Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Saturday, May 25, 2024 74° Today's Paper


Live Well

Japanese painter still full of creative spirit at 102

JAPAN NEWS-YOMIURI
                                Gyoji Nomiyama, a pioneer of Western-style painting in Japan’s postwar period, found fame for portraits he created while in Paris in the 1950s. He lives in Tokyo but has had his studio in Itoshima, Fukuoka prefecture, for about 50 years.
1/1
Swipe or click to see more

JAPAN NEWS-YOMIURI

Gyoji Nomiyama, a pioneer of Western-style painting in Japan’s postwar period, found fame for portraits he created while in Paris in the 1950s. He lives in Tokyo but has had his studio in Itoshima, Fukuoka prefecture, for about 50 years.

FUKUOKA, Japan >> Artist Gyoji Nomiyama celebrated turning 102 in December. The recipient of Japan’s Order of Culture, awarded for contributions to Japanese culture and science, Nomiyama still paints daily and makes appearances at exhibitions of his work. At his studio in Itoshima, Fukuoka prefecture, Nomiyama discussed his passion for painting and his memories of coal mines, a recurring theme in his work.

“When I was in my 90s, everyone would remind me there were only a few years left until I turned 100. But when I became a centenarian, they started asking me to live forever. I thought it was funny,” he said in front of his birthday cake.

Nomiyama, a pioneer of Western-style painting in Japan’s postwar period, found fame for portraits he created while in Paris in the 1950s. He lives in Tokyo but has had the Itoshima studio for about 50 years.

Nomiyama wakes up at 8 a.m. every day, has breakfast and naps until noon. Then he paints until midnight, taking naps throughout the day.

Three oil paintings he was working on were propped against a wall in his studio. They bore strong lines in black, red and brown, but Nomiyama insisted they were not abstract paintings.

“My paintings depict scenery from my imagination,” he said. “It does not mean I paint things that don’t exist. I paint memories of landscapes I’ve seen.”

Nomiyama was born and raised in Iizuka, Fukuoka, where his father operated a coal mine. He lived in the city until he entered the Tokyo Fine Arts School, predecessor of the Tokyo University of the Arts.

Black coal fields were a familiar sight for Nomiyama in his youth, and he often depicts them in his work.

“The nature inside me is something processed, and the smoke and steam of the coal mine are combined in it so there is nothing graceful or soft in my paintings. The colors are ashen and the ground is hard,” he said.

Bold black lines give Nomiyama’s paintings a harsh quality. He recalls seeing trees being cut down when his father was on survey trips in the mountains. “I thought they were doing something cruel. I was 10 years old at the time, and I was cheering for nature, telling it not to lose to humans, and to rebel,” he said.

Last year, the artist was happy to discover that the view from the Nomiyama Gyoji Gallery, which opened during summer in Iizuka, was now a mountain blanketed in green — a dramatic transformation from the past, when the site had been used as a dump for mining waste.

“‘Nature has won,’ I thought. I wondered if I could express in my painting the joy of regeneration from something savage and artificial that destroyed nature,” he said.

Last month, a show featuring 60 pieces by Nomiyama ran at the Fukuoka Prefectural Museum of Art.

The oldest piece on display, “Portrait of My Sister,” was a graduation project Nomiyama produced in 1943 at the Tokyo Fine Arts School before joining the war effort. It is not his favorite piece.

He recalled wanting to use a style of painting known as Fauvism, characterized by strong colors and bold brushwork, but decided to go with a more moderate realism style because his mother would be going to Tokyo to see the exhibit.

“I made a quiet painting that would please my professors so that my mother would not be sad. That’s why I don’t like this painting,” he said.

But at least one of Japan’s art experts sees significance in the portrait.

“This is not simply an example of Nomiyama’s early work,” said Rui Okabe, curator for the Fukuoka Prefectural Museum of Art. “It is a valuable piece that reflects a situation in which an art student who was about to get conscripted painted a person who was important to him.”

By participating in online discussions you acknowledge that you have agreed to the Terms of Service. An insightful discussion of ideas and viewpoints is encouraged, but comments must be civil and in good taste, with no personal attacks. If your comments are inappropriate, you may be banned from posting. Report comments if you believe they do not follow our guidelines. Having trouble with comments? Learn more here.