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Beyond the Clouds: The Works of Jun Azumatei
Motoaki Hori, Chief Curator, Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery

A series of Jun Azumatei's works that contains depictions of clouds reminded me of Seiki Kuroda's series of six paintings, Clouds (1913). The Clouds series that is in the collection of the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Tokyo, consists solely of clouds that float in the sky. Kuroda portrayed distinct formal features of clouds that can be seen in cumulus, cirrus, altocumulus, and cirrostratus clouds. Each work was done on a board twenty-six centimeters in height and thirty-four centimeters in width. Though he sketched all of them outdoors, there probably were some differences in the time and days that they were created; in one work, for example, the clouds are tinged with red by the setting sun. Kuroda is called the father of modern Japanese Western-style painting, and is known to have made great efforts to transplant orthodox themes and forms from Western paintings to Japan. It is interesting in that he also aspired to visually record the ever-changing states of nature through oil-painting techniques. This can be easily surmised from viewing Clouds, as well as from another series of six works he created a year later entitled Sakurajima Erupting (1914, Kagoshima City Museum of Art), in which he depicted the varying eruptive states of the Sakurajima Volcano.

In comparison to Kuroda's works that convey an impression of looking at an illustrated book of clouds, the clouds that Azumatei depicts all lightly drape across the sky with little change in form. If we were to only focus on the variety of cloud types, it would be quite obvious that the clouds in Kuroda's series are much richer in their changes than in Azumatei's works. In his production process, Azumatei utilizes photos and digital images of the sky and clouds. Even though he uses such technologies, one would be at a loss if asked the question, “Which of the two artists create the more realistic works?” In actuality, Kuroda undoubtedly displays a stronger reproductive expression via the medium of oil painting, while also vividly depicting the subjects in his works.

In his production method, Azumatei takes the photo or digital image that he has captured and repeats a process of applying layers of paint and then polishing the surface, as if he were infiltrating paint into the surface. This allows the painting to possess a unique surface texture that carries a sense of luster. One of the major elements in Azumatei's works is the series of blurs that is accidentally created on the plane through his application of layers of paint. As he polishes the work over time, the blurs change their expressions from day to day, never manifesting the same forms. During this process, Azumatei superimposes the transforming work with the actual kaleidoscopic atmosphere. From his own memories and from the changing appearance of the sky, he perceives the same sense of breathing, sense of warmth, and pulsations as human beings; he is able to harmonize those sensations and sublimate them into a single work. That is why despite his use of photos, Azumatei's works take on similar expressions as abstract paintings, instead of examples of Photorealism.

Another element I would like to point out is the orientation or the angle of his vision in creating his works. This again can easily be understood by comparing Azumatei's works with Kuroda's. Differing from Kuroda's Clouds series that was painted from an upward angle, most of Azumatei's works were created with a horizontal orientation. Due to this angle, houses and streets often appear in his works. Generally speaking, the reasons why the sky looks blue and sunsets look red can be explained by differences in the wavelength distribution of sunlight and the thickness of the atmospheric layers. A horizontal orientation receives a stronger influence from a thicker atmospheric layer than from an upward visual angle. Therefore, in Azumatei's works, the horizontal orientation has a great effect in conveying the sense of an overcast sky. Before turning to his series of clouds, Azumatei used to focus on portraying the human body. The underlying reason for his drastic shift to producing “landscape paintings” was that at the time he lived in London, he came to realize the differences in the climate between England and Japan, such as through actually feeling the differences in humidity. As has already become evident, Azumatei's interest does not lie in the formal features of clouds. He ventures to focus on clouds that hang low as they drift across the sky, instead of clouds that float about in the vast sky. What can be evidently perceived from his works is the sense of aimlessly wandering clouds, rather than a sense of freely floating clouds. However, that sense of aimless, wandering clouds undeniably reflects our present-day situations. It might sound paradoxical, but in Azumatei's works, there is definitely ‘something’ that exists and dwells beyond the draping clouds. The meaning of creating paintings to Jun Azumatei lies in strictly revealing his desire to formalize and to actually convey that uncertain ‘something.’

Translated by Taeko Nanpei

雲の彼方に 東亭順の作品
堀 元彰(東京オペラシティアートギャラリー・チーフキュレーター)