Kenji Yoshida: Artist whose work was shaped by his wartime experiences

Charles Darwent
Saturday 09 May 2009 00:00

Late in 1943, Kenji Yoshida, a 19-year-old conscript in Japan's Navy Air Force, was accorded his corp's supreme honour: selection for training as a pilot in the special wing known as Divine Wind, or "kamikaze".

For 10 months from October 1944, young men such as Yoshida – in civilian life a trainee art teacher – flew their bomb-filled aircraft into Allied ships. Thanks to Japan's surrender, Yoshida himself escaped this fate. His experience marked him indelibly. For the last 30 years of his career, he would give all his paintings the same, simple title: Sei-Mei, the Japanese word for life.

Yoshida's pre-war teacher, the sensei (or master) Furukido Masaru (an unrepentant pacifist who died in a wartime prison camp), had urged his young student to "take up painting rather than the rifle", and life and death would remain linked in Yoshida's art. This conflation of living and dying, however, was only one of the very Japanese syntheses in his work. Tradition and modernity, also, worked together to beguiling effect.

A prime example of this was his show at London's October Gallery in 2007 – the exhibition was called Inochi To Helwa, or "Life and Peace" – which bothered viewers as much as it moved them. A typical canvas might be long and low (two metres by five and a half, say), divided into four scumbled panels. On these were superimposed overlapping discs of black, silver and gold, the last worked in metal leaf. What troubled Yoshida's London audience was the way that these works managed to be identifiably modernist and Western – a mixture of colour-field and geometric abstraction – while at the same time drawing on the traditions and techniques of Japanese screen painting. In a day when skill had become a dirty word in art, the aura of craft that clung to his work did him no favours at all. This was a shame, as his canvases were often beautiful and always well-intended. Their hybrid East-West air was intentional.

After being demobbed in 1945, Yoshida returned to his native Osaka and took up his studies as an artist, only leaving for Tokyo as a teacher in 1951. The defining moment of his career, though, came with a move to Paris in 1964. The fabled Japanese artist Tsuguharu Foujita, then still alive, had made the same journey half a century before. Like Foujita, Yoshida hoped to embrace modernist painting in the city where it was invented. But the 40-year-old ex-kamikaze had an added motive in leaving for the West. To synthesise two traditions in art was to reconcile, in plastic form, two cultures whose antipathy had led to the death of his teacher and many of his closest friends.

Yoshida's training under Masaru and another sensei, Hayashi Kiyoshi, had included instruction in the art of Japanese woodblock printing, and, arriving in Paris, he accordingly took himself to the venerable Atelier 17 in Montparnasse. Founded in the 1930s by Stanley William Hayter, an English surrealist, the workshop – known since Hayter's death in 1988 as the Atelier Contrepoint – was then the most important centre in the world for abstract printmaking. Miró, Picasso and Kandinsky had all worked there, alongside Calder and Chagall.

Yoshida signed up to Hayter's backlist, joining forces with a group of Scandinavian artists known as the Atelier du Nord. If his later canvases were too Oriental for Western tastes, his earlier work, largely prints and paintings on paper, were too Western for the Japanese. While Yoshida was given a study grant by the Norwegian government, his cash-rich countrymen remained pointedly tight-fisted. It was to be 20 years before he went home to Osaka, and his visits to Japan were few and brief. He never had a solo show there.

Instead, Yoshida dedicated himself to what might broadly be called world peace, travelling ceaselessly and bringing his own sense of sei-mei to the cultures he met with. While Paris burned in 1968, Yoshida was on an Israeli kibbutz, then in Syria and Lebanon. Visits to Luxor (1987) and Mexico (1990) produced large-scale works with Pharaonic and Mayan themes respectively.

In 1993 he was offered a one-man show at the British Museum. Ironically, given his lack of success in Japan, this was in the museum's newly-opened Japanese galleries. Yoshida's greatest success was also, fittingly, his most ecumenical – a vast, 12-panel installation, decorated in Buddhist aphorisms, which travelled to a trio of British cathedrals between 2000 and 2003 before being shown, last year, at the Unesco Hall in Paris.

In a time when fashion in art favoured the brittle and glib, Yoshida's moral sincerity did him as little good as his skill. He had a curious knack of jumping on bandwagons as they slowed to a halt, moving to Paris just as the city's artistic glory days ended, joining Hayter's atelier when its leading lights were dead or dying. In trying to reconcile two cultures, he ended up being undervalued by both. None of this bothered the other-worldly painter unduly. "Every morning and every evening I express my gratitude for being alive, and pray for the souls of victims of war," he said. "As my sensei told me to, I paint my ideas as best I can."

Kenji Yoshida, artist: born Ikeda, Osaka, Japan 24 May 1924; died Paris 24 February 2009.

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