Thanks to webmagazine i-sys (アイシス会社) for allowing me to reproduce this interview. Original text by Tomoko Takahashi.
Koizumi Junsaku (小泉淳作) was born in Kamakura in 1924. He was conscripted into the Imperial Japanese Military in 1943, shortly after he began his undergraduate studies in the Nihonga section at Geidai (Tokyo Fine Arts University), but contracted tuberculosis at military academy, and was dismissed from service. Koizumi did not return to school, however, until 1948, when he began studying under accomplished Nihonga painter Yamamoto Kyûjin, graduating in 1952.
Koizumi began studying pottery and ceramics in 1962. He showed in his first individual paintings exhibition in 1969, and at a ceramic arts exhibition in 1976. He took part in many more exhibitions over the following thirty years.
In 2000, he completed a dragon and clouds painting for the ceiling of the hattô (法堂, Hall of he Law) of Kenchô-ji, in his hometown of Kamakura, on the occasion of the 750th anniversary of the temple’s founding. Two years later, he completed a ceiling painting of twin dragons for Kennin-ji in Kyoto, on the 800th anniversary of that temple’s foundation.
[My translation of the interview/article begins here.]
After waiting for fullness, creating massive works one after another.
With Nihonga painter Koizumi Junsaku’s figure before them, some people would say he seems an ambitious person. Certainly, despite having reached an age that might be called the “evening years of one’s life,” Koizumi continues to create massive compositions one after another, and presents an energetic figure, so it may be only natural to describe him in such a way.
Takahashi: You have really devoted yourself to large dragon and cloud paintings. As the year 2000 approached, how did you come to be commissioned to create these two dragon and cloud paintings?
Koizumi: In order to construct a new worship hall in honor of the 750th anniversary of the founding of the temple, the Rinzai sect Kenchô-ji temple in Kamakura requested a ceiling painting; that dragon & cloud painting was completed in the 12th year of Heisei. That was the year 2000, right? Right after that, a request for a ceiling painting came in from Kennin-ji, one of the seven Rinzai temples of Kyoto, to be completed for the 800th anniversary of that temple’s founding, which was coming up in 2002. I painted a twin dragons painting. Certainly, as they came in one after the other, as a Nihonga painter, I was blessed with massive works. It’s strange. I had been painting for many years, had continued to create works one after another, but I never thought I could make a living as a painter.
I turned 70 making a living as a painter. That I could have made these two ceiling paintings after that, is something I am very thankful for.
When you think about it, Koizumi could be recognized primarily or solely for how long he has been active as a painter. In order to push aside that thought, however, I would now like to press forward and immerse ourselves in his surging, gushing creation process.
I knew painting from the time I was in elementary school.
Takahashi: Since when do you suppose you set your sights on being an artist?
Koizumi: I’ve never had that thought. Back when I went to kindergarten at Keiô, and went over my classmates’ houses in the neighborhood to play, I learned how to draw and paint. The other kids hated drawing, so they looked at me, and it became a “come here and learn” sort of thing. It wasn’t as if I went to a special art school for gifted children. Drawing was just an extension of play. I think I just had a sense for drawing. Growing up, I was surrounded with more art than in a normal house, and I wonder if there was some influence I was unaware of. But I didn’t have any special cognition or understanding.
Takahashi: Looking at it objectively, the environment you grew up in was quite special. Your youth was, it could be said, so long ago it’s been forgotten, yet it seems that these influences had a considerable effect on your later way of life.
Koizumi: My father Sakutarô was active in the world of mass communication, and later became a politician. I was his seventh son, but was not born to his wife. My birth mother died when I was five, in 1929, and so all my siblings and I ended up living together in the same house. This woman who was a complete stranger to me suddenly said, “Call me mother.” It was a large property, 5000 tsubo with as many as fifty rooms, and we were living among hired help and boarders. My father only came home once every three months. In terms of having a typical household environment growing up, it was horrendous.
My father was known as Sanshin. He was a major collector of Buddhist art, was quite famous in that world, and there are essays and papers he wrote which still remain today.
Takahashi: Most who hear you talk about it must have a certain image in their minds about how wonderful it must have been to grow up surrounded by such artworks, but you have said that for you, it was nothing.
Koizumi: We had a room full of Buddhist sculptures, and I would see them everyday, but I never understood anything about it. I was just a kid. I had many siblings, but none of us really understood the language of beauty of the art. They were all gifted kids, but only in math; not one of us ever stood out as one who said they liked art, or had a special sense for beauty. I was a child who had suddenly changed. I often worried about whether or not I was truly my father’s son. My father died in 1937, when I was 13.
It wasn’t because of the environment I grew up in that I became an artist. My major was French, after all.
Takahashi: Literature captured your heart. French literature, at that.
The setback of being intoxicated with literature. The teenager who chose painting.
Koizumi: From the kindergarten of the special private Keiô school, I moved ahead into the regular grades, and then in 1941, at the age of 17, I started the French literature preparatory course in the literature department of the university. I yearned for literature. By chance, Yasuoka Shôtarô was there. He was four years older than me, and even from that age, there was an air about him that made you think he was born to be a man of letters. Along with a number of friends, he wrote dôjinshi. When it came time to try to get the dôjinshi published, however, it was already wartime, and no one would do it for us. Yasuoka and I had never really been friends, but I asked my older brother if his publishing company would print the dôjinshi, and they did, on unused reams of paper. But, in the end, the only thing that got published was that first volume.
I read the story of Yasuoka’s from that volume, and thought, “ah, this is something I can’t match.” I no longer wanted to be in the French literature section. It was from that that I turned to paintings.
Takahashi: And then you aimed yourself at the path of the artist. But at that time, it wasn’t so easy to receive guidance.
Koizumi: It was easier to draw pictures than people, so I had a strong interest in it. I took one year off from my preparatory course, and studied for entrance exams. I entered Geidai (Tokyo University of the Arts) at the age of 19, in 1943. Though today there is a great clamor about Geidai being hard to get into, at that time, the hardest section to get into was (Western style) oil painting, and one in three got in. For Nihonga (Japanese style painting) and the like, one in two got in. At that time, there were 14 of us.
As we were right in the midst of the war, that was an unhappy time for painting. Those who painted puzzling pictures during the time of the nation’s greatest emergency were rebels or traitors; things like that were being said. When I was 12 or 13, if I said I liked art, my father didn’t smile or make a good face. “What’s that? You’re going to paint pictures or something?” he’d say, frigidly. My own feelings won through, and somehow I found myself in the Nihonga section at Geidai.
Takahashi: When I asked why he majored in Nihonga, an answer came back quickly and easily.
Koizumi: Because the people who taught me the basics were, it so happened, Nihonga painters, right? There weren’t any specific artists I idolized. It wasn’t until I started at Geidai that I first started to look at many different people’s paintings. When I was young, I thought anyone was just as good. Yeah, it was that sort of thing. As I was learning what was “good art” and carefully, laboriously, learning to copy it, I slowly came to throw away those notions. All that remained, I think, was what was important to me.
The environment in which I studied Nihonga was fantastic. We could use the resources and documents as much as we wanted, and the teachers included such people as Yasuda Yukihiko, Kobayashi Kokei, and Okumura Dogyû, who looked at our paintings. It was quite a luxury. I split off and studied directly under Yamamoto Kyûjin, though that was also for only a brief time. As the war intensified, I had to leave school.
Takahashi: The war created chaos for everyone. Instead of a paintbrush, you picked up a gun.
Falling ill, the thought of becoming an artist is reignited.
Koizumi: I was conscripted in October 1943. Thus, I entered school before the war, and graduated after the war. It was a considerable number of years before I graduated. This was life in the military academy. The food was bad, the living circumstances terrible. After about one year in military academy, I contracted tuberculosis and returned home in 1945. By then, I was happy for any reason to get to go home. And then, before you knew it, the war was over. At that time, tuberculosis was seen as the disease of death. There was no medicine for it. Rest was the only treatment. I returned to my older brother’s house in Izu, and for about two years, did just about nothing.
I returned to school in 1948. My chest was still having problems, but this time it was something else that was wrong. I was 24 at the time, and thought this quite serious; a medicine called streptomycin had come in from America, and I could get it through my insurance. After continuing to take it for some time, I got better. And then, in the end, I finally graduated in 1952, when I was 28.
Takahashi: After graduating, living was first priority. You couldn’t become an artist overnight, though.
Koizumi: Just after I graduated from Geidai, suddenly someone bought one of my pieces. Painting wasn’t something I could live on back then. In 1954, at the age of 30, I got married. In order to provide for my family, I did design work. Design was for others, art was for myself, was my thinking. I did a lot of designs, like candy packages or bicycle markings. Us outside designers took whatever was decided for us, out of the one hundred or two hundred plans there were. I was often hired, and sold quite a bit. I was making two or three times as much as the average salaryman, but I never grew to like that sort of work. In fact, I hated it. If you hate doing something, what can you do?
I couldn’t stand relying on whether work came in. The man in charge was full of himself. Work came in once a week. He had a custom of holding a banquet in return. If you failed to humor him, “no work for you this week,” he would declare. My stomach started to hurt from all these feasts. It was stress. I put my stamp on it, and my stomach broke (laughs).
I hated having to flatter someone else in order to get work. In the meantime, I was painting, and every year my pieces were showing in public exhibitions. My dream at that time was to wash my hands of the design business.
Creating pottery is an invitation to a new world.
Takahashi: At just that time, you came upon pottery.
Koizumi: I went to buy a teacup, and there weren’t any I liked, so I thought, why don’t I make one myself? It was around 1962, when I was 38. I heard there was someone named Ogi Gyûjirô doing pottery at the studio of Tomimoto Kenkichi in Kamakura; I went to visit the studio, and studied under Ogi. I went when I felt like it, and messed around.
Years passed. My house became filled with ceramics, and people began to ask me if I would be willing to sell them. I held an exhibition, and somehow made enough to last me a year. Deciding that I liked pottery better, I threw out all of my design desks.
I finally quit designing around 1975, when I was over 50. My pottery pieces were selling, and I was having fun. On the other hand, pottery isn’t fine arts. It is thought of as utilitarian. Paintings, whatever you say about them, are pure fine arts. Since there is that thinking, I came to focus myself on that.
Takahashi: From the time you were making a living as a designer, you continued painting pictures. You were honest with himself. I suppose that passion supported you as an artist.
Creating only pictures I like
Takahashi: Not a member of any artists’ group, you came to be called “The Isolated Painter”.
Koizumi: I don’t like that. For over twenty years, I had pieces showing in public exhibitions, but was never accepted as a member of any group. So, since I came without a group, I was called that. It’s not such a cool thing. I showed in a public exhibit for the last time when I was 49. I regularly had individual exhibitions, and in 1977, my painting “Okuizu Landscape” was selected for the Yamatane Art Museum Award for Excellence. That was when I was 53. I never received a prize before, or since. It was because of this that my art became known. That time was a time of yearning for Chinese ink painting.
Takahashi: And from then on, you immersed yourself in ink painting (suibokuga).
Koizumi: I came to do ink painting around when I turned 60. In the Showa 40s (1965-1974), there was a famous art critic named Tajika Kenzô who reviewed my paintings. One time, I was invited to his home, and he showed me some Chinese ink paintings of the T’ang and Song periods. It was incredible. They felt newer, fresher, than today’s Nihonga. There was a philosophical element to it. Sometime, I should try my hand at ink painting, I thought. It was very hard, though.
Generally speaking, Nihonga is a process of starting from the bottom and working your way up, step by step. In my case, I was always erasing, washing, pushing and pulling the things I painted. In ink painting, you can’t do that, or so I thought for a long time. It was when I was sketching Oku-Chichibu Mountain that I suddenly thought, “the time is now.” Thus, an ink painting was born. It was about then that, somehow, it became a painting I could sell and eat off of (laughs).
Takahashi: Knowing 800-year old Chinese ink paintings, you became tied up with ceiling paintings so many years later.
Koizumi: The origin of my paintings is realism. Therefore, I sketch in great detail; I’m very particular about that. Whether my subject is mountains or flowers or vegetables, I confront my subject and, in sketching it, I try to capture the living energy in it. It’s been said that my paintings can be scary, depending on how you look at them. That’s the spirit, the power, that they have. In order to achieve that, sketching is essential.
Painting dragons which are not of this world
Koizumi: They told me, the realist painter, to paint a dragon. It was tough. Something that you haven’t seen. A fictional existence, right? In the end, I decided there was no other option but to study old Chinese paintings. Creativity and innovation becomes self-promotion. I realized that in order to paint dragons, I had to do away with myself. It had to not look like the kind of dragon I would paint. A Dragon & Clouds painting was not a problem, but for the size of the Twin Dragons Painting, even though I searched for a workspace, it was a terribly hard process.
Takahashi: The Twin Dragons Painting is as wide as 108 tatami mats. You looked into building something prefab, but it exceeded the budget, and couldn’t be done. Just as you were beginning to grow truly worried, a perfect workplace in Hokkaido turned up.
Koizumi: In Nakasatsunai village, in the suburbs of Obihiro city, there was a school which had been closed, and I was allowed to use the gymnasium. The building was old, but was still sufficiently usable. There were two hallways, and I was able to step back and get a good view of the whole painting.
In March 2002, when it was affixed to the ceiling in Kenninji, I felt like a samurai marching on the capital. For me, who had walked the path of the painter alone for so long, I thought, at 78 I got to do this great, important work.
Takahashi: Mr. Koizumi, who has produced massive works one after another. What sort of works will you do next?
Koizumi: In 2001, I was honored with a retrospective exhibit. Since it was all my works from the beginning to now, it was hard to look at. Well, it’s not all that important, I thought, but there wasn’t a single work there that was done carelessly or halfheartedly. Having come this far in life, I’ve said the things I have wanted to say. When things were changing rapidly and hectically, I had a set of values inside me of not working in a single, unitary logical or coherent manner. From now on as well, I think that my ability to live honestly and simply has been used up.
If you were to ask what my path is from here, it is a question of how to do a good job in painting new things. If I were to continue doing that until I die, I would always keep in mind these dragon paintings, which represent I who is of this world.
Takahashi: Mr. Koizumi, who paints mountains, valleys, water, sky, and dragons, pours into his paintings the energy that fills the space between heaven and earth.
And now, Mr. Koizumi is planning a new challenge: creating fusuma (sliding door) paintings for the Tôdaiji in Nara. There are almost sixty fusuma in the temple. The ambitions of Nihonga painter Koizumi Junsaku are not used up yet.
Koizumi Junsaku’s new Nihonga world of veteran strength and energy is a legacy for the future, and a thousand years from now might be considered a great heritage.