MIKAMI Makoto: Collages in the 60s


 In Japanese contemporary art after 1945, there are numerous trends that together are considered to be avant-garde or innovative, one of which is Pan-real Art Association that Mikami Makoto was involved in establishing.  In 1949, when traces of the war still remained in the atmosphere, eight young artists consisting of Mikami and his fellows, formed a group in Kyoto with the purpose of breaking down the shell of traditional Japanese-style painting, and launched its activities by holding exhibitions every year.


 As a matter of fact, the art world right after the war was taking steps toward becoming a dual structure. One faction took part in the revival of governmental and art group expositions which seemed as if they were maintaining the prewar system, while the other tried to sally forth into the art world while pressing war-time artists to take responsibility for their paintings and exploring new movements. And in the world of painting there still existed a distinct separation between oil painting and Japanese-style painting stemming from the prewar educational system.  The "Pan-real" artists aimed to criticize the master-pupil relationship at art academies and private art schools continuing the inheritance of traditions in the circles of Japanese-style painting, rebel against the prescribed materials such as glue and pigment, and break away from the tired themes of flowers, birds, and natural beauty.  They emphasized  "he feelings of those who live in the modern world", and pursued "a reality of painting through scientific methods" with "an aggressive eagerness toward the actual society". [i]  In short, they tried to express their way of life to society through painting, namely that painting is not a pipe dream but the pursuit of reality.


This sort of context is said to remain effective even today in terms of connecting an artist with his works.  But if we place too great of an importance on an artist's life we may lose sight of his works. In the case of Mikami Makoto, his life was also mentioned in the description of his works.  For example, it is fairly reasonable to discuss the artist on the basis of such biographical description as, "He was born in Osaka and brought up in Fukui.  He studied in Kyoto and was drafted during the war, and in his late twenties started to battle against tuberculosis which he would suffer from for the rest of his life, and though he participated in the Pan-real movement in Fukui after the war, he died pursuing solitarily his creative activities."  In addition, a portion of the copious amount of diaries Mikami had left has been published as evidence of his creative activities.  It may be possible to try to find to what extent the artist's intentions are reflected in his works by studying his life and words as well as the background of the times he lived in.


 On the other hand, however, standing before a work of art, we must be allowed to construct our own words that arise out of our curiosity to capture what's happening on the canvas of dozens of square centimeters.


 Now, out of a certain curiosity, I'd like to try the following approach to the works of Mikami.


 Taking a look at Mikami's works, we notice that they can be roughly classified into what we call paintings and works of collage ( and what could be called collage relief). In his paintings he employed various modes of artistic thought in the 20th century including cubism and surrealism. His collages may have been inspired by the movements following Picasso and Braque.  From the late 50s to the early 60s when he created collages, Johns and Rauschenberg were active in America, and in France Yves Klein started to create a type of art work he called "anthropometries".  It was a period when accidentalness, an element of performance, was actively applied in painting, and when, as is represented by the term "Nouveau Realisme", artists began a type of expression utilizing the actual texture of materials.


 Let's have a look at Mikami's works of collage.  In his collages of the late 50s, paper, cloths and ropes are colored and laid on top of one another across the surface.  The ropes especially remind us of paint strokes.  From the early 60s, he experimented with sumi-ink, impregnating the canvas with it before starting the collage.  Instead of filling the surface with designs and patterns, he tried to produce an accidental effect. From about 1962, he started to create works where cardboard determines the composition and dominates the surface, and where round slices of wooden pieces are pasted to resemble an arrangement of codes.  His works of this period including their color effects are sometimes discussed negatively, "Because of his lukewarm attitude, this sort of works is somewhat empty", and "Apparently having noticed this himself, Mikami quit making collage-like art after three years ." [ii]


But I wonder if that was really the case. I would like to look particularly at the works on which round slices of wood are pasted. Though it is at times hard to distinguish the top from the bottom, such pieces are worthy of attention as being the most architectonic of all his works. On the rectangular surface, corrugated lines are crisscrossed and round wooden pieces a few centimeters in diameter are orderly aligned and pasted. One part is covered with cloth. Though the work is colored, the texture of the pieces of cardboards and wood stand out.  Since the association was founded, the Pan-real artists willingly tried any material that could conceivably create art.


The collages that Mikami presented in the 60s can possibly be seen as  "positively unfinished" works rather than "empty" ones.  Most importantly, his works look rather stiff.  They are detached from his fight against disease, life of suffering and story of blood and sweat. This offers a higher degree of freedom to those who view his works. "Positively unfinished" can be rephrased as "continued as a series".  They do not have a kind of perfect beauty based on a classic ideal of beauty, but an open beauty that is constantly generating itself.


Then, what is the difference between his collage and painting series?  In his painting series, a series of works composed of page-a-day calendars and charts of oriental medicine, acupuncture and moxibustion are famous, as represented by <Kyuten Rinne (Reincarnation of effective points for applying moxa)> series which he started in the mid-1960s . The circles studded on these works could be considered as an evolution of the round wooden pieces on his collages.  Nevertheless, the figures which appear in Mikami's paintings are the accumulation of objects and landscapes Mikami had never really seen.  He clipped them out of journals, magazines, and art books, gazed intently at them and let them inspire his imagination. His paintings are a collection of images which tie the artist and the world outside, and they are closer to the artist, reminiscent of the I-novel.


 On the other hand, his collages composed mainly of cardboard and wooden pieces have neither personal ardor nor, dare I say it, poetic ardor. They are matter-of-fact, and their composition lacks centricity.  If we give our imaginations full rein, they could appear as a bird's eye view of a countryside or of roofs of an unknown settlement.


 Such an impression is only arbitrary.  Coming back to his works, such unemotionality is sure to give the viewer a sensation of coldness.  Following the life of Mikami Makoto, we will reach a box (1966) covered with the round wooden pieces in question.  The box served as storage for the notes Mikami had written about his works and other ideas.  In a very real sense, it is a box which he shut himself up in.The numerous pieces of wood appearing on his collages had become coffin-like objects enveloping the artist and an organ to disconnect himself from the world.


Then what is it that manifests and is kept firmly in the works themselves while possessing an open beauty? Mikami's collages neither indicate anything as symbols nor guide us to another meaning as an allegories.  Because of their ambiguity of being both material and form at once and of being both substance and picture at once, they represent something unique--flimsy materials such as cardboards and wooden pieces draw out the intensity of the architectonics, presenting themselves as works of art.



Yutaka Mikami (Professor of Wako University)





[i]
"Catalog of Pan-real Genesis,"
Ootani Memorial Art Museum, Nishinomiya City, 1998, data6, p.113

[ii]
Kimura Shigenobu, "Physiology and psychology of Mikami Makoto"
in Catalog of Exposition Mikami Makoto, O Art Museum, 1990, p.12




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