The Living Artist
Shunsuke Matsumoto (1912-1948)
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.
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.
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.
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.
5. STREET SCENE, YOKOHAMA
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.