Ryuji Tanaka

Sei (9)


In Tate Modern

Ryuji Tanaka 1927–2014
Mixed media on canvas
Support: 1613 × 1306 mm
frame: 1633 × 1323 × 30 mm
Presented by Axel Vervoordt Gallery in honour of Frances Morris 2017


Living (9) c.1962–3 is an abstract painting featuring a large beige plane, made of a thick heap of natural mineral pigments, on a black background. The dispersing form of the beige paint results in a dynamic composition, while the mineral pigments and restricted colours convey an organic, calm feeling. The Japanese title of the work – Sei – which means ‘living (in a house)’ or ‘house’, was used by Tanaka for a number of paintings and emphasises this natural, calm atmosphere. The Chinese character sei is also associated with a feeling of living quietly, in one’s home.

The creative process of mixing mineral pigments and applying them onto the canvas or Japanese washi paper was of utmost importance to the artist. In traditional Japanese painting known as nihonga, 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 his pigments and also used adhesive. Rather than a brush, he often used a feather to apply the paint, which often resulted in wispy contours, as seen in this work.

Tanaka was involved in two important post-war avant-garde groups in Japan: the Pan-real Bijutsu Art Association and the Gutai Art Association. The former was co-founded by Tanaka in 1948, who was twenty-one years old at the time and had studied nihonga (flat ‘Japanese-style painting’ with traditional materials and fixed motifs in opposition to ‘Western-style painting’) at the Kyoto Municipal School of Painting. The group set out to revolutionise nihonga, loosening the restrictions on motifs, styles and techniques, and Tanaka began to include fantastical surrealist elements in his paintings. He left Pan-real Bijutsu in 1951 and began to focus on abstract forms. Tanaka was invited to join Gutai in 1965 by Kazuo Shiraga, with whom he had studied nihonga in Kyoto. Gutai means ‘concrete’ or ‘concreteness’ and represents the artists’ direct engagement with materials. Gutai artists sought to break down the barriers between art and everyday life, experimenting with new art materials, performance and theatrical events. Tanaka’s paintings combine traditional nihonga-materials, such as natural mineral pigments, with an abstract language and an experimental ethos that is typical of Gutai.

The early 1960s were an important time in Tanaka’s artistic career. Working as a high school teacher (like many other artists of that era in Japan), he produced works of art in his free time and entered a highly productive period, submitting his paintings to various group shows. This included the Shin-Bijutsukyokai (New Art Association) exhibitions, which focused on nihonga. He held his first solo show in Kobe in 1960, and in 1962 he was awarded the nihonga Contest Prize in the 5th Contemporary Japanese Art Exhibition. Living (9) exemplifies how Tanaka used traditional nihonga pigments in an experimental way, developing a new method of painting that blurred the categories of ‘Japanese-style painting’ and ‘Western-style painting’. Its energetic composition and fantastical form is reminiscent of Tanaka’s early works inspired by surrealism. His works of the 1960s and 1970s mostly use restricted colours and reflect the artist’s interest in different hues of black. Tanaka added more colour to his works in the following decades; however, he continued to pursue the non-figurative painting style with natural mineral pigments that he developed in the early 1960s for the rest of his life.

Further reading
Axel Vervoordt et al., Ryuji Tanaka, exhibition catalogue, Axel & May Vervoordt Gallery, Antwerp 2016.

Lena Fritsch
November 2016

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Display caption

Tanaka Ryūji studied nihonga, a traditional form of Japanese painting, at the Kyoto Municipal School of Painting. Shiraga Kazuo, another Gutai artist, also studied with him. In nihonga, glue is mixed with the pigment to act as a fixing agent. This is then applied with a brush. In this work Tanaka challenged the traditional nihonga style and technique by adding pebbles to his mineral pigments and using a feather to apply the paint.

Gallery label, December 2020

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