Sunday, 19 February 2017

the art of Kiyoshi Nakashima and the sadness of fleeting beauty



I have loved the work of Kiyoshi Nakashima for a long time. And have been aware of him for a long time as he is from the Saga prefecture of Japan, as are my family. However I know very little about him. I have one book about him but it's in Japanese and I can't read it! So last weekend, I asked my mum to help me read it (very grateful for her time).

I have struggled to find any English information online so I'd like to provide the little I can. I only found one, very angry article about him online which upset me and I will discuss it a little further down.

I want to start with the feelings I have long held. That his pictures capture the fleeting nature of nature itself. The ever changing beauty of the seasons, the countryside, the sky. And the fleeting nature of childhood.


His paintings depict dreamy or melancholy children, wandering through fields, lying in trees, waiting for buses. And the seasons change around them. I have always felt that the children are always sad. Perhaps because they are together but alone, with no adult to take care of them. Perhaps because this moment cannot last. Perhaps they are bored, not realising how quickly life can change. Perhaps this moment isn't real. Maybe the painting is nothing but a memory that we are clinging to.

Nevertheless, such beauty is real. I see it everywhere. I see it even though I live in a massive city. Nature is here even if you could blink and miss frames of magic.

It seemed clear to me that Nakashima loves nature and appreciates it deeply. 


Here is what my mum translated for me. I hope it is accurate but these words have been through two of us to get here so no promises I'm afraid. This is really more of a gist than a direct translation.

Nakashima's work is nostalgic, capturing a feeling familiar to all. He is inspired by memories of his hometown, Kyuragi. He now has a studio in Shimoda, by the mountains, near Tokyo. 

When I was young, I thought to live was enough. Then I began painting, to make sure I was actually living. Painting is a journey. If you go out and walk, even with no destination in mind, you will get somewhere. It is the same with painting. If you start painting, even with no destination in mind, you will create something.

Age 20-30

Painting wasn't my main work. Shimoda is a spa town and I worked digging spas. At night, once my housemates were sleeping, I would practice painting. During this period I had many jobs, met and parted from many people. I found beauty in everything, every opportunity.

Age 40

Hometown in the evening. Passage in the rain. Travels on white paper. If I can draw, I need nothing else. The paint takes me into my memories. Changing time, places, people can be caught. But I felt something was always missing. There was always a gap between painting and reality. Then one day I saw a woman weeping in front of my painting. I realised it had spoken to her, beyond just surface looking. I realised the power it could hold. I went back to my own painting and thought again.

Age 50-60

I was desperate to return to my hometown, so I did. Persimmons in the sunshine. Reflections in the water. The setting sun. These things moved me. The slow passage of time. I became absorbed in painting. After my father died, I left my hometown once again.

Both sea and sky were such a pure blue. I looked ahead like a young boy. I felt like the wind.


I'd really like more information! We didn't finish the whole book before I had to return to London but I definitely want to carry on. So please let me know if you'd be interested in another post with more from the book and I will share.

Now to the grey area.

The one article about Nakashima written in English that I found, dislikes his work, dismissing it as twee and commercial. What really angers the writer though is that he is aware of a little known fact which is that Nakashima was paid to illustrate pro-nuclear magazines for many years. Apparantly he doesn't publicise this, which implies shame. He has also referenced Fukushima multiple times in his recent work (which I've not really seen, I've not been back to Japan since 2011 which was the time of the Fukushima disaster and he isn't really known in the UK). The writer finds this extremely hypocritical (and calls him a weasel!), especially as Nakashima hasn't addressed this or made any apology. The writer obviously feels very passionate and certain.

I have to admit, I've not thought deeply about the nuclear debate prior to reading that article. It has been 7 or 8 years since I last discussed/researched the subject, and at that time (pre-Fukushima) I was really concerned with the environmental aspect. In many ways, nuclear power is cleaner than fossil fuel, although there is the waste to consider. That said, Japan being at risk from tsunamis and earthquakes - Fukushima has shown that the risks are high. I believe the chance of disaster is low but the potential scale of a disaster is high. As I understand it, the nuclear power industry and the government in Japan lulled the public into believing nuclear power was completely safe. This is perhaps where Nakashima comes in. His idyllic images promoting nuclear power.

I don't know how much impact these pro nuclear power magazines had, and I don't know the motives behind these magazines. Was it about money, pro nuclear no matter what in order to grow as a company? Was it all about money for Nakashima, did he sell his soul for something he didn't believe in? How many people were deceiving and how many were deceived? How many people were purposely negligient? How many truly believed the risks were low and that they could better protect the environment by producing energy in this way? Did Nakashima believe he was promoting nuclear power in order to better protect the nature he loves?

Does he owe an explanation? (Probably). Will it change what he has already done? Is it enough that he no longer illustrates pro nuclear magazines?

I don't know. I need plenty of information from several sources and plenty of time to think. And I'm finding it hard to locate the information I need. Both on nuclear power and on Nakashima. (Please point me if you know of any!)

That said, if Nakashima hasn't addressed the subject, we can't truly know his motives and how he feels now.

It's hard to admit a mistake. 

Maybe he is weak. Afraid. Naive?

I can't really comment on work that I haven't seen, but in light of his nuclear connections and lack of explanation, referring to Fukushima in vague terms in his work doesn't sound a sensitive idea. Could it be that he doesn't think a direct explanation is required and that his work speaks for itself? If this pro nuclear magazine is so powerful, it can be no secret that he illustrated it?

Sometimes I don't think the right answer is clear and only clarifies with hindsight. Or never, because we never see the road not taken.

Some things seem obviously wrong to me. But on this point I'm unsure.
There are still many people who are still pro nuclear. At the moment, I still consider it an option in environmental terms. But I think Japan is probably not the place for it, with the high risk of natural disasters and I think that resources would likely be better put into renewable energy sources. But again, I don't have a deep knowledge of politics, culture and power in Japan.


I'm reminded of the first Ishiguro book I ever read - An Artist of the Floating World. The unreliable narrator is a once respected artist, who painted patriotic propaganda during WW2. After Japan surrenders, he struggles to accept that he did wrong and that he needs to take responsibility for his actions.

I'm not implying that Nakashima has done anything as bad as this (I don't think you can compare WW2 and the debate on nuclear power), but I see echoes. 

It can be hard to separate art and artist and plenty has already been written on this subject so I'll just link this (Can the art be separate from the artist) and this, (How and why we separate the artist from the art).


The Nakashima book (which contains all the pictures I have photographed) that I own was bought in 2004, long before the disaster and long before he created work referencing it. For now, I will continue to love my book and my framed postcards and try to learn a bit more.

Do you ever struggle to absorb information and form an opinion as quickly as you'd like?




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