Mr. MORIMOTO Gen, a painter and professor at Kyoto University of the Arts, has been expressing the spirituality that resides in familiar motifs while expanding his range of expression to include prints, oil paintings, and drawings. In recent years, he has won awards at international art exhibitions overseas, and his abilities have been highly acclaimed. We interviewed Mr. MORIMOTO, a recipient of the 9th TAKIFUJI Art Award (1988, now the International TAKIFUJI Art Award), about his thoughts on his work.
（Interviewer: NAGATA Akiko, Date of interview: August 2019, First appearance “The International Takifuji Art Awards 40 year’s Anniversary (published in 2020)”）
A mentor who flipped the switch in my life
——Have you been interested in painting since you were a child?
I was born in Ise, Mie Prefecture, and grew up in Tsu. I was so weak that I could only attend about one-third of kindergarten, and I spent all my time at home drawing pictures. When an elementary school teacher asked me what my dream was for the future, my classmates laughed at me when I answered, “To be a painter.” Perhaps it was because the painter had the image of an old man wearing a beret. I was happy to be featured in the children’s painting section of the Asahi Shimbun newspaper local edition. I started attending a painting class in the city from the fifth grade, but my favorite assistant teacher was really poor. I began to think that the path of painting was very difficult, and in junior high school I wanted to become a public servant. In high school, I joined the art club, where I met a passionate art teacher who completely changed my life.
——How did it change?
The teacher was Mr. TSUCHISHIMA Toshio*¹, a graduate of Musashino Art University, who took an interest in me. In the second grade, Mr. TSUCHISHIMA asked me what I was going to do. My grades in mathematics were good, so I answered, “I will become a teacher and do painting as a hobby,” to which Mr. TSUCHISHIMA replied, “Painting is not a hobby,” followed by, “You can draw, so you should aim for Tokyo University of the Arts or University of Tsukuba.” That was the moment when a switch in my life was flipped.
——He was a wonderful teacher, was’nt he.
The art club under Mr. TSUCHISHIMA’s guidance usually did only plaster sculture sketches. The oil paintings were done during summer camps in the fishing village of Nakiri and on Kamijima Island. We woke up at sunrise, painted with a paintbrush, and at night we discussed with teacher and other senior members of the club why we paint. The experience of painting under the summer sun, combined with the words of the teacher, ignited my desire to apply to Tokyo University of the Arts. Last year, Mr. TSUCHISHIMA held a solo exhibition at the Mie Prefectural Art Museum. He still calls me from time to time to ask if I am painting.
——How difficult was it for you to take the entrance exam?
At the time, the ratio of applicants for the oil painting major at Tokyo University of the Arts was about 36 times. I went to a prep school in Tokyo and entered the university after two years. After entering the university, some students stopped coming to school, as if they were losing interest, and assignments were quite lenient, with only one painting to be completed in a month and a half. I guess that’s one of the good things about Tokyo University of the Arts.
I majored in printmaking after my junior year. I wanted to acquire a solid technique, and since I preferred sketching to oil painting, I thought I could express myself by making use of lines. I learned a full range of printmaking techniques, including woodcut, copper print, lithograph, and silkscreen, and then I was free to find a theme and create my own work, but then I fell into a slump. I thought, “I’ve been taught the techniques, but what do I want to express?”
Around that time, I attended a high school art club camp as an alumnus. When I told Mr. TSUCHISHIMA that I was in a slump, he said, “Artwork is like a filter, so you don’t have to try to create it all on your own. If you encounter something and your heart is moved by it, you should create it.” And as I listened to the sound of waves in my hometown and sketched while the midsummer sun burned my skin, I felt alive. I felt at ease and was able to work on my creation again.
*1 Painter and Printmaker. His works pursue the relationship between human beings and materials. As an art teacher, he trained many younger artists.
Scholarship Prize money was used to pay for graduation projects
——How did your graduation project go?
During the camp, I sketched the wall surface of a dried bonito factory in Nakiri. It was a rugged concrete wall, but it had a beautiful expression washed by the wind and waves. Perhaps I projected my desire, “If only I could stand strong like this.” The rough presence of the wall overlapped with the corrosion technique and materiality of the copper print I was working on at the time, and I chose that wall as the motif for my graduation project.
——You won the 9th TAKIFUJI Art Award when you were a senior at the university. What prompted you to apply?
I applied for the award after being told about it by my senior at graduate school, Mr. HAYASHI Takahiko*², who is currently active as a printmaker. Mr. HAYASHI had won the 5th TAKIFUJI Art Award in 1984, and he recommended that I take the chance to win the scholarship. With the scholarship prize money, I bought printing paper in batches of 100, as well as ink. I also used it for transportation expenses to cover the sea in my hometown. I was grateful because at the time I was in trouble due to the large scale of my artwork with high production costs.
——After that, you went on to graduate school and earned a doctorate.
In my doctoral thesis, I focused on the relationship between expression and technique. Painting is an act of materializing an image, so to speak. The techniques and paint surface used are chosen sensibly, but the content of my dissertation is that the reasons why I choose to do things the way I do were explained from the physical perspective of the copper print materials.
——You were working primarily with etching at the time.
The etching technique of copper print is a kind of altruism, or the corrosive effect makes the plate. I was also attracted to the materiality of copper, which feels soft when engraved with a knife. I also experimented with creating works while interacting with my hometown, such as pouring seawater brought back from my hometown in Mie onto copper plates and making prints from verdigris and salt crystals floating on the surface, or directly immersing copper plates in the sea. I was thinking about who I was through trial and error in production.
——In 1993, while still in graduate school, you exhibited a large copper print entitled “Circulation.” The apocalyptic scene is impressive.
The motif of the work is a scene of rain clouds and rain falling on the distant sea, which I witnessed when I was doing research in my hometown. If you zoom in on the rain, you can see the words of the book I was reading at the time to write my doctoral dissertation. No work of art or writing can be created unless human beings put energy into it. Rain and clouds are both generated when seawater is heated by solar energy. I thought that the cyclical nature of this process seemed to overlap with human activity.
*2 Printmaker. In addition to copper print, he also produces collages of fabric and thread on Japanese paper and other materials, and ink drawings.
Oil painting is suitable for expressing light
——Did you get a job after completing graduate school?
In 1995, at the age of 30, I became a teacher at Kyoto College of Art after finishing my doctoral program. I didn’t have much of a mindset to make a living by selling paintings, and my father was also a teacher, so it was a natural progression for me to continue creating while being involved in education.
——Why did you change your method of expression from prints to oil paintings when you moved to Kyoto?
When I arrived at the college, we did not have a large press for printmaking, and printmaking involves a number of processes, and since I had worked out the principles of printmaking in my doctoral dissertation, I was a bit bogged down in the process. I wanted to give oil painting another try, which can be expressed without complicated processes. Also, since I was hired as a teacher in the Western painting course, I was faced with the need to teach oil painting to my students.
——In your oil paintings, you often paint glass and warm boiled rice. Why did you choose these motifs?
At first, I tried to paint images similar to prints, but they didn’t look good at all. One day, at a restaurant where I went to have lunch, the light hit the glass filled with water, and it was very beautiful. Two years later, when I was looking for a subject for a group exhibition, I remembered that scene and started painting. The glass is transparent and has no presence, but when the light gathers at a certain angle, it shines brightly. When I painted it, I once again felt that oil painting is suitable for expressing light. The transparent vessel is also a metaphor for human beings for me.
——How did you work?
I was busy with classes during the day, so I woke up early in the morning to make time to work. First, I carefully washed the glass, filled them with water from a water purifier, and put them in a corner of my atelier. I paint while looking at the real thing, not at a photograph. Derived from the water in the glass, I once painted the tears of my second son who had just been born. This looks like an abstract painting.
Water is connected to life and is essential for human beings to live. Around that time, I saw the documentary film “GAIA SYMPHONY” and was impressed by the onigiri rice balls of Ms. SATO Hatsume,*³ who appears in the film. The freshly cooked rice was crystal clear and beautiful, and I sensed a spirituality rooted in the local climate. So, I cooked rice in an earthenware pot and painted a picture of rice with steam rising from it, but I couldn’t quite decide on the composition. At first, I had drawn the entire rice bowl on a vertical canvas, them boldly I cut off the top and bottom. Still it did not feel right, so I painted the chopsticks into the picture and finally completed it. The chopsticks also have the meaning of a “bridge” to receive the life of nature into oneself.
——While your oil paintings are highly acclaimed, you have been focusing on drawing in recent years.
In 2007, I was transferred to the newly established Department of Art and Child Studies at Kyoto University of Art and Design (now Kyoto University of the Arts), where I have been involved for 10 years since its establishment. I became busy examining the relationship between children and art and devising workshops, which caused my production to stagnate a bit. Then the Tohoku Earthquake (March 11, 2011) occurred. Then the nuclear power plant accident occurred, and I was tormented by a sense of helplessness. When I thought, “I have to do something,” the only thing I could do was to draw, so I made drawings of my two sons and then of plants in my garden. Perhaps it was a desire to return to the starting point in the midst of uncertainty, and to hold on to the precious presence with a painting. As I recall, it was a strange experience, as if I had become one with the being, who was painting in the passage of time rather than expressing myself, and when I looked back at the painting, I wondered if I had really painted it.
*3 Welfare activist. She presided over “Mori no Isukia” (Forest Isukia), which accepts people in distress. She died in 2016 at the age of 94.
Paintings are “mirror” that offer a glimpse into the unknown
——Recently, you have been working on landscapes, and in 2016 you won first prize in the drawing category at the Osten Biennial, an international art exhibition in North Macedonia. What is the subject matter of your award-winning work, “Aeon Mall”?
It is a construction site of a huge commercial building that I found by chance. I simply love steel structures, but shopping malls are buildings that symbolize an aspect of consumer society, and I felt that the phenomenon of the surrounding landscape changing as a result of construction is very modern. While I questioned the destruction of fields and nature, I also had mixed feelings because we enjoy the convenience of these buildings. Another time, I drew a huge spiral ramp structure because it was interesting, and it turned out to be the building of a global company’s logistics base.
——In your new work, you depict a scene where street trees and utility poles’ wires are intertwined.
When I look closely at the local street trees, I see that they are magnificent but somehow out of proportion. I see that the upper branches have been cut off in the past to accommodate the power lines. It is painful, but also resilient. Now I am looking at such a relationship between nature and artifice, the ambiguous existence.
——You started with prints, then went on to oil paintings, and now drawings. Have you changed the materials you use to express yourself in response to the environment you were in at the time?
It is not that I intentionally change the materials, It is not that I am intentionally changing it, but there is a sense that in the passage of time, I am switching myself to suit the situation at the time and expressing myself while breathing there. Rather than painting as a form of self-expression, I have the sense of being able to see the outlines of myself as I create. When it comes to motifs, I am largely inspired by both the subject matter and the materials I draw from. Whenever I face a different motif or material, I feel as if I am told, “The way you have been doing things up to now is not going to work.”
——With the diversification of expression methods such as spatial exhibitions, video, and photography, I feel that the presence of paintings in the art world is generally waning. What do you think about the significance and future of paintings?
No matter how advanced technology becomes, the fate of human beings to live and die remains the same, and everyone faces the finiteness of the body, aging, and illness. Painting is an act of using the hands and eyes, and it takes time and experience to master the materials. This tediousness has an affinity with the complexity of human existence, and I believe that it is this tediousness that allows me to create mind-bending expressions that cannot be achieved by computers.
I think of a painting as a “mirror. For the artist, it is a reflection of his own mind and spirit, and for the viewer, a glimpse into an unknown world. That is why I believe that paintings will never disappear.
Born in Mie Prefecture in 1964. Received the 9th TAKIFUJI Art Award in 1988. In 1995, completed the doctoral program at the Graduate School of Tokyo University of the Arts. While broadening her range of expression with prints, oil paintings, and drawings, she expresses the spirituality that resides in familiar motifs. He exhibited oil paintings of glass and warm boiled rice at the 2005 Shell Art Award Exhibition and the 2008 Busan Biennale in South Korea. He has received numerous awards, including the 1st prize at “the 5th What is Drawing” Competition in 2015, and First Award for Drawing at “Osten Biennial of Drawing Skopje 2016.” Professor, Department of Arts and Crafts, Kyoto University of the Arts