Arts and Culture
Tanaka Isson (1908-1977) was a Japanese artist who retreated to the Southern island of Amami Oshima, Japan where he lived a solitary life till his passing. There, he produced nihonga (Japanese-style) paintings of tropical landscapes depicting native flora and fauna. The landscapes that he painted over fifty years ago have remained largely unchanged, exactly the same “virgin nature” that he had encountered. Through an examination of his paintings on nature, I discuss the influences of Ryūkyū folklore and animism, and argue that modern art and the artist can engage in contemporary debates on the anthropocene.
Isson, as an artist and visitor, embodies the local belief of nirai kanai, where visitors are viewed as gods (kami) bearing gifts to the island. His paintings awaken the local islanders to seeing their environment differently, at times even transforming fears and trepidation of sacred grounds into a renewed appreciation for local culture. Isson is often referred to as “Japan’s Gauguin” and while there are some similarities there, there exist many differences in their respective stories. I propose to re-frame this positioning of Isson and further suggest a reading of other European artists who sought “untouched and uncorrupted territories”.