Obituary: Genichiro Inokuma

James Kirkup@jameskirkup
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:00

Genichiro Inokuma, artist: born Takamatsu, Shikoku 1902; married; died Tokyo 17 May 1993.

I SPEND part of every year on the island of Shikoku, in the ancient Buddhist temple town of Zentsuji, birthplace of Japan's great saint Kobo Daishi. A short bus-ride away is the town of Marugame, where there is one of the most magnificent of the contemporary art museums now gracing even the smallest Japanese communities. It is devoted entirely to the work of the veteran painter Genichiro Inokuma.

He was born in the capital of the island's Kagawa Prefecture, the charming city of Takamatsu situated on the Inland Sea. But at an early age Genichiro moved with his parents to Marugame, which has always regarded him as a native son. He attended high school there until 1921, when he enrolled in what is now the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music.

From 1925, his works began to be displayed in the prestigious Teiten exhibitions, which awarded honours to several of his paintings. In 1936, Inokuma founded the Shinseisaku-ha-kyokai (New Creation Group) with such like-minded artists as Ryohei Koiso, Masayoshi Ise, Kei Sato. Two years later, he left for Paris. He used to say that he was so deeply moved to be in Paris that he burst into tears in the Gare de Lyon. While in France, he visited Matisse in Nice and obtained valuable advice from him. He was also friendly with Picasso, through Tsuguji Fujita, the most celebrated Japanese painter in France. Several of Inokuma's paintings in Marugame show the distinct influence of both Matisse and Picasso. As early as 1922, he had produced the almost monochrome Boy - a frail nude supported on a crutch, suggesting one of Picasso's acrobats: it was painted at a time of great depression as a student, when Inokuma was suffering from TB.

He stayed in Paris until the Nazi occupation began, when he returned to Japan. It was a period when he became well established in his native land as an innovative figurative painter. However, the female nudes from this time have their pubic hair blanked out, in keeping with Japanese law that even today still bans depiction of that area of the body.

In 1955 Inokuma abandoned his status as a leading painter in Japan and left again, with his wife this time, for Paris, hoping to acquire an international reputation. On the way, they stopped in New York, and that city fascinated him so much - it was at that time the centre of the contemporary art world, too - that he stayed on there for 20 years, and opened his own studio. In 1956 he held his first one-man exhibition there at the Willard Gallery. He produced many works in a new abstract style which were successfully exhibited at this and other galleries. In 1964 he received a prize from the National Museum of Modern Art. In 1975, because of failing health, he moved to Hawaii, where he became very productive, and spent summers in Japan.

He had many friends among famous Japanese artists and architects. Among them, Kenzo Tange and Isamu Noguchi: indeed, he was instrumental in bringing the latter to Shikoku, where he introduced him to an excellent stone-carver in Mure, Kagawa Prefecture, where Noguchi set up his studio, today one of the sights of Shikoku.

In the many works by Inokuma on display at the palatial Marugame museum, it is difficult to detect the real artist behind the many styles. He seems to have been influenced by so many Western painters. But it is perhaps in his series of vivid and unusual abstracts produced during the Sixties and Seventies that his special vision expresses itself most clearly; they are large canvases of mainly horizontal linear composition that though abstract suggest city planners' blueprints, ladders, rail tracks, derricks, cranes, urban maps, industrial landscapes, mostly in single colours or black on white. The title of one of them, Confusion and Order A (1964) gives the atmosphere of these remarkable concepts.

When I first arrived in Japan, in 1959, my sponsor, Professor Atsuo Kobayashi, himself a classical Chinese artist, took me to Sendai by way of Ueno Station, where he pointed out to me a vast 1951 mural by Inokuma in the central concourse, entitled Jiyu ('Freedom') - one of the many examples of public works by the artist, like his Harmony and Quietness in the Kagawa Prefectural Office, Takamatsu, and his beautiful stained-glass Movement in the Tokyo Imperial Theatre.

Genichiro Inokuma had a great influence on the construction of his 'station front' museum, designed by Taniguchi Yosio, surrounded by inventive, cooling fountains and monumental contemporary sculptures in pure primary colours. He can be felt as an artistic presence in the large, refined coffee-shop, with its exquisite Wedgwood china, English home-baked scones with clotted cream and jam, and specially designed furniture, carpets, wall-hanging and lighting. Inokuma would not have approved of the loud pop music, or even of 'Red Sails in the Sunset' blasting out the last time I was there.

But on the day of his death, his moving self-portrait as a young student, like something by Coldstream, was reverently draped with a broad black ribbon, and in front of it stood a huge arrangement of white orchids.

(Photograph omitted)

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