Kenji Yoshida’s show at the October Gallery in Bloomsbury, Kenji Yoshida – Supreme Beauty – is full of the most life-affirming pictures I’ve seen in a long time. They glow and shine, and the fact that their strength is derived from terrible suffering in war makes them all the more powerful.
Yoshida was born in 1924 so he was seventeen at the time of the bombing of Pearl Harbour – too young to be called up. But as the progress of the war turned against Japan they took younger and younger recruits, with the final recruits destined for the most terrifying task of all – piloting the kamikaze planes to blow up enemy ships, planes designed never to return. Affecting final letters home by kamikaze pilots show the terrible pressure they felt and the courage and sadness with which they they faced their awful task, with thoughts of their families always uppermost in their minds.
Yoshida was called up in 1943, completed his training as a pilot in the Japanese Naval Air Force and was assigned to a kamikaze unit where he had the terrible experience of watching his friends fly off to certain death while awaiting the orders to do the same himself. But the end of the war came in time to save him from the same fate. Having seen so many of his friends die, he dedicated himself to depicting the transcendent power of the life force.
All his pictures have the same title – La Vie. Asked why he said, ‘During World War II I started reflecting, and have been reflecting since then, on life and death. The most precious thing is life….For me the universe is a huge living body, all that has life shares in the same components and follows the same laws of nature. As a consequence, trying to know those very laws leads to comprehending life, to live to catch nature’s subtle workings and movements. That is why ‘La Vie’ is the starting point of all my thinking, all my artistic creations, or rather, all the moves in my life.’
Before the war Yoshida studied under Masaru Furukido in Osaka and when the war was over he went back to studying art. In 1964 he moved to Paris where he studied with the surrealist, abstract impressionist and printmaker Stanley Hayter at the Atelier 17 studio. After 1984 he devoted himself almost entirely to ever-bigger works in oil on canvas, using precious metals, gold, silver, copper and platinum, applied in thin sheets over a binding layer of Japanese lacquer, in the same techniques traditional Japanese screens. He remained in Paris until his death in 2009.
In 1993 he became the first living artist to have a retrospective at the British Museum and they still hold a number of his works in their collection.
The October Gallery is at 24 Old Gloucester St and the free exhibition continues until 18 May, Tuesday-Saturday 12:30-5:30.