Fuyuko Matsui, Keeping Up the Pureness, 2004, pulverized stone powder on silk, wooden scroll, 11 5/8 x 31 1/4".

Fuyuko Matsui, Keeping Up the Pureness, 2004, pulverized stone powder on silk, wooden scroll, 11 5/8 x 31 1/4".

Fuyuko Matsui

Yokohama Museum of Art

Fuyuko Matsui, Keeping Up the Pureness, 2004, pulverized stone powder on silk, wooden scroll, 11 5/8 x 31 1/4".

With more than one hundred paintings and drawings, Fuyuko Matsui’s solo exhibition “Becoming Friends with All the Children in the World” demonstrated a unique vision that embraces death and the dissolution of identity as a means of inspiring passion for life. The paintings are mostly done in the traditional Nihonga style, with powdered mineral pigments on silk, and Matsui succeeds in showing that this eclectic genre of painting—which was established in the late nineteenth century and amalgamates various classical Japanese and Chinese techniques while accepting Western models of realistic imitation—can be a vehicle for the expression of contemporary feeling in an age of deep anxiety and distress.

Since her professional debut in 2005 at Gallery Naruyama in Tokyo and her participation in a 2006 group show in Yokohama, Matsui has attracted public attention for what many viewers feel to be her violent and grotesque imagery (which is unusual for Nihonga). For instance, Keeping Up the Pureness, 2004, from the “Kuso-zu” (Nine Aspects of Decomposition) series, 2004–11, shows a naked woman lying in a field of flowers with her belly cut open to display her organs and the inside of her womb, but wearing a beatific smile, while Insane Woman Under the Cherry Tree, 2005, depicts a figure in a traditional kimono vomiting out her innards. Some regarded such pictures as a feminist protest against depictions of women as innocent victims or irrational beings prone to madness. But Matsui’s main interest, she has written, was the “visual transmission of the physical and spiritual pain, in order to awaken people into the immediate sensation of life.” This attitude found a full and systematic expression in Matsui’s recent exhibition. The artist (working with Sae Yatsuyanagi, a curator at the Yokohama Museum of Art) categorized her paintings under nine rubrics representing recurrent themes, including “Passivity and Suicide,” “Ghosts,” and “Dissection.” The paintings amount to a visual lexicon of abjection—defined by Julia Kristeva as the physical and psychic state resisting rational differentiation, which nevertheless nurtures unfettered imagination—by presenting people, animals, and plants in ambiguous states between form and formlessness, suggesting the loss of identity and multiple identities simultaneously. A large chrysanthemum blossom on the verge of disintegration can evoke a devoured chicken (Transformation, 2008), while the scalelike overlapping contours of accumulating trees loom like thick fog (Continuous Failures in the Collision of Fragments, 2007).

Matsui’s investigations of anatomy exemplify her unique philosophy. The “Anatomy Chart” series, 2007–, for instance, includes realistic depictions of body parts such as the tympanic membrane, cervical vertebrae, and the heart, but frequently with metallic clips replacing damaged sections, emphasizing their potential to survive injury despite their fragility. The “Kuso-zu” series, based on twelfth-century Japanese drawings depicting advancing stages of death as proof of human frailty, places the woman’s body in a cosmic cycle of decomposition and composition by juxtaposing it with new pictures of a skeleton inhabited by a snake (Joining the Conversation, 2011) and a skull with a spinal column (Unification of the Four Limbs, 2011). The inclusion of dissected flowers in some of the “Anatomy Chart” paintings, emphasizing the analogy between petals and innards, branches and veins, ensures the primitive tie with other living things suggested by human organs. Matsui’s works, without romanticizing cruelty, confront the spectator with the sobering fact that life contains death, yet affirm the potential for survival and regeneration, even in organisms that seem near extinction.

Midori Matsui