Obituary: Iri Maruki

Long before I ever dreamt I should one day be invited to teach English literature in Japan, I encountered the extraordinary paintings of Iri Maruki. It was in London in 1956, where an exhibition of his Hiroshima murals and panels was held at the ICA Gallery. I did not then know the artist's name, but as a pacifist I was attracted by the themes of the exhibition. Nothing had prepared me for the overwhelming impact of his images of the Hiroshima holocaust. They presented realistically but as in a Blakean vision of hell the intense human sufferings of that disaster.

I was so overcome by the sight of those helpless men, woman, children and animals crawling and writhing with tattered skin in that furnace of agony, I had to leave the building. In a calmer mood, I returned to the exhibition, trying to control my feelings by making mental notes and scribbling in a notebook a few words and sketches. Eventually these became a poem whose title, "Ghosts, Fire Water", is taken from the first three sets of panels, painted in 1950 by Iri Maruki and his wife Toshi.

It was a poem of 34 lines, but when I submitted it to magazines and weeklies for publications it was rejected as too frightening or too melodramatic. Such was the general indifference and ignorance of those times about these great works, the finest artistic protests ever made against the folly of war. In desperation, I put a typed copy of my poem in the visitors' book in the gallery. One of the organisers of the exhibition then wrote asking why I had not sent it to the New Statesman and was shocked when I told her it had been refused. Fortunately, the poem was eventually printed in my collection The Descent into the Cave (1957). I quote some lines that give something of the colours as well as the shapes of these paintings:

Grey, out of pale nothingness their

agony appears,

Like ash they are blown and

blasted on the wind's

Vermilion breathlessness, like

shapeless smoke

Their shapes are torn across the

paper sky . . .

In the shock of flame, their tears

brand our flesh,

We twist in their furnace, and our

scorching throats

Parch for the waters where the cool

dead float.

We press our lips upon the river

where they drink, and drown . . .

Iri Maruki knew violence and death in many forms, yet appeared to lead a charmed life, for he always escaped disaster. Such close calls with death made him a totally unsentimental observer of tragedy and terror.

It began with his birth, in 1901, when his mother fell down a flight of stairs in their small village home. He was born with a broad port-wine stain over the right half of his face. This saved him from having to perform military service in the war against China. In 1923, he emerged unharmed from the Great Kanto Earthquake. At the end of the Second World War, too, he survived unscathed the American saturation fire raids on Tokyo. Then he attempted to rejoin his family in Hiroshima, before the imminent Allied invasion of Okinawa, but could not obtain a permit to travel there on the packed trains.

He was still in Tokyo when the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. But the next day he was able to make the slow, painful journey to the devastated city. Several of his friends and relatives had died, among them his father, though his mother lived on. "We carried the injured, cremated the dead, searched for food and water, made roofs of scorched tin sheets, wandered about just like those who had experienced the bomb, in the midst of flies and maggots and the stench of death" - this was how Iri and Toshi Maruki later recalled their experiences; these experiences formed the kernel of their vast works.

Iri Maruki was the oldest son of a poor peasant family who left home to apprentice himself to artists working in the traditional suiboku ink- and-water techniques of Nihonga painting. Already in 1930 he was attracting attention because of his innovative techniques and a preference for large- scale paintings. His wife Toshi had more formal training in Western-style painting and was influenced by Goya, Kathe Kollwitz and Marc Chagall. After their marriage in 1941, they were attracted by the Surrealists. After the Japanese surrender, they joined the Communist Party.

It was in 1948, in an abandoned house in the hills of Kamakura, that the couple who had such divergent painting aims ("oil and water" was how Iri described their artistic relationship) decided to pool their forces and devote their lives to the depiction of Hiroshima, painting the agonies of the people rather than the city itself. The atomic bomb was still a forbidden theme in art, so they worked together in solitude.

Their first production was "a procession of ghosts" clad only in their own rags of flesh. Toshi remembered that some of these ghosts were red, having been daubed all over with mercurochrome. When this ran out, they were covered with boric acid, becoming white as the white shadows left in the city by people who had simply evaporated in the atomic flash. So began a lifelong project, that continued with Fire and Water. In the latter a mother cradles a dead child in her arms - even this sacred image had become an icon of human despair. In the eighth panel, Relief, Iri Maruki himself makes his one appearance in the vast sequences with Toshi pulling a cart.

When I visited Hiroshima for the first time in 1959, no one knew of the panels. Today, they are exhibited in the Atom Bomb Museum in the Hiroshima Peace Park, and in the Maruki Museum and Gallery near Tokyo, where they are seen by millions of visitors every year. The marriage of Oriental traditional brushwork and European styles has produced a work unique in the history of modern art. In order to accomplish such huge works, the artists had to go down on their knees and paint on the floor, and possibly this view of their collaboration gives the panels, when viewed upright, a distinctive expression of informal form. During the 1950s they began to be displayed world-wide.

Those first 10 panels I saw in London were on a long journey from Japan to the Soviet Union, the People's Republic of China, North Korea, West Germany, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. It was fitting that, during one of the demonstrations in Australia against France's renewed atomic tests on Mururoa this year, a television documentary showed protesters carrying reproductions of Iri and Toshi Maruki's monumental figures of the ashen ghosts and spectres staggering with shrivelled arms outstretched towards the spectator. The last lines of my 1956 poem echo those scenes from contemporary atomic history:

Their voices call to us, in pain and

indignation;

"This is what you have done to

us!"

- Their accusation is our final

hope. Be comforted.

Yes, we have heard you, ghosts of

our indifference,

We hear your cry, we understand

your warnings.

We too shall refuse to accept our

fate.

Haunt us with the truth of our

betrayal

Until the earth's united voices

shout refusal, sing your peace!

Forgive us, that we had to see your

passion to remember

What we must never again deny:

Love one another.

Iri Maruki, painter: born Hiroshima 1901; married; died 19 October 1995.

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