Meditative Landscapes that Speak to the Heart

Working on a painting in his studio at home. Hirakawa claims that each new day still brings fresh challenges. (Photos by Naruaki Onishi)

Toshio Hirakawa Born in 1924 in Kozakai-cho, Hoi-gun, Aichi Prefecture. Was fond of drawing from an early age, making ink paintings on paper sliding doors at home. At age 16 became an apprentice of a Kyoto-based kimono design artisan, from whom he learned by basics of nihonga. Had a work selected for a national art competition for the first time in 1950. Has since been an innovator in Japanese-style paintings and is one of the leading nihonga artists today.

Interviewer: Mr. Hirakawa, you've been referred to as the "great transforming artist." You've made strides in creating distinctive nihonga (Japanese-style paintings) that appeal to a worldwide audience, and in doing so you've continually experimented with new methods and approaches. Your first major group of paintings was the "tree series." How did you come upon the idea of painting trees?

Toshio Hirakawa: It was in 1960, when I was 36 years old, that I began painting trees. A year earlier, a large typhoon devastated parts of the Chubu region, and chunks of the shore along the Atsumi Peninsula were eaten away. I went to the peninsula with the intention of sketching the exposed rocks, but I was struck by what I saw before I reached the beach. A grove of trees in a shrine were completely stripped of their bark, and they stood exposed to the sea breeze like bleached skeletons. I thought this would make a good subject for a painting and approached the grove. As I got close I was startled to see new buds growing from what appeared to be lifeless branches. These trees were alive! I was overwhelmed by the incredible vitality of nature. From then on trees became a principal subject of my paintings, and I visited many virgin forests and renowned ancient trees around the country.

Interviewer: You also traveled to Europe about a year later. What impression did this visit make on you? Hirakawa: It was short stay of about a month, but this, too, was an eye-opening experience. I originally intended to make a leisurely tour of Europe, painting landscapes as I went along. I was riveted, though, by what I saw in the tiny villages I passed through, and realized I couldn't afford to dawdle. This feeling grew more intense with each Romanesque church I encountered.
 These churches weren't built by local men of wealth and power. They were crystallizations of a faith firmly rooted in each community. I realized then the importance of one's ties to a particular locality. I vowed to take a renewed look at where I was born and raised and create paintings that were based on my personal ties with the land. I have thus remained outside of Tokyo and have made the beautiful natural surroundings of the Mikawa district (eastern Aichi) my home. This is the land where my ancestors have lived for over 600 years, and this is where I have based my efforts to rediscover and reevaluate my country. Interviewer: You soon gained critical acclaim both domestically and overseas as a master painter of trees. But from around 1971, you also began painting pagodas. Why was this?

Hirakawa: A tree that has lived for a thousand years has a thousand years' worth of stories to tell. One day a temple carpenter told me that the trees used as pillars in pagodas do not die; they keep on living. A pagoda, he said, was the incarnation of a giant tree. And the notion struck me; a pagoda itself was a sacred tree. Since this awakening, I've been occupied with expressing the dialogue between trees and human beings. Interviewer: About 10 years later, you come to another major turning point in your career, when you started making ink paintings. What prompted you to discard color?

Hirakawa: The pigments for nihonga became very sophisticated, and it became possible to produce highly realistic hues. In fact, the colors in nihonga came to resemble those in Western oil paintings. But I chose to resist this trend and go for less, rather than more, color. Before I went completely monochrome I made a conscious choice to use vermillion and verdigris, which are used in ancient Chinese paintings. From there I began relying less and less on color until I finally reached the "ultimate" destination. Interviewer: Your ink paintings, though, have a completely different feel to them from traditional paintings with ink.

Hirakawa: That may have to do with my heavy reliance on a technique called shironuki that calls for leaving large areas of the canvas white. My ink paintings are really more about white space than about ink. The white I'm seeking is a powerful, naked, unpainted white. Interviewer: Many of your earlier paintings, like those of burning trees, are dynamic and passionate. Your recent landscapes rendered with ink, however, are quiet and meditative.

Hirakawa: I don't think I've reached the end of the road just yet. It's been over 10 years since I began drawing with ink, but it's still a process of trial and error. I don't want to get stuck in any one phase. To move ahead, to make progress, I'm still struggling with my paintings every day.