Mr. SUENAGA Toshiaki is a Japanese painter and professor of art at Tohoku University of Art & Design, and the 8th recipient of the TAKIFUJI Art Award (1987, now the International TAKIFUJI Art Award). In Germany, where he studied and lived for 15 years after finishing graduate school, he was searching for what Japanese art was and what he could do. What he arrived at was that all paintings by Japanese artists are Japanese painting. （Interviewer: SATO Yuki, Date of interview: Augusta 2019, First appearance “The International Takifuji Art Awards 40 year’s Anniversary (published in 2020)”）
All paintings by Japanese artists are Japanese painting
——When you started teaching at the university, you were surprised by the reaction of students who asked you, “Is this also a Japanese painting?”
There is still no clear answer to the question of what Japanese painting is. People may think it refers to the difference in materials, such as the use of “Iwa-enogu (mineral pigment)” or “Nikawa (glue)”, but art can be anything and should be freer. When I lived in Europe, I realized that what Japanese painters paint is all Japanese painting, whether they use oil paints or Iwa-enogu. In order to survive in the international arena, I was thinking about what Japanese art was and what I could do, and I was trying to come up with my own version of Japanese painting.
——Going back in time, was there an artistic environment around you as a child?
No one in my family or relatives was involved in art, but I attended painting classes from the time I was in elementary school. I liked both drawing and crafts, and when I drew “MAZINGER Z*¹” at school, everyone was so happy that there was a line during recess. Thanks to that, I made friends and may have developed a desire to improve.
——You are from Kanagawa Prefecture, aren’t you?
I grew up in Chigasaki, so the ocean was close by, there were fish, and the beach was my playground. Speaking of the sea, there is one scene that I will never forget. When I finally learned to ride a bicycle, I felt as if I could go anywhere, so I rode my bicycle to the beach without telling my parents. When I looked out over the horizon, I saw a small white island in the haze, and as a young child, I was overjoyed to see it was Antarctica. Since that time, I have always wanted to visit a foreign country. But I didn’t know how to make it happen. I quit my painting class before taking the entrance exam and went on to a regular course in high school.
——What happened to your dream of going abroad?
When I was in high school, I bumped into a teacher from an art class I had attended as a child and heard his story about when he was interned in Siberia. When the Soviet soldiers in the camp found out that he was a painter, they brought him sepia-toned family photos one after another and asked him to paint them. He said that thanks to this, all of his fellow POWs were able to return alive. If I go abroad, I’d like to become a painter. I thought that painting would be a way to communicate with foreigners.
——Why did you choose Japanese painting?
When I was attending a prep school for art college entrance exams, a Japanese painter who was my instructor encouraged me to become a Japanese painter if you wanted to become an international person. I had painted oil paintings before, but I did not know much about Japanese painting, so I went to Tokyo to see The SOGA-ten*². It was the first time I had seen Japanese painting, but it was beautiful and I was surprised that such a material existed. The paint glistening on the rough surface was fantastic.
*1 Japanese Giant Robot Anime
*2 Exhibition of The SOGA-kai Association of Japanese Painting
In Germany, I became aware of Japanese history and culture
——I have a letter of recommendation from you when you applied for the TAKIFUJI Art Award in 1987. Mr. HIRAYAMA Ikuo*³, who was your supervisor, said, “SUENAGA Toshiaki has been creating ambitious works with a serious attitude since he was a first year student. His series of works depicting the artist’s inner world with motifs of boys, landscapes, animals, fish, and other natural objects seem to be an excellent group of works based on realism with a touch of romanticism.” Mr. HIRAYAMA also wrote that you won the Ataka Prize in second year and was selected for the Spring SOGA-ten in third year.
Ah, so that’s what he said to me. My parents were opposed to me entering art school, so I tried very hard to achieve some kind of result. Some people said that it was not a good idea to enter art contests at an early age, but I wanted to see if I could become an artist, so I actively tried.
——So you applied for the TAKIFUJI Art Award in the spring of your fourth year.
I saw the poster on the bulletin board on campus and went to ask my professor for a recommendation. I was very happy when I received the award. It was an award from an outside organization, not from within the university. More than anything, it was a great opportunity for me to get to know people of the same grade from Kyoto, Kanazawa, and other cities at the award ceremony.
——Did you go to Germany right after you finished graduate school?
After I finished graduate school, I had to work in Japan for about a year on creation and exhibitions, and during that time I prepared for my study abroad. I studied hard and entered a university in Germany. After that, I had an opportunity to be dispatched as an overseas trainee*⁴ by the Agency for Cultural Affairs, and I managed to graduate and stayed in Germany for 15 years until 2005. Together with my university friends in Germany, we formed an artists’ group and participated in activities such as exchanges with Polish artists, and the friendships we formed at that time continue to this day. In Germany, I think I was blessed with an environment where the cultural departments of public institutions generously supported young artists financially.
——You mentioned earlier that you became aware of art as a Japanese person after living in Germany.
I was surprised that when I was painting on the street, all kinds of people come up to me and say, “Oh Ya-pan!” I thought my paintings were not necessarily Japanese, so I asked them, “What kind of colors do you think are Japanese?” They would bring paintings from the Heian period, Photos of kimonos, toys, shrines, mountains with autumn leaves, etc. and explain to me, “This is it.” My classmates of various nationalities would also point out to me, “Your color is Japanese,” and gradually I began to look for my own mentality and the parts of myself that were in tune with Japan. When I was in Japan, I was interested in foreign views of life and death and religions, which I used in my works, but when I went to Germany, I became much more aware of Japanese history and who the Japanese people are.
*3 A leading Japanese painter. In addition to serving as President of Tokyo University of The Arts and Director General of the Japan Art Institute, he also served as UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador and President of the FOUNDATION FOR CULTURAL HERITAGE AND ART RESEARCH.
*4 Program of Overseas Study for Upcoming Artists. The overseas training support program for artists by the Agency for Cultural Affairs, formerly known as “Artist Overseas Training” Program.
On The Earth, Wonderful things are Connected
——In your website, you write that what you always think of when you draw living creatures is “the incredible eternity of time and connections other than those that exist during the life of the creature.” What is this eternity?
Life begins as a small dot, which grows larger through attachment and scientific reactions, and then life is born. It evolves, eventually becomes extinct, and then it disappears from the planet. That planet is 3.8 billion years old. Through these things, I feel the endless flow of time.
——So you believe that there is life on the stars?
I love the stars. When I am in Yamagata, I can see them very clearly. When I was in Iwate the other day, the sky was cloudy and I thought there was a bonfire somewhere, but it was the Milky Way. As MIYAZAWA Kenji*⁵ said, “milk trail”, it is white and fuzzy. There is a lot of dust floating in the universe, and these things are connected to the dots in “GENESIS” series. These tiny dots are also the beginning of life. “Veränderung” depicts the scenery I saw when I flew over the island, but from the sky it looks as if a meteorite is floating in space. I want to paint pictures that can be delusional or illusory, but that are exciting because of the energy moving through them.
——You are currently teaching at Tohoku University of Art & Design in Yamagata. How did you became a teacher?
Germany is a comfortable country to live in, and I had the choice to stay there after getting permanent residency. But before I turned 40, I started thinking that I wanted to give it another shot. At that time, I learned that the university was looking for a faculty member, and I decided that since I had met so many people and felt so many things in my life through my paintings, I might as well work to convey that potential to others.
——How do you like living in Yamagata?
The climate is great, and what pleases me most is the beauty of nature. The mountains are colorful, and I thought it was the scenery I was so hungry for in Europe. The mountains in Germany also have autumn leaves, but they are usually the same color, which is very different from Yamagata.
——You also have an exhibition on Matsushima in Miyagi Prefecture. Is the “Blue Forest Land” with its towering white rocks also a Tohoku landscape?
This is Hotokegaura in Aomori Prefecture. At the upcoming exhibition in Nihonbashi, Tokyo, I hope to show the differences between the northern and southern ecosystems, as well as the differences in smell and color of plants, animals, insects, and so on. Takahata’s grapes and dragon fruit, Aomori apples and mangoes are paired. In fact, over the past few years, I have had more and more opportunities to visit Southeast Asia, such as Thailand, Singapore, and Cambodia. I sometimes compare them with Yamagata, where I am now, and I think, “Ah, there are differences in food culture, plants, insects, animals, and many other things,” but at the same time, both north and south are the same in terms of ecosystems that have changed over the long years on the earth. That is why I think that both places are wonderful. It’s not about which one is better, they are all different, but they are wonderful. I would be happy if the exhibition is not about what is right, but about the wonders and coincidences of the earth, and how the beauty of each place is connected to the others.
*5 Japanese poet and writer of children’s stories. Born in Iwate Prefecture, he worked as an agricultural instructor to improve the lives of farmers, while writing poems and children’s stories about nature and life in the Tohoku region.
The joy you can get from art
——As a senior art student, what is the most important message you would like to convey to students?
Many students who paint are introspective. Many of them tell me that they are painting for themselves or because they enjoy it. I can say from my experience in Germany that I want them to know that art is a very good way to connect with people.
A young person who has loved and been good at drawing since childhood may enter an art college and realize that he is not so special in the art college, unlike the community he had been a part of before, and he may end up hating drawing. But you are able to continue painting for such a long time because you have a special power. So I hope that you will turn that power outward and connect it to sharing with others.
——Do you mean having an exhibition?
That’s one thing, but it can be someone close to you who sees it. You can also talk with people through your works. Some people happen to do well and are able to live on the income from their paintings alone, but even if they don’t, there is still a lot of joy they get from art. In Japan, there are inevitably some people who give up on becoming a painter because of the doubts about themself or falling behind. Maybe that’s how little art has taken root in society. Ordinary people buy a painting to celebrate getting a job or birthdays, or have home parties in rooms decorated with paintings, and use paintings as an opportunity to change their way of thinking. I hope that such a culture will spread.
Born in Kanagawa Prefecture in 1964, he was awarded the 8th TAKIFUJI Art Award in 1987 and completed his graduate studies in Japanese painting at Tokyo University of the Arts in 1990. He studied in Germany from 1991, and during his 15-year stay there until 2005, he received the Meisterschueler from the Düsseldorf Art Academy in 1997. Currently a professor at Tohoku University of Art & Design, he received the Ataka Prize in 1986, the first prize at the Engelbert Kempel International Competition in 2001, KAWAKITA MICHIAKI Award at the “Eyes of East and West Exhibition” in 2008, and many other awards.