Obituary: Masuo Ikeda

One of the most brilliant contemporary Japanese artists, the internationally acclaimed engraver Masuo Ikeda, is known in Japan, rather disparagingly, as a maruchi taranto ("multiple talent"). The Japanese like their celebrities to stick to one category: to overstep the bounds of one speciality smacks of frivolity and superficiality. Ikeda was an artistic phenomenon who defied categorisation, a stance that is usually a sign of that quality frowned upon in Japan - originality.

Ikeda started off life on the wrong foot, by being born abroad, in Mukden, China (now known as Shenyang). After the Second World War he was repatriated with his parents to Nagano prefecture. Attending school in Japan is always a traumatic experience for children who have lived abroad and known more liberal standards of education. Masuo refused to fit in. Disdaining standardised syllabuses he plunged into the delights of foreign literature - Stendhal, Salinger, Sartre, Kafka, Camus, the Surrealists.

It was no wonder he twice failed the stiff entrance examinations for Tokyo Geidai (the Tokyo University of the Arts). So he set to teaching himself how to draw and paint, then began attending the Nagano School of Art, from which he managed to graduate in 1952.

He moved to Tokyo and earned a precarious living by sketching portraits on the streets of Kanda, the student quarter, at the same time gaining experience and free models. Despite his haphazard life style he was always businesslike, and when asked what his profession was would answer: "My profession is Masuo Ikeda."

Kanda is an area of modern and antique bookstores, art shops and print dealers, and the whole place is an education in itself for a budding printmaker. At the rather late age of 26 his refusal to conform was rewarded rather ironically by the Mombusho (Ministry of Education) Prize. One of the judges, the German painter and engraver Erwin Graumann, told him: "If you go on living in this way, you will be spiritually devastated. I advise you to start practising copperplate."

Until then Masuo had been painting in oils, so he followed Graumann's advice, realising that it was a better business proposition to make prints, because he could sell many copies, whereas there was only one buyer for a painting. He also tried traditional woodblock printing (ukiyoo or "images of this floating world") and serigraphy (silk screen) techniques. Young Japanese artists were beginning to travel abroad again to Paris, London and New York, where Stanley Hayter was a great inspiration, for he had started with dry point, aquatint and woodblock prints but had gone on to develop new processes. In London the Swedish printmaker Birgit Skiold's studio in Charlotte Street was always full of young Japanese attracted by her refined photo-etching experiments and their links to poetry, for Japan is a land where literature and printing inhabit the same scrolls.

Soon Ikeda was a familiar figure in Western art circles, with a voluminous Afro-style black dandelion head of hair and boyish frame that he was to retain till the end of his life. He started winning prize after prize in the 1960s: the Governor of Tokyo's Prize (1962), the Tokyo Museum of Modern Art Prize (1964). In 1961 he had established himself as a printmaker by winning the Grand Prize for Printmaking at the Tokyo International Biennale of Art, but it was in foreign parts that he achieved his greatest triumphs: in 1961 the Prix d'Excellence at the Young Artists' International Biennale in Paris; in 1965 the Grand Prix at the International Print-making Biennale in Ljubljana; in 1966, the First Prize at the International Engraving Biennale in Cracow, and first prizes at the Biennales of Vienna and Venice, where he was only the second Japanese to win in this category, after Munakata Shiko in 1956. He was the first Japanese to have a one-man show at the New York Museum of Modern Art (1965). He was always on the move and spent two years in New York (1965-66), then settled for a year in Berlin (1967).

In 1976 he again stepped out of his category and published his first work of fiction, Eige-kai ni sasaguru ("Homage to the Aegean"). It won the "New Man" literary award and in 1977 the prestigious Akutagawa Prize. Ikeda made his own film of the book in the Aegean and in Italy. It was a soft porn movie, quite harmless by present-day standards, in which the Italian porn star La Cicciolina makes an appearance.

Ikeda must have known the film would be regarded in Japan not just as provocative but also as obscene, because the strict censorship laws there forbid any show of pubic hair. He had to scratch out 50 "pubic areas" before the film could be released. Ikeda quite rightly complained in court that such mutilations were the real obscenities. It was during the filming of this novel that Ikeda met his lifetime companion, the well-known violinist Yoko Sato.

He followed this work with two more novels, Mado kara Roma ga mieru ("From My Window I have a View of Rome") and Manhattan Rhapsody. Ikeda began to appear on television quizzes and late-night chat shows in which he displayed his new artistic venture, abstract pottery. With Yoko, he talked freely about his personal life, revealing that they were heavy drinkers who could easily put away a couple of two-litre flagons of sake each in an evening. He moved to a luxurious studio apartment in the resort town of Atami where he could be seen exercising his eight dogs along the beach. His last ambitious project was the creation of a great Masuo Ikeda Art Museum now under construction in Nagano.

Masuo Ikeda, printmaker, writer: born Mukden, China 1934; died Atami, Japan 8 March 1997.

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