The 25th International TAKIFUJI Art Award winner

The 25th International TAKIFUJI Art Award winner:OKUTANI Taichi

The 25th International TAKIFUJI Art Award winner

TOP arrowInterviewarrow The 25th International TAKIFUJI Art Award winner:OKUTANI Taichi


OKUTANI Taichi takes a paintbrush every day to paint at his home in Hayama Town (Kanagawa Prefecture), surrounded by rustling trees. His atelier in the atrium was inherited from his father, OKUTANI Hiroshi, one of Japan’s leading Western-style painters. 2004, He was awarded the Grand Prix TAKI Hisao Prize, at the 25th anniversary of the International TAKIFUJI Art Award, and since then he has continued to demonstrate his talent to the full, but he said surprisingly, “I never set out to be a painter.”(Interviewer: UESUGI Keiko, Date of interview: August 2019, First appearance in 2020 at commemorative publication “The International Takifuji Art Awards 40 year’s Anniversary”)

Decide to become a painter at the university entrance exam

Mr. OKUTANI Taichi, in front of a work in progress at his atelier in Hayama

——This Hayama atelier is a great place to paint.

My bedroom is right next to the atelier, so I grew up smelling the canvas and oil paints from a young age. However, I rarely remember stepping into my father’s sanctuary of a workroom, and I rarely had the opportunity to see him at work. I was neither a gifted child nor did I love to draw. By the time I entered elementary school, my father had already held a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Kamakura, but my only contact with him as a painter was the smells coming from his atelier as ever. Even at school, I was not particularly good at arts and crafts.
When I was in high school, I thought I wanted to be a science scholar. Looking back on it now, I think I may have been rebelling against or even competing with my father. However, when it came time for me to decide on the specific university, for some reason, I suddenly felt that the world of art might be more interesting if I were to go out and work in the world. I think part of it was because I had seen my father’s lifestyle and naively thought, “It would be nice not to have to go to the office every day,” although I had no idea what a salaryman’s life was like. So I think my anxiety was greater than anything else.

——What was your father’s reaction?

When I timidly broached the subject, the response was, “Well, let’s give it a try.” If I had come from a office worker family, I probably would have been told to stop being an artist. Fortunately, he did not oppose me, but he was not very welcoming either.
Then my father ordered me to try drawing geometric shapes, and after checking the results, he said, “Let’s try art school prep.” According to what I heard later, “If I had started it for some vulgar or obscene motive, he thought he would stop me.” I guess he saw what his son had drawn and thought it might become something.
Even after I started attending a nearby prep school, my father did not give me any guidance. After graduating from high school, I left Hayama and moved to Tokyo, where I attended a prep school called Shinjuku Bijutsu Gakuin. This school had a karate club that my father had founded, and I was told many stories of my young father’s heroism. It had become a legend. (laughs). While I was still in school, there was a parent-child interview, and although my father came to the meeting, he did not say a single word until the very end. I remember I was afraid that I might have said something unnecessary.
It was not until I started painting of my own volition that I realized how great my father was. If he had forced me to follow this path, I would have rebelled.

During student days, continued to question own existence

——Two generations of you and your father both successfully passed the entrance exam to Tokyo University of the Arts.

Although I passed the entrance exam after two years of studying, I was able to spend my time as a ronin (student who has failed the entrance exam) without becoming despondent. This was thanks to the teachers at the prep school, who were not too busy preparing me for the examinations, but rather provided me with basic guidance that would lead me to success later.
The number of students in the oil painting major was limited to 55, but each student had a different personality. Many of them were conceptual, but I did not feel the need to be “theoretically armed,” and I was able to freely devote myself to my creative work.
At that time, it was the end of the era when installation and contemporary art were the mainstream, and people told “don’t paint,” but I was clumsy, so I did only human body sketches until I entered graduate school. After I became a graduate student, I was able to use the atelier on campus and invite models, so I had them come every week to do sketches. It would be a little while before the emergence of AIDA Makoto*¹ and NARA Yoshitomo, and society’s attention would turn to drawing again.
At the Geidai (Tokyo University of the Arts), students create a work of art at the end of each school year, so I did not end up with sketches at that time but made them into oil paintings. In both years first and second, I painted self-portraits. I was a student who was constantly questioning my own existence in my mind. At the same time, I think I was starting to feel like I was going to start painting. In my second-year work, I had a composition in which I was looking at objects like lizards and birds and was reflected in a mirror. Lizards were a frequent motif of my father.

Artwork submitted to 25th International TAKIFUJI Art Award
Art Work submitted to the 25th International TAKIFUJI Art Award

——You won the Grand Prix TAKI Hisao Prize of the International TAKIFUJI Art Award for those two works, and in your essay for the entry, you wrote about the agave.

I was about to paint an agave for my graduation project when my advising professor told me about this award. The agave can grow to several meters in height and bloom only once every 50 years or so, making it a rare plant. I saw it for the first time in Izu, Shizuoka Prefecture, and was struck by its ephemeral nature of life and at the same time by the overwhelming presence of nature’s resilience. My mind was filled with the desire to express the contrast between this plant and myself in a painting, and I wrote about this determination in my essay.
Students these days seem to be making all sorts of efforts to win awards, but at the time there was no such atmosphere, and I wasn’t that interested either. I remember that my professor encouraged me to apply for the award, so I managed to prepare the documents while I was busy with teaching practice and other activities. I think the professor must have approached me because I had won the Ataka Prize the year before, in 2003.

The Agave and I
“The Agave and I” 2005, oil on canvas, 185.0×227.0cm

——Do you remember how the prize money was spent or what happened at the award ceremony?

I also used the prize money I received to paint the agave. Half of the money, 150,000 yen, went away when I bought a roll canvas and a wooden frame. The rest must have gone to painting materials such as paints and brushes.
At that time, I was studying the difference in finish depending on the canvas at the Techniques and Materials Laboratory, so I also made my own canvases. Commercial canvases stretched on wooden frames already have a white undercoat, but if you apply the ground coat yourself, you can adjust the luster and texture of the screen as you like. I have always been a scholarly person, so I did a lot of research by changing the formulation and adjusting the absorbency. The prize money was very helpful because the unit price of each painting material is expensive, and the cost would have risen even more if I had to make even the canvas by hand.
At the award ceremony, I was more than happy to talk with Mr. Louis Fransen*², a well-known stained glass artist. I was nervous, but he spoke to me in a friendly manner and said, “You have a long way to go, and this award will be a good start.” I felt confident and encouraged, as there were less than 10 students in my grade who had continued to paint in the midst of the “don’t paint” trend. It was very significant to receive recognition at a time when I was beginning to feel lost, and to think that what I had been doing and the direction I was aiming for were not mistaken.

*1 Japanese contemporary artist. In addition to painting, he has developed a diverse range of expressions, including sculpture and performance, both in Japan and abroad.

*2 Public art artist. Based in Japan, He served as the director of the Creare Atami Yugawara Studio and was in charge of judging the International TAKIFUJI Art Award from its inception until its 30th term.

Blissful Study Abroad in France

Return Trip
“Return Trip” 2007, oil on canvas, 162.0×194.0cm

——After completing graduate school, you began your creative activities in earnest while working as an assistant at your alma mater.

I became a member of the DOKURITSU Art Association*³ and was blessed with opportunities to present my work, but gradually I began to wonder if I should remain at the university. I wanted to see more of the outside world, so I applied for the Agency for Cultural Affairs’ Program of Overseas Study for artists and was selected to go to France as a scholarship student in 2012. I chose France because my birthday is July 14, the anniversary of the French Revolution, and I felt a connection to France. My father, who was also studying in France, used to say, “Taichi was born on the day of the France Revolution”
I had to find a place to accept by myself, but there was a teacher at the École Nationale Supérieure Des Beaux-Arts de Paris who was studying Paolo Uccello*⁴, so I decided to seek his guidance. My father spent a year copying Uccello’s works when he was an assistant at the Tokyo University of the Arts. The fresco laboratory had just been established, and he said that as a result of his unwillingness to work on them as teaching materials to show to his students, “I changed from having a painting style that heaped paint thickly to painting with thin layers.” This story left a deep impression on me.
It was a short one-year study abroad program, but I was in a blissful environment where art was always close at hand, and I went to museums all the time. Since it was before the many terrorist attacks, I was able to easily travel to England and Italy and see Uccello’s works in various places.
During my stay in France, I was made acutely aware that I am Japanese, but when I returned to Japan, I was struck by a sense of discomfort that I had never expected. I felt sick that the streets were filled with homogeneous people dressed in similar outfits. On the other hand, I also felt that all people are fellow human beings living on the same planet.

——These experiences influenced your later style.

First, I started drawing fewer self-portraits. I think I drew it only once the year after I returned to Japan. Maybe it made me think, “We’re all the same, so we don’t have to be so obsessed with expressing ourselves.”
Nowadays, I often take notes about things I feel while in the city and draw based on them. However, it does not necessarily depict the city itself. What I want to express is the atmosphere of the times, and I exclude concrete scenes such as buildings and roads and use colors to evoke the atmosphere. In the past, I sometimes used red as a background, but recently I’ve seen more blues and grays. I also sometimes let my notes sit for 5 to 10 years before drawing them.

——In contrast to the inorganic backgrounds, you depict many realistic actions of people, such as taking pictures with a camera or listening to music with headphones.

As I observe people holding smartphones around the city and taking pictures, I get the feeling that they are looking more closely at the images they take than at the scenery in front of them. It’s very interesting to see these changes in the way we look at things. As I aim for expression that is possible only because I live in the current era, naturally, one of the motifs is everyday life surrounded by electronic devices. A flip phone appeared in a recent work, but now it has been replaced by a smartphone, and in the future, I may end up depicting everyday life that incorporates virtual reality.

*3 A Japanese artist group that has been in existence since 1930.

*4 A painter representing the early Italian Renaissance.

Where to
“Where to” 2014, oil on canvas, 194.0×518.0cm
“Ring” 2017, oil on canvas, 194.0×259.0cm

——Are there days when you can’t paint as much as you’d like?

Mr. OKUTANI, in his naturally lit atelier, finishing a work for his solo exhibition.
Mr. OKUTANI, in his naturally lit atelier, finishing a work for his solo exhibition.

I often joke that I am a “positive hikikomori (hermit)”. Sometimes I don’t go outside for about two months and keep painting. The mountains are right behind my house, so when I get the munchies, I climb them. The headwaters of the Moritogawa River are soothing, and I can be at peace when I walk without thinking.
I tend to think that my work is complete within myself, but in reality, it is only complete when there are people who see it. It is interesting to see how each viewer overlays his own life and interpretate the author did not expect. It is very satisfying when the interaction occurs, as I gain new inspiration from it, or the viewer gains new insights from it. Since I am able to communicate sufficiently through my paintings, I could be a “hikikomori” in other situations (laughs).
Last year, a woman who visited my exhibition said to me, “Through your paintings, I now understand how my daughter felt when she wanted to pursue a career in art.” I was sincerely happy to feel that the works I had put out into the world were standing on their own. There is no greater joy than to be able to create powerful works of art and give something back to society. When I visited Colmar, France, once, I saw a woman standing still and crying in front of the “Eisenheim Altarpiece” by Matthias Grunewald*⁵. I hope that someday I can be someone who can give a person that same level of excitement.

The importance of failing in the world of art

——Lastly, please give a message to the students who will follow you.

Nowadays, there is a tendency not to make mistakes, but if you do not fail, you cannot move on to the next stage in the world of painting. I myself was filled with anxiety and conflict when I was painting my graduate school graduation project. When I quit my position as an assistant at the Geidai, it was also a major turning point for me. My teacher told me, “If you keep going until you’re 40, you’ll make it.” but the “Geidai brand” was only good for about three years at most, and I faced a wall.
In the end, the shortest way is to think about it while continuing to paint as an artist. The International TAKIFUJI Art Award, which is given at the time when one feels the most pressure in this process, has a great significance. I hope that the association will continue to support the next generation.

*5 A painter considered a master of the late German Gothic period.

Where are we going?
“Where are we going?” 2019, oil on canvas, 181.8×454.6cm


Born in 1980 in Kanagawa Prefecture, he entered Tokyo University of the Arts in 2001, and won the Grand Prix TAKI Hisao Prize, the 25th anniversary of the International TAKIFUJI Art Award in 2004. Completed master’s program at the same university in 2007. From September 2012, he stayed in France for about a year under the Agency for Cultural Affairs’ Program of Overseas Study for Upcoming Artists. He has received numerous awards, including the Ataka Prize in 2003, the Mr. O Memorial Award in 2005, the 77th DOKURITSU Exhibition DOKURITSU Award in 2009, and the SHOUWAKAI Award in 2012. His father is OKUTANI Hiroshi, a Western painter.

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