KEY HIRAGA (Japanese, 1936-2000)
KEY HIRAGA (Japanese, 1936-2000)

The Elegant Life of Mr. H

KEY HIRAGA (Japanese, 1936-2000)
The Elegant Life of Mr. H
oil on canvas
162.3 X 130.6 cm. (63 7/8 x 51 3/8 in.)
Painted in 1968-1969
Private Collection, Asia
Sao Paulo, Brazil, 10th Sao Paulo Biennial, 1969.

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Lot Essay

In the decades following World War II, contemporary art throughout Asia went through a radical reorientation towards new techniques and international practices, appropriated to address local, historical and personal concerns. These decades also witnessed the advent of international biennales and traveling state-sponsored exhibitions, which further spurred contact between disparate regions and different kinds of avant-garde practice. Key Hiraga was one of Japan's central figures who both benefited from these influences and was instrumental in promoting a distinct new mode of contemporary Japanese art.

Born in 1936 and educated in economics, once Hiraga gained his father's approval in the late 1950s to pursue an artistic career, Hiraga threw himself into artistic pursuits, almost immediately receiving awards and national recognition. He won the third prize at the Shell Art World Exhibition in 1963; in 1964 he took the New Artist Prize at the 38th National Exhibition at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum. That same year, he also won a prize and grant that offered him to study in Paris, where he would ultimately stay for nearly a decade.

The Paris years marked a stunning transformation in his practice. Hiraga's earliest works were marked by the influence of Art Informel and Jean Dubuffet (Fig. 1), and the predominant interest among his contemporaries in the Japanese avant-garde towards reinventing the language of painting, pursuing themes and forms that reflected the mood of introspection and reconstruction of post-War Japan, as with Kazuo Shiraga's radical approach to abstraction (Fig. 2). The surfaces of Hiraga's canvases were complex, densely layered, and heavily worked; his compositions were flat and bodies and body parts are presented as raw and crudely-drawn forms. At the same time, he was already demonstrating the sexual and surrealistic flourishes that would come to distinguish the next phase of his career.

When asked of his first impression of Paris, Hiraga famously responded, "It was a culture shock." This would seem to be a minor understatement. By the mid-1960s, Paris would have been already in the throes of 1960s sexual liberation, a world of mini-skirts and rock n' roll, bristling with emergent of counter-culture movements. It was not long before Hiraga's palette exploded in colour, rich with a mix of voyeuristic and anxious surrealism, a world lead by his alter-ego protagonist, the oversexed, bowler hat-wearing Mr. H.

In The Elegant Life of Mr. H, painted over 1968-69, Hiraga presents a large-scale canvas, divided into several distinctly framed but visually-linked compartments. Mr H. appears throughout, alone or in acrobatically improbable states of sexual coupling. In one window, his eyes might be split in different directions, while his multiplied arms grapple with a loose bikini top and a turquoise condom. In another, his attention (and body parts) may be divided between one compartment and a grasping interest in the adjacent. In yet another, he might appear alone, in a dizzying combination of colour and form, his bowler hat transformed into a single exposed female breast. Hiraga's humour is relentlessly articulated in his attention to every detail, which we find in the initial impact of the canvas, but further discover in the discrete flourishes of attention and technique that he brings to every detail, from the displacement of the mouth to the location of an eye, the high-heeled orange shoes that are worn by a female in one frame and by Mr. H by another even as he seems to be stepping from one frame to the next.

Comic-graphic depictions of explicit or implicitly sexualised subjects were not uncommon in the 1960s in both fine art and popular culture, with artists like John Wesley (Fig. 4) and Tom Wesselmann (Fig. 5) exploring the image of the female nude, the centerfold, and sexuality as central aspects of either individual fantasy or of the collective consciousness. While Hiraga was certainly part of this zeitgeist, the shifty eyes, as well as his doubled and fragmented body parts bring a distinct feeling of anxiety to his works, preventing the visual consumption of these images from being a simply unproblematically voyeuristic. Instead they are disjointed and full of anxiety, and his notion of the body as something crude and comic sets him apart from his contemporaries. More than that, while it has been suggested that his compartmentalized frame-within-a-frame style has its roots into the windows of his view of a neighboring apartment building, the repetition of the same figure and forms suggest instead a temporal multiplicity and the "floating world" life of ukiyo-e Japanese woodblock prints.

Forms and colours repeat and are transformed in a riot of colour and orgiastic activity, but Hiraga's chaos is fully in control, as his distinct palette, stripes, wriggling sperm and exaggerated phalluses at once unite the disparate compartments and heighten the viewers' sense of simultaneity and multiplicity. From his interest in Art Informel, the exploration of the body, the abject, and unconscious urges, to embrace of almost psychedelic, surrealistic palette, and exploration of temporal multiplicity, Hiraga produced a deceptively playful but conceptually and artistically distinct body of work that is unlike anything produced in Post-War pop art, East or West.

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