I gradually found out how enjoyable it is to paint Paris, and I didn’t want to go out in the suburbs anymore. I just wanted to paint the city.

(Yuzo Saeki from “Saeki Yūzō as a Cityscape Artist” by Yukiko Takayanagi (“Saeki Yuzo Emerging from the Urban Landscape” catalogue)

The romance between Japanese and European art has been a mutual love affair since the 19th century. When the Meiji Restoration period put an end to almost 200 years of rigorous Japanese isolation, Japanese artists flung the gates wide open and began to explore European painting. Above all, Paris was the ultimate destination to learn and develop artistic skills. Who could blame them? The city of lights beamed with exotic architecture, picturesque parks and gardens, mysterious alleys of bars and cafés, and bustling cultural life that never uttered one spiritless day.

Yuzo Saeki was one artist who found his undying passion in Paris. Born in Osaka in 1898, and graduated from the Tokyo School of Fine Arts, at the age of 25, he soon left for Paris and attended the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. His friend, Japanese painter Satomi Katsuzo introduced him to the Fauvist painter, anarchist and journalist Maurice de Vlaminck, who strongly criticized Saeki’s work as “academic.” These jarring comments drove Saeki to restudy his technique. He began to follow the works of Maurice Utrillo and Vincent Van Gogh, both of whom became his most inspirational masters. In 1925, two of his works were accepted by the Salon d’Automne.

Tokyo Station Gallery in Tokyo is featuring more than 100 selected masterpieces of Yuzo Saeki from the Nakanoshima Museum of Art, Osaka, other museums and private collectors. “Saeki Yuzo: Emerging from the Urban Landscape” runs until April 2nd and marks the artist’s first retrospective exhibition in Tokyo in eighteen years. Notably, Tokyo Station Gallery was built in 1914, utilizing structural bricks originating from the same era of Saeki’s life. The parallel timeline makes the exhibition and venue a striking match, particularly owing to Saeki’s love for stone buildings and construction walls.

The prologue of the exhibition opens with Saeki’s many self-portraits. They are generally plain, without any decor, view or furniture in the background. He gazes straight ahead, with a fairly grim outlook, clouded by deep shadows, as though haunted by close relatives and acquaintances he lost in Japan. After moving to Paris, the aura of his portraits seemed to have altered; incorporating more light and colour. Saeki painted Standing Self-Portrait (1924) after he met Vlaminck. A product of his attempt to surmount the French artist’s unsatisfactory remarks about his painting style. Part of the face has been scraped off, camouflaging the expression. He stands in the middle of the road, holding a brush and palette as if lost in his feeling of confusion. In the latter years, Saeki gradually turned away from portraying himself and instead, sought the surrounding landscapes.

Two known events prompted the artist to concentrate on urban landscapes. One was around 1924 when he moved from the southwestern suburb of Paris, Clamart to the 15th arrondissement in the city center after he met Vlaminck. The other event rose from his exposure to Utrillo’s cityscape works, which filled him with poetic imagination. He remarked:

I’m completely taken with Utrillo…I’d like to paint ancient Paris and bring it back to Japan.

(“Saeki Yūzō as a cityscape Artist” by Yukiko Takayanagi, “Saeki Yuzo Emerging from the Urban Landscape” catalogue)

Abruptly changing his style into more vibrant forms of expression, culminating colours, perspectives, and textures, Saeki sketched profusely around Paris’ streets and suburbs. His atelier in Rue du Chateau was swarmed with wine and food shops, inns, laundromats, and other local establishments that served as perfect subjects. Eventually, he turned to convey impressions of building exteriors, stone walls and pavements. Sometimes, one piece of work was dominated merely by a wall, yet the empty space around it revealed various types of people walking down the streets or visiting the shops. It was said that Saeki sometimes scratched the canvas to create his own texture.La Cordonnerie (Shoe-Repairer's Shop) (1925) is one of the artist’s prominent works exhibited at the Salon d’Automne. A brilliant disparity was achieved by the bold and dark letters of the shop sign painted over the white wall and the dim iron door emphasized with dark shadows.

When Saeki returned to Japan in 1926, he moved back to his atelier in Shimo-Ochiai in Tokyo. During his brief one-and-a-half-year sojourn in his home country, he focused on drawing residential neighbourhoods, particularly streets lined with traditional Japanese-style houses. Many of the roads were unpaved or under development. His composition approach showed similar patterns to the city scenes he painted in Paris. Saeki paid attention to the geographical features of Shimo-Ochiai, highlighting contrasts between high- and low-elevated areas and many hills. He explored varied angles, and upward or downward points of view, including those of hedges and trees. In View of Shimo-Ochiai (1926), he drew several electric poles with vertical and short horizontal lines in the air and slightly altered the way they stood so that the viewer’s eye would reach deeper down the road. The human figures in this painting are distinctly drawn in tall, narrow silhouettes, complimenting the height of the electric poles.

In Osaka, however, Saeki displayed interest in painting ships that were moored in the rivers. In Moored Ships (1926), one notices many shapes of masts and overlapping ropes, evoking major expressive elements to give the subject a conspicuous presence. Two hulls are visible on both sides of the central ship, but due to the lack of depth and the integration of the masts, it seems unclear which masts belong to which ship. Instead, the picture illustrates thin, straight lines forming several rays, triangles and trapezoids, suggesting a geometric configuration created on a two-dimensional frame.

Saeki returned to Paris in 1927 with an even more intense desire to paint the walls plastered with posters and advertisements, shops, alleys and city parks. The exhibition illustrates a wide array of Parisian sceneries, such as those of the Luxembourg Garden and the Paris Observatory which allure the viewer to the French capital. Saeki’s compositions depicted greater depth in Paris through sharply angled perspectives and energetic lines. The Restaurant (Hôtel du Marché) (1927) exemplifies these characteristics, with the shift of angles of tables and chairs and their relative distance from each other. The absence of people indicates the artist’s sole focal point on the café interior, signboards, and posters. Rhythmical and powerful lines appear to be dancing across the entire room.

In the final section of the exhibition, Postman (1928) is a striking portrait of a beguiling white bearded postman who delivered mail to the Saeki home. Saeki returned to Paris in 1928 from his twenty-day sketching trip to the small village of Villiers-sur-Morin. Inflicted with a respiratory infection, Saeki spent most of his last moments indoors painting portraits. The slanted upper torso of the postman sitting on a chair, his left and right legs in asymmetrical angles, and the outline of his face pronounce somewhat a tinge of darkness congruent to Saeki’s failing health in the weeks ahead. He died at the young age of 30. His unique aesthetic sense has left a trace of his inner world, struggles and deeply spiritual nature in his portraits as much as in his urban landscapes.