This essay was written by Makoto Fujimura to accompany the CIVA Traveling Exhibition, Beauty Given by Grace: The Biblical Prints of Sadao Watanabe, which is now retired.
In the fall of 1987, I arrived in Japan with a Japanese governmental scholarship to study, as an American, the traditional art form of nihonga (Japanese-style painting). Although born in Boston, I spent my grade school years in Kamakura, Japan, and I had not been back since my elementary school graduation. I walked about the Ueno Shitamachi area of Tokyo, near Tokyo University of the Arts, noting the ginkgo trees whose yellow leaves seemed iridescent under the blue autumn skies.
In the university library, where I spent a considerable amount of time studying the ancient art forms of Japan, I came across several books on Sadao Watanabe. His works seemed rather familiar to me yet I could not recall where I had seen them. His colors overlapped with those of autumn in Japan and I found myself attracted toward his idiosyncratic expressions of biblical themes. Watanabe’s color choices began to bleed in and out of my walks to and from my studio at school.
Several years later, as a masters of fine arts student at Tokyo University of the Arts, I would, as a new person of faith, attend the student Christian fellowship at Waseda University. Even though I was still completing my degrees as a governmental scholar, I became involved with and devotedly attended this student ministry, desiring to understand my newfound faith and gain some missional direction for my life. What I did not realize, and what no one told me, was that Sadao Watanabe lived but a few streets away from Waseda University.
Wanatabe’s prints lead both a familiar and isolated existence, both publicly known and a novelty of sorts, navigating among the world of mingei (folk art), the Bible, and art. The more I know about Watanabe, the more I see overlaps between my artistic journey and his, and the more I wish I had met him. Yet, I also sense that in the journey of art and faith in which I felt so isolated and alone—the fact that Watanabe and I never did meet—is also symbolic of our times. What makes Sadao Watanabe’s works so irresistible is the proximity of his visual language to the vernacular even as it is insulated from the adjacent worlds of contemporary art and nihonga.
In our age the context of cultural production is utterly fragmented. I was an artist of faith living and studying in Japan, but these two spheres were separated and rarely met. I studied art at a secular school and received spiritual instruction at a para-church student ministry and from neither side was there an effort to connect the two; besides, efforts for synthesis would have had to remain hidden as a subtext of education or discipleship. Several years ago, while studying the work of the Italian Renaissance artist Fra Angelico at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, it occurred to me that in his day a painter like Fra Angelico who aspired to be trained both in art and in faith would have been apprenticed. Today, a young gifted person of faith must select a “Christian” pursuit to fit into faith, and as many have observed, it seems as if religion and art are unable to coexist.
To add to the complexity of Watanabe’s art, it is irrefutably Japanese with its use of the visual iconography of mingei, its woodcuts, and its distinctive materials. If modernism and postmodernism categorize in order to fragment, then Watanabe’s work falls in between the cracks of these artificial categories. Typically, this would make the artist almost impossible to market, but in Watanabe’s case, he seems to have created an economic “ecosystem” that made his venture sustainable. Likewise, I too would choose a path that enabled me to navigate the territory between contemporary art, nihonga, and the world of faith-art, all the while not entirely fitting any of those genres.
As with Georges Rouault (whose paintings are most welcomed in Japan), Watanabe’s works refuse to be categorized and yet pave unique paths for future artists. In this sense, both Rouault and Watanabe are “trans-modern” artists. At first, their work seems to be isolated from the art world vernacular; however, on closer examination their visual language generously feeds into the creative present and the future. Thus, this visual language of both Rouault and Watanabe is generative: a feast to the eye and edifying to the spirit, a reserved pocket of synthesis in our fragmented, dissolute times. These visual languages serve as a foundation for future artists who must set out on their own journey and along the way birth new forms of expression, even if they are not persons of faith.
Watanabe is not unique in this trans-modern synthesis of tradition and innovation. Japan has produced notable examples of those who have refused to fit into a genre and created their own distinctive paths. Artists like Shiko Munakata, Toshio Arimoto, and even my mentor Matazo Kayama all paved distinct expressions dealing with this synthesis in the twentieth century; there is also Hiroshi Senju and Takashi Murakami, both of whom I befriended while at Tokyo University of the Arts. For all the above twentieth-century examples, explicit or implicit faith plays a key role in their art, with Kayama sensei (teacher) being the most “secular.” However, I know personally how much Kayama sensei also understood the inherently spiritual nature of his work. All these artists endeavored to create an authentic, holistic vision for their being through their art. I am grateful for them, and alongside my particular affinity for Watanabe’s prints, I also pay homage to them.
By bringing together so many fine examples of Watanabe’s art for a North American audience, Beauty Given by Grace: The Biblical Prints of Sadao Watanabe is an opportunity to consider the generous affections that Watanabe’s art encourages in the viewer, as well as the legacy that he has left for future generations of artists. I, for one, need to let his colors bleed into my journey, to see the expansive vista offered by an artist I never met.
Makoto Fujimura is an artist, writer, and speaker who is recognized worldwide as a cultural shaper. A Presidential appointee to the National Council on the Arts from 2003-2009, Fujimura served as an international advocate for the arts, speaking with decision makers and advising governmental policies on the arts. Mako is a long time CIVA Member and evangelist, and the founder of IAM and Fujimura Institute.