Using traditional mineral pigments, a traditional type of Japanese paint, Ryuji Tanaka’s works convey a keen awareness of nature. Tanaka’s life was marked by a constant and deep curiosity in a variety of genres, and his continual efforts to participate in competitive exhibitions. In this essay, I would like to provide more insight into Ryuji Tanaka by tracing the path he pursued.
Tanaka born on November 29, 1927 to Shokichi Tanaka and his wife Toyono in Higashi Futami, Futami-cho, Kako-gun, Hyogo Prefecture (now part of Akashi City). Based on period photographs, Tanaka’s works deviated from traditional nihon-ga composition, displaying a bold quality that presaged his later style.
When he graduated from the school in 1948, Tanaka joined a number of friends who had also majored in nihon-ga to found an avant-garde art group called Pan-real in an attempt to revolutionize the conservative world of Japanese-style painting. The following year Pan-real made a new start as a group that was restricted solely to nihon-ga painters. It was an era of new movements in which young artists associated with many different genres searched for new forms of expression and freer structures. However, due perhaps to some difference of opinion, Tanaka parted ways with Pan-real only three years later. After completing a post-graduate course in 1952, he found work as a teacher like many other artists of that era. Tanaka joined the art faculty at a junior high school in Kobe, and then found a job at Motoyama Junior High School. In 1955, after passionately courting Shoko Saitou, a music teacher at the same school, the two were married. The family soon welcomed two daughters, and in the 1960s, Tanaka entered a highly productive period in his art. He subsequently submitted his paintings to various group shows and displayed his work in the Shin-Bijutsukyokai (New Art Association) exhibition, which focused primarily on nihon-ga.
As it happens, Tanaka’s graduation from the Kyoto City Specialist School of Painting coincided with that of Kazuo Shiraga. Though Shiraga was three years older, he had been drafted and had also taken a one-year leave from the school after the war was over, so the two men ended up in the same graduating class. Tanaka seems to have been closer to Shiraga than any of his other painter friends, and the older man influenced and guided him in various ways. Shiraga also studied nihon-ga, but he switched to oil painting after graduation. Tanaka, on the other hand, made use of the special characteristics of nihon-ga pigments to develop a new method of painting. Tanaka held his first solo show in Kobe in 1960, and in 1962, he was awarded the nihon-ga Contest Prize in the 5th Contemporary Japanese Art Exhibition. That year marked the introduction of the contest division, and Tanaka’s was rewarded for his bold effort. In April 1963, he held a solo exhibition at Takekawa Gallery in Tokyo which included a total of 25 works. Tanaka continued to pursue the style he developed during this period for the rest of his life.
His materials were mineral pigments, which he applied to a washi (Japanese paper) or canvas support medium. In standard nihon-ga, glue is mixed with the pigment to act as a fixing agent, and the paint is applied with a brush. Though the powdery texture was different, Tanaka added pebbles to expand the pigments and also used adhesive. And rather than a brush, he used a feather, making the paint stream, and blurring the picture. This was apparently inspired by bonseki, a traditional form of interior decoration. In later years, Tanaka added glass powder to the pigments to create white blurs. Oil painting lacked the rough quality of nihon-ga, and while he did make some figurative nihon-ga paintings before the war, Tanaka became known for his non-figurative work.
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