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Here and There introduces art, artists, galleries and museums around Japan that non-Japanese readers and first-time visitors may find of particular interest. The writer claims no art expertise, just a subjective viewpoint acquired over many years' residence in Japan.

Lush Life: The Subtropical Masterpieces of Isson Tanaka
Alan Gleason
Isson Tanaka on the island of Amami Oshima Exhibition view at the Chiba City Museum of Art, showing some of Isson's earlier works on screens and hanging scrolls

He has been variously called the Gauguin and the Rousseau of Japan, but Isson Tanaka stands in a class by himself. The analogies come to mind because, like Gauguin, Isson (1908-1977) did his greatest work after moving to an isolated southern island (in his case Amami Oshima, in the Ryukyu chain between Kyushu and Okinawa) and painted brilliantly colored landscapes of his subtropical surroundings. And like Rousseau's, many of those landscapes featured exotic flora and fauna, with giant palm fronds and other jungle-like motifs taking center stage.

But there the similarities stop. Unlike Rousseau, Isson was inarguably a master of his craft, well trained in traditional Nihonga techniques. Long before reaching his artistic zenith on Amami rather late in life, he had spent decades applying himself to conventional Chinese-style mountainscapes and decorative bird-and-flower work, which earned him little recognition despite his frequent entries in various art competitions. Unlike Gauguin, he was not much enamored of the human form. Though a few rare renderings of his fellow villagers prove he was an excellent portraitist, Isson's great loves were plants, birds and, much later, fish. The people in his landscapes tend to be offhand, trivial little figures, like the stylized caricatures one sees in Hiroshige prints. But no one has painted trees and flowers with the passion and acuity of eye that Isson brought to his mature work.

Isson was born in Tochigi, north of Tokyo, the son of a sculptor. Though recognized as an artistic prodigy from an early age, he dropped out of Tokyo School of the Arts after only a few months and spent the next few years studying on his own while surviving at various odd jobs. His evolution as an artist is well documented, but because so few of his works were sold or accepted for exhibition, many are undated. Still, it is possible to trace the remarkable curve of his growth from a talented but not terribly original Nihonga artist, producing credible imitations of the ancient masters, into one of Japan's, if not the world's, most original landscape painters.

"Seashore with Screw Pine" (1969), color on silk,
156.0 x 76.0 cm
© Hiroshi Niiyama
"Alocasia Odora and Sago Palm" (undated, early 1970s), color on silk, 155.5 x 83.2 cm
© Hiroshi Niiyama
After toiling in anonymity for twenty years in a rural corner of the Tokyo suburb of Chiba, Isson evidently grew tired of receiving short shrift from the art mavens of the capital, and made a sudden decision at age 50 to move south -- way south -- to Amami Oshima, a place he had never been before. There he settled into a modest hut outside the town of Naze, working in a silk factory to pay the rent and alternating periods of employment with periods of full-time concentration on his painting. During the last two decades of his life -- he died of a heart attack at 69 -- Isson produced a startlingly inspired series of large paintings, done on silk or paper with Nihonga pigments, that meticulously record, in near-photorealistic fashion, the splendors of Amami wildlife.

The sago and fountain palms, screw pines, datura blossoms, banana and papaya trees that occupy pride of place (with countless varieties of colorful birds and butterflies flitting around them) in his compositions are set against lovingly rendered backgrounds of mountain and ocean, with the occasional distant island peeping through the foliage. Isson's plants and animals are delineated with the precise touch of a trained botanical artist. In their draftsmanship they remind one of the drawings of Audubon, or the artists who accompanied Captain Cook on his south sea voyages. But the lush, nearly psychedelic colors are those of a visionary.

Isson died in obscurity, but in the mid-eighties a television program drew attention not only to his art, but to the readily romanticized trappings of his life -- self-exile to a subtropical island and so on -- and suddenly an Isson boom swept Japan. Now, as more years have elapsed, the boom has subsided and he seems threatened with obscurity again. The timing is therefore ideal for an exhaustive retrospective of his work, and one is currently making its way slowly down the Japanese archipelago. Having just completed a stand in the domicile of his middle years at the Chiba City Museum of Art, the exhibition, whose title is translated in the catalog as "Tanaka Isson: The New Total Picture," boasts some 180 paintings, 50 sketches, and various personal effects of the artist. About 100 of these items have only recently been unearthed and are being displayed for the first time.

The exhibition next opens at the Kagoshima City Museum of Art at the southern tip of Kyushu, still a ways north of Amami. Finally, toward year's end, the show will arrive at the Tanaka Isson Memorial Museum of Art on Amami Oshima itself, which built the facility in 2001 to honor its favorite adopted son.

"White Flowers" (1947), color on paper, two-panel folding screen, 169.6 x 199.8 cm
© Hiroshi Niiyama
"Dusk" (undated, late 1940s to early 1950s), color on paper, 95.5 x 107.9 cm
© Hiroshi Niiyama

All photos courtesy of the Chiba City Museum of Art
Tanaka Isson: The New Total Picture
Chiba City Museum of Art
21 August - 26 September 2010
Kagoshima City Museum of Art
5 October - 7 November 2010
Tanaka Isson Memorial Museum of Art
14 November - 14 December 2010
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Alan Gleason
Alan Gleason is a translator, editor and writer based in Tokyo, where he has lived for 25 years. In addition to writing about the Japanese art scene he has edited and translated works on Japanese theater (from kabuki to the avant-garde) and music (both traditional and contemporary).
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