Peter Robinson: The Living Artist

  Peter Robinson

  The Living Artist

  Shunsuke Matsumoto (1912-1948)
  JPR 08

Matsumoto in his studio, c.1940.
Fig 1: Outskirts, c.1937.
            1. OUTSKIRTS

If he could hear this, illness-deafened painter,
I’d thank him for these greenish tones
setting off an odd-shaped building
with yellow- and blue-striped sections;
what might be a spa resort hotel
in front of more white structures on the hill,
this architecture suffers its displacements
like a bold but bad idea.

Rationing his mute gradations
shared between an earth and sky,
for him like a Rimbaud sounds of colours
were as music to emotions…
Among the summer’s over-growth, see, here
figures scratched in foreground grass;
they might be children playing —
and all of it so ominous.

Fig 2: A Painter, c.1941
            2. A PAINTER

The years I stared at his family portrait
here with its momentous date
trying to figure out that patriotic stance,
his own, with gaze fixed on
a distant, beyond-the-black-wood-frame horizon,
all unawares of the stand he’d made —
stand wholly at odds with his government’s then.

His cunning modern arguments
defended the abstractionists
by comparing them to Riyoanji,
stone gardens and damp-textured walls
like the yugen of his ‘Nikolai Cathedral’
with its finely-textured, burnt-sienna ground,
black-marked bollards, cupola and spire.
For years on end they were a stay.

Fig 3: Nikolai Cathedral, c. 1941.
            3. NIKOLAI CATHEDRAL

I’m standing here before them once again,
or taking in the popping oil
(and other pot-shaped implements besides)
precarious on a packing case,
its knots and grain a scrawl
like they’re fashioned from the same red-brown
as industrial quarters sketched-in for a background.

Central on the skyline, beyond his lit right shoulder,
there is Nikolai Cathedral,
favoured factory buildings, further sheds and offices,
a slatted sign beside the little son
and two-wheeled cart between his knees,
the minute figures not to scale
as if black ants amongst those shadowed planes.

Fig 4: White Building, detail.
            4. WHITE BUILDING

Behind high fencing and a black-eyed gate
there’s what must be a factory,
a battered-looking factory.
Its flat blue sky in humidity and heat
is scored across with power-lines
above outbuildings, chimneys,
and more black, blocked-in apertures
like blinded, blank eye-sockets.

In fact, there is no sign of life
on the empty road outside, the pavement —
except his blue-smeared, grey-white paint,
a particular scratch ontology,
wabi-sabi of their shabby modernizing
to cut in these expressed slab sides,
the pigment applied alla prima on its board
with a wielded palette knife.

Fig 5: Street Scene. Yokohama, c. 1941

This scuffed, wind-ruffled crossroads with a rickshaw
and Canadian Pacific offices
was inspiration for my ‘Corner Store’ —
the one where a run-down retail outlet
surviving between two high-rises
impresses itself on a freezing winter’s night.

With arrayed dispensing machines outside,
the shop was a fridge door left ajar.
We were waiting at the stoplight,
not one vehicle anywhere in sight …
Like shivering, it came back to mind,
his ‘Street Scene’, and would stand me in good stead,
being reminded of a granddad’s wished-for
emigration to that farther shore.

Fig 6: Fire Ruins, c.1945
            6. FIRE RUINS

Beside him, his supportive-flinching wife
(she’s there in family photographs)
has a pallid forehead and white elbow
heightened, as if caught by a searchlight,
their reddened child half-hidden at her skirts —
both to be sent from Tokyo
once the B29s had got it in their range.

Emergent from a fiery, dusk-like sky,
the rusty-coloured ground tone
as good as foreshadows their incendiary raids
whose ‘Fire Ruins’ he depicted too,
no, not ‘among bombs falling’
as they had advocated,
but in an aftermath he’d all-too-briefly live through.

Landscape with the Diet Building, 1942.

No ‘artist of the floating world’ as Ishiguro* drew him —
these intuited sombre glimpses
are symbolic-seeming landscapes
like another ‘with the Diet Building’
or over a canal’s dark spaces
from one amongst his bridges ‘in Y-City’,
a span across mortality?

* Kasuo Ishiguro is the 2017 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. J.T.

Fig 7: Self-Portrait, 1941
            7. SELF-PORTRAIT

Yet how unlike that sensitive ‘Self-Portrait’
also dated nineteen forty-one,
not with an inward gaze
as if indebted to Kokoschka
or his own townscapes’ neue Sachlichkeit,
the raised eyes, here, and firm expression
helped stand his ground against those coming days.

They speak as in letters to his wife and son
containing quick-sketched hats, the faces
from occupation forces’ personnel,
when the Victory-signs would mean your Peace
as still they do in photographs today —
like this one, now, with its half-deaf poet
sending word these decades after nineteen forty-eight.

Fig 8: Bridge in Y-city, 1946.
Fig 9: Drawing for ‘Bridge in Y-City’
          E N D     N O T E

‘The Living Artist’ (Ikiteiru gaka) is the title of Shunsuke Matsumoto’s response in the March 1941 issue of Mizue to an article called ‘National Defence State and the Fine Arts’, which appeared in the January issue of the same art magazine and was written by the Information Section of the Imperial Japanese Army, detailing its aesthetic views in light of the country’s war footing. My sequence is much indebted to Mark H. Sandler’s essay, ‘The Living Artist: Shunsuke Matsumoto’s Reply to the State’, Art Journal, vol. 55 no. 3, ‘Japan 1868-1945: Art, Architecture, and National Identity’ (Autumn, 1996), pp. 74-82.

The first four section subtitles are the names of paintings by Matsumoto in the Miyagi Art Museum, Sendai, where I came to know them during my fourteen years working at the nearby university. The works providing the titles for the final three sections I only know in reproduction. These and other paintings or drawings referred to here in passing are reproduced in Shunsuke Matsumoto: Centenary Exhibition Catalogue (2012), to which these pieces are also much indebted.

Standing Figure, 1942

Shunsuke Matsumoto was born on 19 April 1912 in Shibuya, Tokyo, as Shunsuke Satô but spent his childhood and youth in the Tohoku (north-eastern) district of Honshu, first in Hanamaki, Iwate prefecture, then in Morioka. In 1923 he contracted cerebral meningitis, which eventually resulted in a total loss of hearing. This misfortune, which would render him ineligible for military service, contributed both to his lifelong interest in literature, and his eventual decision to devote himself to painting. He dropped out of high school and moved to Tokyo in 1929, where he studied art at the Taihei Institute. He worked primarily in the yôga (western painting) style, and began exhibiting in 1935, marrying and changing his name to Matsumoto in 1936. With his wife, Teiko, he was involved in the publication of art magazines, where many of his own essays first appeared, and throughout his life he contributed works to group exhibitions. Though his wife and son were evacuated from Tokyo at the time of the fire raids in the spring of 1945, he appears to have remained in the capital through the latter stages of the Pacific War and into the occupation period. Matsumoto died on 8 June 1948 from heart failure aggravated by tuberculosis and bronchial asthma. His drawings and oil paintings are now held in a number of public collections in Japan, and in 2012 his contribution was celebrated in a Centennial Retrospective bringing together 120 of his paintings and 60 of his drawings, alongside examples of publications and the illustrated letters to his wife and son.

Interested people should look at and the Wikimedia Commons site, and search for “Matsumoto,Shunsuke” for more and larger images.

Peter Robinson,
Collected Poems, cover image (painting of the author, by the author)

Peter Robinson — bio note:

With the exception of five years spent in Wigan, Peter Robinson grew up in Liverpool. He graduated from the University of York in 1974. In the 1970s he edited the poetry magazine Perfect Bound (see Jacket magazine number 20 on the internet.) He helped organize several international Cambridge Poetry Festivals between 1977 and 1985, and was festival coordinator in 1979. He was awarded a doctorate from the University of Cambridge in 1981 for a thesis on the poetry of Donald Davie, Roy Fisher and Charles Tomlinson. Among the most decisive events for his creative life, a sexual assault in Italy on his girlfriend in 1975 — which he witnessed at gunpoint — formed the material for some of the poems in This Other Life (1988) and provided the plot outline for a novel called September in the Rain published in September 2016.

During the 1980s he was one of the organisers of the exhibition Pound’s Artists: Ezra Pound and the Visual Arts in London, Paris and Italy at Kettle’s Yard and the Tate Gallery, co-edited the magazine Numbers and was advisor to the 1988 Poetry International at the South Bank Centre, London. After teaching for the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, and at the University of Cambridge, he held various posts in Japan. His most extended employment, from 1991 to 2005, was teaching English Literature and English as a second language at Tohoku University in Sendai. He underwent a successful brain tumour operation in 1993 while his first marriage was failing. He remarried in 1995 to an educationalist and now has two daughters, Giulia and Matilde.

In 2007 he returned to the UK to take up a post as Professor of English and American literature at the University of Reading. Since returning to Reading, as well as founding the creative writing pathway and leading research at the university on poetry and poetics, he has organised a centenary conference on the work of the poet Bernard Spencer (1909–1963), instigated the publication of an annual creative arts anthology, and helped found the Reading Poetry Festival. He is poetry editor for Two Rivers Press.

A regular contributor of book reviews and literary criticism to poetry magazines, academic journals, and newspapers, Peter Robinson has presented and discussed his work in many parts of the world, giving talks and readings in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York (USA), Hiroshima, Kobe, Kyoto, Tokyo, Sendai and elsewhere in Japan, Sofia (Bulgaria), Kristiansand (Norway), Prague (Czech Republic), Vienna (Austria), Milan, Parma, and Massa Marittima (Italy), Paris (France), Heidelberg (Germany). Nikšiç (Montenegro), Elche and Moguer (Spain), and all over the United Kingdom. He has also taken part in a number of programmes on BBC Radio Berkshire, Cambridgeshire, Bristol, and Merseyside, as well as on BBC Radio Three.


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