Interview: Fuyuko Matsui

Interview and photography: Andrey Bold


Mention Fuyuko Matsui's name and it'll immediately trigger a chain of adjectives, “beautiful” usually coming first. True, she is, very, which makes it even harder to remember she's also an artist. A good one. A really good one. The one who breathed new life into Nihonga and for that alone her place in the History of Art is sealed forever. Moreover, she's also extremely open, driven, engaging, bright and funny.

We meet at Gallery Naruyama on a very steamy, very Tokyo midsummer day. Matsui arrives dressed head (her hair is impeccably done) to toe (metal heeled YSL cage booties).
—Today is both, Friday the 13th and Obon, are you superstitious?
—Not at all.

Artist Fuyuko Matsui

Artist Fuyuko Matsui

  • AB You come from the family with a long history.
  • FM I'm from Shizuoka, my family was governing there. It runs back 14 generations.
  • AB You seem determined to succeed at everything you do, were you always like that?
  • FM Yes, since I was a kid. When I paint I never get distracted.
  • ABYou had been studying traditional Western painting then suddenly switched to Japanese, why?
  • FM I studied Western painting for four years before I went to Geidai and felt it was time to try something else. There is a painting, “Shorin-zu-byobu,” by Tohaku Hasegawa. It's our national treasure, Japanese Mona Lisa. Prior to that, I didn't know there was a Japanese Art of such level, which we shall all be proud of. When I first saw it I instantly realized the possibilities of traditional Japanese painting. Right then I decided to study Nihonga.
  • AB You study a lot, hold many degrees, what makes you do this? It's not the social status, is it?
  • FM I admire Leonardo da Vinci. I'm sure he wouldn't have any problem getting a PhD at Geidai (Tokyo University of the Arts). I want to do everything da Vinci could. I don't trust artists without skills. I think one should pursue one's best and learn every skill possible, that's exactly what I do.
  • AB Do you have a solid image of a work in your head straight away, or assemble it gradually?
  • FM It depends. Sometimes I have a very vivid image. Sometimes I only have a concept and think how to present it.
  • AB Are you still into techno?
  • FM [Laughs] Yes.
  • AB What are your favorite acts?
  • FM Two Lone Swordsmen, Richie Hawtin, Andrew Weatherall, I'm into intelligent techno, it puts me into trance when I paint.
  • AB Clubbing?
  • FM I never tried.
  • AB I should take you out.
  • FM [Laughs] Yes, please!
Fuyuko Matsui, 陰刻された四肢の祭壇 (Engraved Alter of Limbs), 2007, color on silk, 222 × 172 cm

Fuyuko Matsui, 陰刻された四肢の祭壇 (Engraved Alter of Limbs), 2007, color on silk, 222 × 172 cm

  • AB What gives you the biggest pleasure?
  • FM An inspirational idea. It makes me feel like a genius.
  • AB What inspires you?
  • FM Everything. Books, films, conversations with people.
  • AB Favorite movie?
  • FM I liked Lars von Trier's “Melancholia” a lot, my second favorite after “Requiem for a Dream.”
  • AB Favorite director?
  • FM Chris Cunningham and Darren Aronofsky.
  • AB Did you see “Black Swan?”
  • FM Yes, but I prefer “Requiem for a Dream.”
  • AB Did you ever participate in autopsy?
  • FM Human autopsy is illegal in Japan unless you're a medical student, I participated in a calf dissection.
  • AB What made you interested in what's inside? Did you tear your toys up when you were a child to examine their guts?
  • FM [Laughs] My grandfather studied Art Philosophy and was good at drawing. Once, his friend asked him to draw an autopsy. I thought it was very romantic. It had a positive impression on me.
  • AB What's your biggest phobia?
  • FM Racism and sexism. There is a notion that once a woman has given birth she no longer has any value as an active member of society. I want to eliminate it, men and women should be equally involved in raising kids. Japan should address this issue. There should be also more female politicians and presidents.
  • AB How does it personally affect you? You are not an office worker. You're not planning to run for politics, are you?
  • FM No no. [Laughs] When I was at school there was not a single woman employed. Paintings produced by women didn't get any recognition whatsoever, as if there were no such thing in the History of Art!
  • AB What made you aware of this social injustice?
  • FM The very beginning was back in the elementary school. When I was a child we were given attendance numbers, first boys, then girls. Why? When I got older the class split in two, girls would learn cooking and sewing, boys—wood craft. Why?!
    (Akimitsu Naruyama, Matsui's gallerist, joins the conversation)
  • AN I grew up in the city and have never experienced such thing.
  • FM Bloody knitting and cooking for me.
  • AN I'd have loved to knit...
  • FM After the cooking class girls would treat boys with the cookies they just baked...
  • AN That's sweet.
  • FM Come on girls! Wise up!!!

Fuyuko Matsui, 終極にある異体の散在 (Scattered Deformities in the End), 2007, color on silk, hanging scroll, 124.3 x 97.4 cm

  • AB What is quintessentially Japanese?
  • FM There are two things I noticed when I came back from abroad—the water tastes good and safety. No one carries a gun. I once lost my precious Rolex and had it returned. Can you believe it?! The downside is people care too much of what others may think, keeping everything inside. It can get very stressful.
  • AB Nihonga technique seems to be quite restraining physically, do you find its restrain liberating, similar to bondage that supposedly frees the soul?
  • FM Indeed. Not only that, but also how to present the work. The more restrictions you have, the better is the solution you come up with.
  • AB Isn't there an easier way?
  • FM Hmm... I guess I was brought up this way. I love painting. I want to create a great painting and I'll do whatever it takes to accomplish it. I just love doing it. I don't find it hard at all.
  • AB Do you draw everyday?
  • FM No, I take time to think about it.
  • AB Is drawing still your priority?
  • FM Top priority.
  • AB Where do you see yourself within the art world?
  • FM Unlike Western-style oil painting, which became a standard after the war, Nihonga style requires very thin layers of paint over silk. Before I started, no contemporary Japanese artist painted on silk. I brought the real Japanese painting back to the scene. I introduced contemporary themes made in the traditional technique.
  • AB Do you feel people's interest in the traditional Japanese Art has changed since your debut?
  • FM There is a subtle change. The number of students who want to learn painting on silk has increased over the years. No one was interested before.
  • AB Did you ever consider doing sculpture or performance?
  • FM Not at all. I thought I was good at everything, but when I took a sculpture class I nearly failed.
  • AB If you weren't an artist who would you be?
  • FM A fighter! Like the ones in K-1.
  • AB Are you good at fighting?!
  • FM I don't know, I've never tried. [Laughs]
Fuyuko Matsui, 転換を繋ぎ合わせる (Joining the Conversion), 2011, color on silk, hanging scroll, 30 × 80 cm

Fuyuko Matsui, 転換を繋ぎ合わせる (Joining the Conversion), 2011, color on silk, hanging scroll, 30 x 80 cm

  • AB Your works are men-free...
  • FM Did you say “men-free?” I like that! I always find it hard to describe, I'll use it next time.
    I only paint what I can relate to. There are all kinds of differences between men and women, which go beyond physical.
  • AB Would it be correct to call your paintings an expression of your feelings?
  • FM Not only my feelings, it's not a therapy. I think there are many people who feel similar to how I do, I always think of that.
  • AB What do you hate the most?
  • FM Sexism. I hate the term “ii onna” (nice woman), which often appears in women's magazines. Ridiculous! Men's idea of what an ideal woman should be, not what women want to become!
  • AB What do you think of death?
  • FM Well, it's sad when somebody close to you suddenly dies, especially if there are some unresolved issues left, but it doesn't affect you much when the person is someone you hardly know. Actually, I feel the death is coming close. [Laughs]
  • AB Why?
  • FM I feel the energy is concentrating in my body. Feeling weird lately...
  • AB Are you afraid to die?
  • FM I'm not afraid, but I try to do as much as I can before I die.
  • AB What is your biggest ambition?
  • FM To create my masterpiece.
  • AB That explains your strange feeling, it must be coming!
  • FM [Laughs] Exactly, that must be it!

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Translation: Mei Matsubara