Mitsuru Watanabe, Childhood’s Borrowed Sceneries

MEMORY OF FOREST, NAOKO AND POTATO CHIPS. Photo: Artnet.com
MEMORY OF FOREST, NAOKO AND POTATO CHIPS. Photo: Artnet.com

Mitsuru Watanabe’s art is composed of different elements. It feeds in part on the style and landscapes of the famous French painter Henri Rousseau, who was one of the greatest representatives of Naif art. The works of Watanabe and Rousseau share a taste for poetic tone in their compositions. They also share a quest for the strange and a childlike sensibility. In both Watanabe’s and Rousseau’s styles, a primacy of fantasy over reality is evident and both styles go against the artistic movements of their respective times.

Mitsuru Watanabe was born in Japan in 1953, the youngest of four children. His mother was an important figure in his upbringing as she was a passionate painter and reader. The young Mitsuru entered the world of art at an early age, learned about drawing and painting techniques, and immersed himself in a wide variety of styles that would come to life in his future works.

The high school did not give him the opportunity to take art classes so he started to study on his own. He was always in touch with art and reading books on painting techniques. It can be said that his career as a professional artist began when he published an ad in an art magazine in the hope of attracting customers for his works.

Naoko Singing in Rousseau’s Forest, 2012 by Mitsuru Watanabe. Photo: REHS CONTEMPORARY GALLERIES, INC.

The beginning of the journey

All his efforts were not in vain, he made his first sale with a work that he sold to the painter Seiichiro Ban, who became one of his greatest friends. Seiichiro was impressed with Mitsuru’s work and invited him to Kyoto where he taught him everything he knew about the techniques of using oils, color adjustments, and brushes.

Mitsuru fondly remembers that time in his life when he left a job in a printing shop where he spent a few years, to devote himself full time to painting. He says that he spent some years paying the bills by betting on Mahjong and Pachinko Gye, a kind of Japanese pinball.

1975 was a year of great change in Mitsuru’s life. During this year he met and married his wife. Then both moved to Hachinohe, a city where they had a son and two daughters. At that time Mitsuru spent a lot of time reading in the library while taking care of his small children. He was inclined to read about the great philosophers, psychoanalysis, religion, anthropology, and contemporary criticism.

Ptolemaic Theory, 2016 by Mitsuru Watanabe. Photo: REHS CONTEMPORARY GALLERIES, INC.

Exploring childhood

Mitsuru needed to increase his income to support his family. That’s when he managed to organize his first solo exhibition in Hachinohe. This was a considerable success and allowed him to advertise his work in an art magazine, which led him to organize another larger and more important exhibition in the city of Ginza. It was there that Mitsuru’s career finally took off.

In his works, Mitsuru explores childhood, children’s imagination, and the fantastic by painting his daughters as part of them. Ptolemaic Theory from 2019 is a great example of Mitsuru’s exploration of children’s imagination. The title of this painting refers to an ancient Egyptian mathematician named Ptolemy. His theory was about a geocentric model of the universe where the planets orbited the earth.

The girl on this oil canvas is Naoko, one of Mitsuru’s two daughters, both appear in much of his work that mixes realism and surrealism. In this work, there is an elaborate overlap of cultural references. We see the lion and mandolin from The Sleeping Gypsy, a painting by Rousseau from 1897, and the footballer from a painting by Rousseau from 1908, repeated several times, flying around Naoko.

Naoko Walking in Rousseau’s Forest, 2019 by Mitsuru Watanabe. Photo: REHS CONTEMPORARY GALLERIES, INC.

Walking in Rousseau’s Forest

These footballers are as if orbiting around Naoko, she holds an index finger high as in the ancient Byzantine images of Christ, in a posture that suggests she is about to say something. Floating at the top of the play is an angel throwing a stream of hardened stars. This is the same angel in Liberty inviting artists, a painting by Rousseau from 1905.

Last year Mitsuru exhibited his paintings for the first time in the United States. This exhibition was held at the Rehs Contemporary Galleries in New York. This young painter strongly inspired by European masters such as Rousseau, Hieronymus Bosch, and Paul Delvaux works with the Borrowed scenery. The same occurs in the Japanese custom known as Shakkei, where an allusion is made within a poem to an older poem that would be generally recognized by its potential readers.

In Walking in Rousseau’s Forest, Mitsuru plays with some elements of the painting The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope. In the same painting, his daughter Naoko appears walking in the forest with a large blue lotus flower in one hand, a Hello Kitty bag hanging over her shoulder, and a video camera on the other hand. Naoko seems to capture the viewer and everything that happens in the scene with her camera.

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