AN ARTIST IN PARIS: KUMI SUGAI
From his earliest exhibitions in Paris in the 1950s, Kumi Sugai was recognised as one of the major artists of his generation. He was born in Hyogo in 1919 and grew up in Osaka. Aged 8, his parents recognised his talent for painting and gave him an oil painting set the following year. After studying at Osaka School of Fine Arts, he joined the Hankyu Railway in 1937 and designed a number of posters in the advertising department, however painting remained his real interest.
Over his lifetime Sugai’s painting underwent profound changes. Although he had experimented with oil painting at an early age, he began to hesitate between traditional Japanese painting (nihonga) and Western art. In order to explore this uncertainty in around 1947 he started to study nihonga under the traditional master Teii Nakamura (1900-1982). However within a year, he came to the conclusion that it was meaningless to differentiate nihonga from yoga (Western-style painting), and ceased his nihonga studies.
In 1948, Sugai met Jiro Yoshihara (1905-1972) and as a result of his advice attempted to achieve a new painting style that is a fusion of Japanese-style fine texture and Western avant-garde expressionism, however his early works were not highly appreciated in Japan. Disappointed with the muted reaction and in search of a new beginning, he decided to move to Paris in 1952. The lively international Paris art scene welcomed Sugai and in October 1953 he had signed a meagre contract with the dealer John Craven and a one-man exhibition at Galerie Craven was held six months later, sealing his destiny.
During 1950s Sugai created instinctive paintings with subjects derived from Japanese folklore – an anguished and wintery bestiary such as The Bird, 1954 (Private collection, Paris) and The Devil, 1955 in the collection of The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, (go to: http:/search.artmuseums.go.jp/search_e/records.php?sakuhin=11226), but also works of a similar nature with a human element, as represented by Okina (Old Man), 1956 (lot 7).
From the late 1950s to the early 1960s his work became increasingly non-representational and developed bolder lines and brushwork which can be associated with Japanese calligraphy. In addition the motifs were further simplified in the manner of a code or symbol. Ame (Rain), 1959 (lot 5) and Kaze (Wind), 1959 (lot 57) are from this period and the character for rain or wind has been distorted into bold, coded shapes. In 1960, he held his first solo exhibition at Städtisches Museum Leverkusen, Schloss Morsbroich, Germany.
In 1960 he moved to the South side of Paris and acquired a Porsche car, which had a significant influence on his later work. From this point his style became focussed on the creation of form with a strong visual presence. Whilst the composition of his previous work had been somewhat outward, in the early 1960s his work became inward and concentrated, creating an energy in the centre of the canvas. As illustrated by Diable Violet, 1962 (lot 6) and Chambre du Diable, 1963 (lot 4), the central vertical lines are compressed by the surrounding, strong, bold lines, creating a kind of claustrophobia and charged tension one might associate with a devil or demon.
From around the mid-1960s, his work entered another significant phase with a dramatic change in style. These works were composed of clearly defined and rational forms with flat use of colour. Deeply inspired by a tension he felt driving his Porsche at high speed on the motorway, he expressed “dynamic tension” in his work, as opposed to the “static tension” of his previous work. His simplified, bright-colour paintings are clear and straightforward, just like the road signs that are instantly recognisable from a distance to give essential guidance. Works such as 7 Seconds Avant, 1968 (lot 10) and Parking dans Forêt au Soleil, 1966 (lot 9) express a charged tension of travelling at high-speed along the motorway, followed by the warm glow of the sun on the forest once one has parked up at the end of the journey.
In 1967, he was badly injured in an accident in his Porsche and the after effects lasted for years. However he continued to produce the work associated with the motorway and even purchased a new Porsche car with even higher functionality the following year.
From around 1970, the composition of his works became even simpler. Precise circles and straight lines occupied him. His elimination of excess and what he felt was superfluous to requirement also affected his lifestyle which has been described as ascetic. He was known to have followed the same routine every day for more than 20 years without deviation; coffee and cheese for breakfast, spaghetti or a sandwich for lunch, and an exact portion of beef steak for dinner, so as not to waste time and energy on thinking what to eat each day.
From 1987 to 1991 Sugai produced work with stylised “S” characters. “S” was the initial of Sugai and to him also symbolised the curves of a motorway. He returned Japan in 1996 and passed away in Kobe the same year.