Japanese art and Yuzo Saeki: the “outsider” who died in a distant land in an insane asylum
Lee Jay Walker
Modern Tokyo Times
The artist Yuzo Saeki gave much to the Japanese art world despite dying at the age of 30. Yuzo Saeki was born in 1898 and passed away in 1928. However, despite his time on this earth being brief he did much and left an intriguing legacy which also applies to areas outside of art. This applies to the way he was “thrown to the wolves” while feeling entrapped by health problems, cultural factors, and being abandoned by a culture which did not love him back.
In many ways, Yuzo Saeki represents the “outsider” which resides in all nations throughout the world, and within nations where the marginalized are unloved. Also, he highlights the complexity of culture and how individuals may adore aspects of a new culture – but this “new culture” isn’t able to respond in kind. Therefore, the society that abandoned him was the French culture that he admired and desired to belong. However, he always remained to be the “outsider” in a country which inspired him and pulled away at his tormented soul.
Yuzo Saeki provides a genuine glimpse into the “real separation” of “a love affair” which refused to acknowledge his deep love of Paris and France. This applies to many art pieces whereby the distance from his vantage point is noticeable by the confused lettering of certain places he depicted. Also, the manic and confused lines within some of his art may denote all the inner-confusions and utter desperation that he felt at times. Despite this, and being in extremely poor health, he could not pull himself away from a culture which inspired him to create stunning pieces of art.
Yuzo Saeki was born in the vibrant city of Osaka and from a very early age he fell in love with art. The Buddhist faith ran through his veins when a child because his father was a Buddhist priest. On top of this was the changing nature of Japanese society which also swept away many traditions and depleted many rich trades. In this sense, modernization in both France and Japan was ripping many lives apart. Yet, on the other hand both societies were providing new opportunities.
The Meiji and Taisho periods in Japan were full of mass contradictions because on the one hand a new modern dynamic was part and parcel of the “new” Japan. Opposite to this, was a new nationalist period whereby Japan would join “the Western club” and “Islamic club” of colonialism. Amidst all these contradictions was a very talented artist called Yuzo Saeki who meant no negative things towards anyone. Instead, he just wanted to focus on the vocation that he adored. Sadly, life is never that simple for some individuals and ultimately his vocation also created great suffering for Yuzo Saeki.
Western art in Japan was provided with a small “window” in Nagasaki by the Dutch during the Edo period. However, in the period of Yuzo Saeki no other city was more vibrant than Paris when it came to new art movements. The old world of influence from China and Korea was on the wane for many artists and the same applies to the rich traditions of Japanese art. Therefore, the pull of Western art was extremely strong for Yuzo Saeki and in time Paris and France would become “a love affair” with “a poison chalice.”
It must be stated that many other Japanese artists didn’t suffer the same fate in France. Given this, it is clear that the deep passion within Yuzo Saeki was extremely unique but what tipped everything in the wrong direction near the end, applies to the tragic circumstances of his life. This notably applies to poor health; poverty; alienation in a country he adored; mental exhaustion because he could feel “the gates of death beckoning;” isolation; and trapped by his own “love affair” with a culture which was alien to him despite being familiar with France.
In an earlier article I state that all “…these negatives conspired together because at the age of 30 Yuzo Saeki died in destitution in a mental hospital in France. The culmination of tuberculosis, a nervous breakdown brought on by overwork, limited means to survive, still painting outside despite worsening health conditions and other factors; all led to a very sad ending of what should have been a bright future.”
It is easy to imagine Yuzo Saeki eating inadequately based on poverty while at the same time coughing up blood because of tuberculosis. Near the end he manically painted new pieces of art because he felt “the gates of death.” Therefore, even when the weather was negative he continued to paint while bringing up blood would have interrupted him from time to time.
This meant that the reality of different thought-patterns, diverse movements within the respective art scenes of both France and Japan, and other complex factors, could easily “swallow up” individuals who were beset by various issues. Given this, when Yuzo Saeki needed guidance and support he had nobody to help him in a distant land. His “moment in time” was very different to the norms of the art scene in Paris and different cultural factors meant that he was isolated internally.
The final year alone in France was a far cry from 1924 when he moved to this nation with his wife and young daughter. Then he at least had the home comforts to placate the other “love affair” which didn’t love him back.
Michael Brenson commented in the New York Times that “When European art began to question its own traditions, however, as it did increasingly during and after World War I, there was a potential for trouble. Artists could find themselves with neither a European tradition to learn from nor a Japanese tradition to hold onto. When Saeki Yuzo, who is perceived in his country as a tragic hero, the Japanese van Gogh, died at the age of 30 in an insane asylum in Paris in 1928 – perhaps a suicide – he had been trying to paint in this void. Saeki continues to be an example to Japanese artists abroad of the difficulties in reconciling East and West…His paintings reflect his isolation. His cafe windows and stores are filled with signs, some illegible. In his “Snowy Landscape,” figures are on the verge of illegibility. His signs seem like scars of an internal pressure to resolve a conflict between the independence and picturesque subject matter of Paris and a dependence upon his native calligraphic and woodcut tradition.”
The comments made by Michael Brenson are extremely illuminating because it paints a picture of an artist who is trapped by the cultural realities of both nations. At the same time, he appears to notice his isolation and withdraws from a distance whereby the signs are often illegible. However, it is not only the signs which sometimes become illegible because also the human form enters a dark and sinister world where the scars of life are all too real.
Yuzo Saeki also highlights the “outsider” who never can belong despite his love of the host nation. This shared experience can be felt by individuals throughout the world who often feel the same pressure and isolation. Often, it may not always be the host nation because much can depend on cultural differences and certain “norms” which clash strongly in some cultures.
However, with the visible signs of tuberculosis, the mental strains of creating more art pieces because of the knowledge that death was getting nearer, and the grind of daily poverty pulling away at him; it is clear that nobody stepped in . Therefore, not one single individual in Paris cared enough to help Yuzo Saeki to the full. This culminated in the sad reality that his passionate “love affair” was one way because in his “time of need” he was abandoned to the ravages that befell him.
In the end Yuzo Saeki sacrificed his life and his family because he died based on the factors that entrapped him and took away his life. This applies to tuberculosis, poverty, and suffering from a mental breakdown. Michael Brenson also hints that he may have committed suicide in the end. However, the fact that this is debatable highlights the reality that Yuzo Saeki had been “thrown to the wolves.” Therefore, near the end he was just “another number” who was unloved and who died in an insane asylum in a distant land.