read, but honestly I don’t have any interest in literature. I derive no inspiration from it. Rather, I am often inspired by reading about aesthetics and philosophy. For example, Julia Kristeva and the sociologist Ueno Chizuko.”

Grotesque painting is not so uncommon in the West either, and is certainly not confined to contemporary work. Goya’s “Saturn Eating his Sun” is a classic. Matsui affirms that some of her art does owe to Western tradition.

“Before I studied Nihon-ga, I studied oil painting for a long time. And because the period I studied oil painting was so long, so too was the period that I studied Western work. The first that comes to mind, however, is Leonardo da Vinci, whose work is terrifyingly beautiful.”

It seems as if Matsui has studied anatomical drawing, or at least turned to the world of anatomy for resource material. Gunther von Hagens’ anatomical exhibition “Mysteries of the Body” was enormously popular in Japan when it debuted in 1995, but Matsui points elsewhere.

“I’ve never actually been to any such exhibits in Japan, but I do often visit La Specola Museo Zoologico Universita in Firenze, Italy. I suspect medical students from all over Europe travel there to study. There are lots of models of cadavers having been dissected, showing organs and bones, all lined up– I travel there to draw, usually staying nearby about two weeks at a time.”

Her paintings are evidence enough of her fascination–one could almost say obsession–with the body’s interior, and couched as these ‘studies’ are in traditional Japanese painting styles, one is tempted to compare her to Japanese physicians of the Edo era who first encountered the superior anatomical drawings from Dutch medicine. But her renderings of death and decay draw more deeply from Japanese tradition. In talking about motifs she uses, Matsui notes:

“The Kusôshi Emaki (picture scroll) drawn in the Kamakura era, for example, depicts a beautiful woman gradually decaying until she is just bones. The scroll was drawn from the perspective of Buddhist tradition, to warn a man that even a beautiful woman to whom you may devote your attentions will one day come to such ruin. I think the actual work itself is quite beautiful, but the concept behind it completely uninteresting, actually. So I’m drawing a kind of modern Kusôshi Emaki with a new concept. The work comprises nine pieces, but my current exhibition in Yokohama includes only five pieces, including some of my new ones. I’ll complete all nine, maybe ten eventually.”

Matsui’s exhibition at the Yokohama Museum of Art is breathtaking. Arranged into nine sections according to theme, it takes little account of chronology, which Matsui seems to approve of. When asked to compare her work from the past to the present, she demurs.

“The current exhibit doesn’t display my work in that way. Likewise, I don’t really look at it in that way. Ask me what has changed between past and present, and I don’t really have any sort of impression. If anything, my work has become more intense.”

Matsui’s own work ethic is intense, perhaps necessarily so. Nihon-ga is a demanding form with multiple steps requiring great discipline. Traditionally, artists begin with rough sketches (shita-e), then move to small, compositional sketches (kojita-e). Next follow small detailed drawings (shitazu) and then the large work begins. A full-size, detailed underdrawing (ôshitazu) eventually provides the basis for the final work (honga), a process that can take a year– and actually has for at least one of Matsui’s pieces: Becoming Friends with All the Children in the World.

Her current exhibit, which also goes by the same title, includes one major departure for Matsui. When Rolex Japan recently asked her if there was anything new she wanted to do, she replied, video, and received the funding and support to realize the project.

She notes that she loves video, and cites Chris Cunningham as someone she admires, but resists the simple notion that it might be easier for photographers to move into video.

“I think all photography is different. With photography, you take a subject just as it is, and then you work with it from there. I think Araki’s photographs and the work of Joel-Peter Witkin are completely different, for example. Joel-Peter Witkin crams all kinds of things in, and then renders it like art. Araki takes pictures of naked women to produce provocative work. There are so many different kinds of photography, and while I can’t say this as a rule, the way I work as an artist is not like someone who simply takes what is there and then shows it. Rather, I think my style is more akin to Witkin, who arranges all kinds of things together to structure his work.”

Matsui is still working on her video, for planned release at the exhibit in early March, but admits struggle.

“When I work on a picture, I go into a room all alone and concentrate on one thing. Nobody else comes in. It’s something produced by me alone in that sacred space. But with video, you just have so many people–200 to 300 are involved. And as the director, I have to control all of them. There’s pressure and it also costs money. The pressure is intense.”

She reveals little else about the work in progress and swears that this will probably be her last foray into video. She will return to painting, where she is a part of a rich tradition whose influence she readily acknowledges.

“I have of course learned much from masters of the past. And a lot of that is their technique. I think the content of my work is primarily what I’ve discovered on my own, but with technique I am wholly indebted to older examples; there was much that I learned from the work of Kawanabe Kyosai and Hasegawa Tohaku. After that, you can think about expression and the concepts you want to work with, and then your ideas pour forth.”

Matsui also uses silk, a surface material that was largely abandoned after World War II. But as if in defiance of the male-dominated tradition, she strictly paints only women, some of whom seem like shadows of herself. She is, in a way, leading a recent renaissance of Nihon-ga while also reinterpreting and reinventing it in very personal ways.

Medieval Japanese emaki. European Renaissance oil painting. Nihon-ga. Contemporary photography. Video art. Anatomical drawing. Matsui’s creative will appropriates it all, projecting it back, in altered form, on silk. Which in turn projects a vision of a new direction for Japanese, perhaps even world, art.












「日本ではそういった展示を見たことはないのですが、私がよく訪れるのはイタリアのフィレンツェにあるラ・スペコラ博物館 (La Specola Museo Zoologico Universita di Firenze)です。ヨーロッパ各地から医学生が学びのために訪れる場所で、人の内臓や骨などを蝋細工で精巧につくった解剖学模型が沢山ならんでいます。そこの取材のため、2週間ほど近辺に滞在してデッサンをすることがあります。」















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