Testu Fusen as seen on a Maction Planet Tokyo Art Tour

Tetsu Fusen at the Tokyo Station Gallery

There is one week to go to see ‘Tetsu Fusen: A Retrospective – 40th Anniversary of His Death’ at the Tokyo Station Gallery. Mac, Founder of Maction Planet, takes a look at the life of this unique artist who will transform your ideas about Nihonga painting forever.  

You probably haven’t heard of Tetsu Fusen, and I can’t blame you. After a highly acclaimed career during the Taisho and early Showa periods, he settled in Nara after the Second World War and withdrew from the art world. Only one previous retrospective of his work has ever been held, at the Nara Prefectural Museum of Art 21 years ago. His work is closely held – in fact, I have never been at an exhibition anywhere in the world where so many of the works exhibited came from private collections. This truly is a great opportunity to for the public to discover more about this incredible artist.

“Art is all heart. And artistic training is an art of cultivating the heart” – Tetsu Fusen

Tokyo Station Gallery as seen on a Maction Planet Tokyo Art Tour

Testuji Fusen, as was his original given name, was born at Koenji Temple in Koishikawa, Tokyo in 1891. In his early twenties, he was a research member of the Nihon Bijutsuin (日本美術院, Japan Art Institute), an organisation founded in 1898 dedicated to Nihonga, the general name given to Japanese-style painting. After heading to the islands of Izu-Oshima and Shikinejima on sketching trips, he decided to become a fisherman there, which he did for three years. His memories of this time on the islands heavily influenced his later works.

This unorthodox time as a fisherman clearly did him some good, because upon his return to the mainland he enrolled at the Kyoto City Specialist School of Painting and was awarded a scholarship while he was there. He graduated top of his class. His works were selected for the first Teiten, the exhibition of the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts (now the Japan Art Academy). Two of the works on display in this retrospective were exhibited at subsequent Teiten (highlighted below).

During the 20s, 30s and 40s Fusen moved around Japan, living in Tokyo, Yokohama, Nara, and Ooiso. In 1946 he became Head Governor of Nara Seikyo Educational Foundation Middle School, and later became Head Teacher of what is now Nara University High School. He retired in 1952 and devoted himself to painting. In his later years, gatherings were held at his home with students from Nara Women’s University. He loved Nara and this can be seen in some of the masterpieces exhibited (e.g. East Pagoda of Yakushi-ji Temple, 1970). He lived there until his death in 1976.

Presented on the 40th Anniversary of his death, the Tokyo Station Gallery has assembled 120 of Fusen’s works, which it is has arranged into 5 sections, taking us chronologically through his life.

One of the first things that struck me as I studied the works in the first section, titled ‘Home Sweet Home’,  was that Fusen truly was a master of colour. His transitions are so natural and controlled that I would describe them as evoking modern-day digital colouring. He also uses splashes of brighter colour to great effect, something that can be seen throughout his career – from the dots of Sakura in ‘Miyato Village’ from 1927, to ‘After the bath (Yoshino Hot Springs)’ from c.1965-1974 (the exact date is unknown), where he uses witty splashes of red and blue to highlight the yu (hot spring) sign against the black of the background.

The characters which he captures in his paintings are truly exquisite, and there are several details one notices only after considered reflection on the piece. Whether it is people in conversation in the windows of houses in his village landscapes, owls on branches, crows in the sky, or fish in the sea, you can tell that he is trying to bring an engagement to his works which is more heartfelt than that found in traditional Nihonga. My personal favourite is the mochi maker in the upper right of ‘Memories: Rice Paddies/Waterside Village/Seaside’ from 1927, which was exhibited at the 8th Teiten.  

One characteristic of Fusen’s works is that he writes on his paintings. Rather than a formal, didactic or philosophical approach, Fusen talks to his audience in conversational Japanese. When studying his detailed compositions, ‘hearing’ his voice truly gave a sense of time-travel.

The versatility of perspective that Fusen brings to his works is masterful, whether in is his real or imagined landscapes. The Kinoshita Museum of Art has kindly loaned ‘Mountains and Sea, Reminiscences of Izu’ from 1925, exhibited in the 6th Teiten.  It is incredible to think he produced such a masterpiece so early in his career. Another monumental work on display which highlights his unique take is “Seaside village” from a private collection, a late addition to the exhibition.

Fusen was a man comfortable in many media, and the comprehensiveness of the exhibition allows you to appreciate that. Whether it is on traditional nihonga scrolls, the circular canvas of ‘Southern Sea Islands’, the six-panel folding screen of ‘Seaside Village in Izu’, a panel of cedar wood (Mountain Inn, 1972), shikishi (Gingko, 1967), or even the postcards which he sent to his entourage of Nara Women’s University students – his versatility as an artist shines through. There are even some incredible pieces of Akahada-ware ceramics on display, which he collaborated on with Oshio Masando. He also designed embroidery, his art being featured on noren and furoshiki which were sold as souvenirs in Nara.

Near the end of the exhibition, we finally come face to face with the man himself: Ota Yoshio sculpts Fusen, 79 years old, seated cross-legged in meditative pose. The work is made of iron and unpainted, and I was struck by how apt this portrayal was. Unassuming and baring all to the world, it captured the essence of the artist we had got to know.

The gallery shop, TRAINIART, has a small selection of souvenirs – nothing even close to the merchandising machine that is the National Art Centre in Nogizaka. As well as the usual assortments of postcards, clear files and paperweights, you can also purchase high-grade reproductions of some of Fusen’s masterpieces, if you have a spare ¥70,000 or so!

Tokyo Station Gallery is one of the city’s art venue gems. Established in 1988 in the Tokyo Station Marunouchi Building, it ran 105 exhibitions with 2.35 million visitors until it closed in 2006 as part of the overall renovation and restoration of the station. Tokyo Station was built in 1914. Designed by Meiji Era architectural stalwart Kingo Tatsuno, it is a beautiful red-brick Western-influenced structure. During the period when the building was closed, the gallery was still at work in other venues, such at the Old Shinbashi Depot Railway History Exhibition Room. The gallery reopened in late 2012 and the calibre of exhibitions continues to be world-class, showcasing both native and international artists, typically in a personal, retrospective format. Next up on their exhibition schedule is “Marc Chagall: The Third Dimension”, which runs from 16 September – 3 December 2017.

On show until 27 August (inclusive), we highly recommend visitors to Tokyo take the opportunity to check out this historic retrospective.

Maction Planet’s Tokyo Art Tours are well-renowned. Whether you are after a specialist art tour, or you just want to enjoy the street art and statues around the city, we can help. We can customise your Tokyo experience around a major exhibition, or visit some smaller galleries and gain insights into their ethos and modus operandi. Whatever your interests, contact us at info@mactionplanet.com to begin your journey to your perfect, personalised time in The World’s Greatest Metropolis!

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