It is not easy to imagine a School of Paris painter who is wholly Japanese, yet such a man exists. He calls himself Kimura. An exhibit of his pictures went on view yesterday at the Phillips Collection here.
Though he has painted in the Midi since 1953, Kimura speaks no French. In all except his art he remains a Japanese. His paintings bridge two worlds.
Kimura was born at Takamatsu on the island of Shikoku in 1917. He is descended from samurai. It is the ancient, central tenet of the warrior's code, Bushido, that "the mind of the true samurai never wavers with reason." Nor does Kimura's brush. His paint strokes have the violence and the swiftness of karate kicks. Their practiced spontaneity, their lack of hesitation, seem completely Oriental. And yet the oils he produces are spiritually obedient to the painterly traditions of sunny southern France.
Because founder Duncan Phillips loved paintings drenched in color and grounded in the landscape, his intimate museum is the perfect place to come upon Kimura's modern art. Laughlin Phillips, Duncan's son and now the gallery's director, has lately brought to Washington a string of fine exhibits which extend our understanding of his father's splendid taste. The Phillips has displayed the final, highly complicated paintings of Georges Braque, the colorful expressionist oils of Pierre Bonnard, and the beautiful and partly French gems of England's Howard Hodgkin. Rare indeed the painters who can manage to compete with artists of such magnitude. Kimura's exhibition, though not the best, is the latest in the series.
Kimura's art, at first glimpse, might irritate the viewer. WhileBraque, Bonnard and Hodgkin pondered their decisions, Kimura wastes no time. Once, when Denys Sutton (who wrote the catalogue introduction) asked the Japanese about the sources of his art, Kimura "jumped up from his chair, adopted the stance of a boxer, and with much laughter, said that the artist should attack his subject with fierceness." That fierceness overwhelms the viewer's first impressions. Kimura's surfaces are raw, his images are scribbled, he has a childlike attack.
But that harshness does not linger. If one waits a day or two and then approaches them again, one begins to sense their sweetness as their fierceness drains away. Their virtues emerge slowly. They are vastly more sophisticated than they seem at first encounter. Seeing them takes time.
Their always unexpected and often layered colors -- a purple by a green, a glowing sun-filled yellow -- are the nicest things about them. Many of these paintings would feel entirely abstract if Kimura did not fill them with little scribbled signs everyone can read. In "Landscape with a Bicycle" (1979), a motorcycle, metal gray, leans against a wall; in "The Fountain in the Clos-Saint-Pierre" (1972), an arching jet of water dissolves into droplets that glisten in the sunlight; in "Landscape with a Factory" (1984), the factory is suggested by a smokestack that penetrates gray sky.
The artist's drawing -- of slatted tables, flowerpots, tennis courts or cars -- is constantly impatient: In "Landscape with a Castle" (1984), the castle is a box topped by a pointed bump. In "Peach Tree" (1984), the tree appears to be a ball stuck on a stick. Still, these little signs are crucial. They tug Kimura's paintings out of the realms of pure formality and tie them to the world.
Kimura, it appears, has learned something from van Gogh (look at the burning sun in the 1984 painting titled "Clouds"). The blacks and greens he orchestrates in "The Little Valley" (1980) recall the colors used by Braque. And many of these paintings evoke the views from terraces and windows that one sees so often in the pictures of Bonnard. Kimura might have borrowed, too, from Hans Hofmann's floating squares, but he is always thinking of the landscape, and the season, when he makes his art.
In "May" (1984), a rectangle the color of the first green of spring dominates the picture. In "Morning Light" (1984), the dominating rectangle suggests the bright yellow sun. The best of these paintings -- "The Eiffel Tower at Sunset" (1981), "Beginning Summer in Saint-Ce'zaire," or "July" (1984) -- snap so sharply into rightness that the patient viewer can almost hear the click!
Kimura saw his first Bonnard in 1941. The experience changed his life. Many exhibitions have explored the impact of the Orient on painters of the West. One gathers from this show that influences flow the other way as well. The newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun, which sponsored the 1983 Japanese showing of "Master Paintings from the Phillips Collection," has sponsored the Kimura exhibition, which closes March 10.