CHIYU UEMAE (JAPAN, 1920-2018)
CHIYU UEMAE (JAPAN, 1920-2018)


CHIYU UEMAE (JAPAN, 1920-2018)
signed and inscribed in Japanese, dated ‘1970 1985’ (on the reverse); signed and inscribed ‘202 x 139 202 x 139’ (on the stretcher)
oil on canvas
202 x 139 cm. (79 1/2 x 54 3/4 in.)
Painted in 1970; retouched in 1985 by the artist
Private Collection, Asia
B.B. Plaza Museum, Over the Sotsuju - The Painting Journey of Chiyu Uemae, Kobe, Japan, 2012 (plate 17, illustrated, p. 20).
Kobe, Japan, B.B. Plaza Museum of Art, Over the Sotsuju - The Painting Journey of Chiyu Uemae, 3 November - 24 December 2012 & 5 January - 17 February 2013.

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Kimmy Lau
Kimmy Lau

Lot Essay


Tens of thousands of strokes cover the surface of this monumental Untitled (Lot 44) work by Chiyu Uemae, yet, as one spends time travelling across the canvas, whether up-close or from afar, one reaches a sense of precise movement. Each stroke then stands out individually to reveal colour and volume, where the alternating layers of nuanced blacks and yellows unveil new tones, almost bringing a golden touch to the surface. The meticulous work brought to every stroke’s length and direction does not go unnoticed as the viewer feels himself travelling through the movement of the painting, first guided in one way then led to another area of the canvas. A complex visual effect is thus carefully created by the various directions brushstrokes seem to take, while at the shorter strokes simultaneously form lines to guide the viewer in specific directions.

The strength of the painting also lies in the scarce individual specks of brighter light, yellows, greens, blues, oranges, reds and purples, bringing continuous pulse extending outside the rectangular frame of the canvas. The viewer is not facing a contained image but rather is perceiving a visual sensation of infinite flow as he enters into the world of Chiyu Uemae.

This work reveals Chiyu Uemae’s painting process, where each stroke has a purpose and uneven accumulation of layers of paint pressed onto the surface provide materiality, volume, and nuance, much like some of the works by Lee Krasner, who was intimately involved in the synthesis of abstract form and psychological content, which announced the advent of American Abstract Expressionism. The technique is reminiscent of Lee Ufan’s woodblock work From Notch, where he carved into the material to create a subtle visual effect of volume and depth his relationship between the artist’s cognitive and physical states within pictorial abstraction is very well described by Chiyu Uemae himself: “These ten fingers […] carve out images transmitted from my brain to my nerves using materials that have been chosen for me. These inscriptions are no longer just material substances, but rather eternal, indestructible grave markers in which the living breath of the artist and his time resides” (Chiyu Uemae, 1998).

The accumulation of infinite dots revealing an introspective image of the artist’s mind and body was most probably inspired by Uemae’s study of Nan-Ga artists (Chinese-inspired traditional Japanese painting developed in the Edo Period), in particular Ise Taiga’s Fishing in Spring time, where the artist uses dot-pattern brushstrokes to depict elements of his inner landscape, such as leaves, fields, mountains, and trees. The Impressionists, especially Van Gogh’s late works, also developed the idea of figurative images revealed by individual strokes to display the artist’s emotional charge.

In Chiyu Uemae’s painting, dots not only represent the artist’s unity with his work, but also display traces of living things.


“I have no choice but to work in order to feed myself. But my life will be saved by painting” (Chiyu Uemae, 1947)

Chiyu Uemae is an artist who has never thought of selling his work for a living, instead, he maintained a job, and painted for himself. Born in 1920 in extreme poverty in a village near Kyoto, Chiyu Uemae barely attended elementary school, and thus had no alternative but to work as a laborer. He started an apprenticeship as a dyer of Kyozome (Kyoto-style dyeing), where he first discovered patterns and abstraction. As a self-taught painter, he studied Nan-Ga painting during his teenage years. After the war, he was deeply inspired by a Kyoto exhibition of abstract painting thus marking a permanent shift in his work away from representational imagery. After being selected for the first exhibition at Nikikai in 1947, Uemae moved to Kobe, and tried developing large semi-figurative works, which were all rejected by Nikikai. In need of a new challenge, Uemae discovered in 1952 the work of avant-garde artist Yoshihara Jiro, whom he would accompany in the creation of the Gutai Art Association in 1954.

In the wake of an international post-war avantgardiste art scene, French art critic Michel Tapié, who unequivocally admired Uemae’s work, would contribute to rising artistic exchanges by visiting the United States and Japan several times. It was on such occasions as the 1958 “International Art of a New Era: Informel and Gutai” in Osaka, that Uemae’s work could exist and interact with Western works, in particular those of Yves Klein and Jean-Paul Riopelle. In fact, Untitled seeks a similar outreach to Riopelle’s work from the 1950s, where the treatment of matter was an essential part of the painting process, distributing an energy beyond the limits of painting through a play of intersecting vectors brought to light by colour.

On first impression, Chiyu Uemae stands out from his colleagues who represent the idea of the Gutai through impulsive, spontaneous and eccentric actions: while Saburo Murakami tears paper, Kazuo Shiraga paints with his feet, Shozo Shimamoto flings paint-filled bottles, and Atsuko Tanaka wears decorative dresses made of electric lights, Chizu Uemae will carefully and meticulously add up layers of colour and shape out dots to create a coherent and deep conversation with the artwork he is creating. Untitled is a beautiful example of Chiyu Uemae’s use of his own human experience as a labor-intensive worker and his personal intuition to guide his hand on the canvas so that he is able to join spirit and matter to create his own expression, epitomizing the essence of Gutai Art.

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