Nihonga master Matazo Kayama passed away about a month ago, and I wanted to pay homage to his legacy during my recent stay in Japan by visiting a special retrospective exhibit of his work in Tokyo. I studied under him during my graduate study years at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. When I heard of his passing, I began a painting called “Splendor” which will be exhibited this fall, in his memory.
Kayama-sensei began painting during the World War II years, eventually graduating from the same school I later attended. In countering his contemporaries’ trend of advocating the injection of western values into Nihonga, he instead took his inspiration from art in 17th century Japan, of the decorative screen tradition called Rimpa. His idiosyncratic works represent Japanese aesthetics today. He is arguably the most important Japanese artist of the twentieth century. As I was leaving Japan at Narita Airport, I paid tribute again, as there is an enormous public art commission there that Kayama-sensei completed, which greets travelers.
In a special exhibit dedicated to his honor at the Tokyo National Museum of Modern Art, I tracked his career from his early naturalistic works influenced by Bruegel to his later paintings directly quoting Rimpa screens. He was also known for combining nudes into exotic metallic patterns, works which hearken back to his childhood days in Kyoto, where he watched his father, a Nishijin master, design kimonos.
In Kayama’s memoir “Infinite Space,” he writes about gold and silver, which he calls “the third color”:
"To me, gold and silver is the most mysterious of all the materials.
Initially, I could not see the use of gold and silver in my works…I considered it, foolishly enough, pre-modern and inappropriate for our present time… So you might say, my view of gold and silver has changed drastically. Today, as I use considerable amount of gold, having mastered the material, I believe that such uses of traditional materials redefined my view of Nihonga. Uses of gold and silver, in both leaf and powder forms, allowed a development of my own Nihonga expression."
When he gathered us students to teach us how to use gold, he had one of his assistants bring a clear piece of glass. He then proceeded to glue the gold right onto the glass. Lifting the glass, he showed us that the most pure gold is nearly transparent, as it cast a bluish light and halo.
When I was working on my MFA thesis painting “Twin Rivers of Tamagawa,” I used the best gold possible (which meant more than one month’s stipend would go into a painting) and layered them four times on one of the corners. I chose gold as my symbol of The City of God, descending into our world, transforming earth and heaven as described in some Revelation passages in the Bible. He later selected this painting for the prestigious thesis purchase award, and me as his only doctorate student for that year.
Kayama sensei continues in his essay:
"The weight of gold and silver will capture even the passage of time herself. So one could find, within the visual space created by gold and silver, a moment of eternity."
Intensely focused on Japanese tradition, Kayama-sensei was once asked what he thought of the works that he saw in the US during his only exhibit in New York, compared to Nihonga. He answered, I am sure, with a bit of the gentle swagger I had always remembered him with, his long hair accentuating his small stature, “for me, Nihonga is painting itself; it is the one and only pictorial form.” I think of this conviction as I sprinkle gold powder onto Splendor painting. The significance of the Japanese notion of beauty is to me as clear as pure gold, handed to me by a great master.