Kei Hiraga was born in Tokyo in 1936, a time of great uncertainty as the threat of war had cast a dark cloud over the city. As a young boy, Hiraga dreamed of becoming a painter. He later went on to work at a tattoo parlour in Asakusa where he designed intricate tattoos for American occupational soldiers. Asakusa, also known as Hanamachi, was a place for the hedonists, woman-seekers, hunters of sensual pleasures in old Japan; the wild cast of characters Hiraga must have encountered play a large role in the artist’s body of work throughout his career.
Hiraga was inspired by the architecture of the affordable housing that saw a surge in Tokyo after the war. This disorienting growth is perhaps hinted at in his 1967 work Dizziness City (Lot 258). Around this time, Hiraga often divided his canvas into windows, similar to the uniform windows of these new buildings that were splayed across the city; these portals provided openings for curious urban spectators to peer into the lives of those around them. Les Fenêtres (Lot 127) is a fine example of this theme in Hiraga’s work. The same underlying thread of voyeurism can be also be seen in American director Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 mystery thriller “Rear Window.” The film, considered to be one of Hitchcock’s best, is a story about spectacle and explores the human fascination of watching others undetected. The plot follows Jeff, a photographer who is confined to his apartment after breaking his leg, as he watches his neighbors through a rear window in his apartment and ruminates upon their comings and goings with morbid curiosity. Similarly in Les Fenêtres, Hiraga lends viewers the same pleasure, allowing them to peer in on the four vignettes which zoom in on figures engaged in intimate moments, as if we too are like Jeff spying on our neighbors through binoculars.
Hiraga’s passion for bright colours bloomed in Paris, where he spent a year studying after receiving the prestigious Shell prize in 1963, the catalyst which allowed him to garner international attention. Hiraga’s exploration of colour highlights the lively nature of the city with a focus on the raunchy society of Pigalle, a neighbourhood notorious for the world-famous cabaret Moulin Rouge. Mirage Amour Hiraga (Lot 257) depicts a grouping of figures, including Hiraga himself, perhaps at play in this district.
Hiraga followed a unique approach to painting; he would craft very thick layers of oil paint atop his canvases that resembled the texture of shikkui plaster, a Japanese lime-based material used for hundreds of years in houses, temples and castles. During his time in Paris, Hiraga actually imported a specific “foundation white” paint to Paris to create his grotesque-like surfaces. In the early 1970s Hiraga switched from using oil to acrylic paint, largely due to his preferred oil paint producer filing for bankrupcy. With the change in medium, his style became more figurative and realistic. Daikoku-ya Snow Landscape and A Man Blowing Flowers (Lot 259) are representative of this later period of Hiraga’s works. Both paintings in Lot 259 depict intensely erotic scenes of elusive, doll-like geishas in the midst of their nightly affairs. They are depicted with white foundation applied from their faces down to their bosoms— a vivid, titillating memory which perhaps Hiraga recalled from his younger years in Asakusa. This theme of human desire remains constant in his body of work. Throughout his career, until his death in 2000, Hiraga maintained his focus on utopian erotism. Currently his works are included in important collections throughout Japan and internationally, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Museum of Art in Osaka, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, among many more.