Taiwa Matsuoka (this is his pseudonym originally Masao Matsuoka) was born in 1894 in the village of Inasa, in Nara Prefecture’s Uda Province (presently Hifu, Haibara district, Uda City, Nara Prefecture). The city of Uda is located in a plateau called the Yamato Highlands, where numerous historical events have taken place since the days of A Record of Ancient Matters-Kojiki (710 AD) and Chronicles of Japan-Nihonn Shoki (720 AD). The area retains the atmosphere of an old castle town and post station, and is blessed with numerous cultural legacies such as streetscapes of historical roads and an abundance of natural beauty. Furthermore, Haibara was an ancient Nurube (Urushi lacquer) village that recalls the relationship between Taiwa Matsuoka and Urushi-e.
Taiwa Matsuoka attended Nara Teacher’s School, and advanced to attend the Fine Arts Department of Tokyo Art School (presently Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music). While at the school he entered the Nika contest (one of Japan’s most prestigious fine arts competitions), and received a Nika award. Then, in a quest to discover another form of artistic expression, he became a student in the Sculpture Department and audited classes in the Lacquer Art Department, studying lacquer techniques from an artist who was highly skilled in the medium. Though he was recognized as an artist who was fluent in the use of oil paints, Matsuoka chose the challenging mission of pioneering in a newly emerged Urushi-e field. He indicated his decision not to pursue his career as an oil painter, saying that “oil paintings tend to bear mold in a humid climate like that of Japan, and it is extremely difficult to prevent oil paintings from becoming moldy. It is evident that the lifespan of an oil painting will end within a century.” About the matter he said, “I have concluded that oil painting is not the lifelong work of a fine artist.”
Japanese have a long history with Urushi (Japanese lacquer), and some claim that it began about 9,000 years ago. The oldest Urushi-e in Japan belongs to Horyuji, titled “Tamamushi no zushi (The Beetle-Wing Shrine),” which dates from around 650 AD. Given the fact that an Urushi-e produced more than 1,300 years ago has been preserved to the present time proves the durability of Urushi-e. Matsuoka used to proclaim to the children visiting his art class, “Urushi-e will preserve its original form for hundreds of years.” He was attracted not only to its durability, and was fascinated by the aroma and elegant but austere tones that Urushi provided. With time his passion for Urushi would only intensify.
Matsuoka set his goal in Urushi-e as a fusion of traditional Japanese fine-art techniques with Western fine arts. He envisioned Urushi-e not as artistic crafts but as fine art paintings to be established in its own art form. Some of his artworks could have been expressed in oils or Japanese-style paintings, but Matsuoka preferred to develop his own style, expressing his preference thus: “Because it is Urushi-e that I love, Urushi-e is the one with which I can comfortably express my heart.” He further stated, “I have a number of oil-based sketches, and I use oil paintings as rough drawing so that I can embed images into my heart before expressing them. Traditional Japanese decorative art has a firm place in me, and I feel it is important to use such tradition in a new type of Urushi-e.” Because it was a new branch of art, he diligently studied and devoted himself to the course of his endeavor.
Matsuoka’s Urushi Artwork leaves a vivid impression of color. He uses a variety of colored Urushi such as white, red and blue, in contrast to the general Urushi. In his time the colors of Urushi were limited to five or six types; it was considered very difficult to make colors such as white and blue. Matsuoka studied the transparency of Urushi and pigments, especially in white. He cherished his piece, “Kazariuma (Decorative Horse)” (1937) in which a beautiful white horse is depicted. The piece was entered in the first Urushi-e Exhibit, and it received rave reviews from the Urushi community. Reviews proclaimed it as “a masterpiece to showcase using a refined gold lacquering and scraped lacquer technique in Urushi Artwork.” Years later, in 1973, Matsuoka said, “There is no artist who can freely use colored Urushi as I do in my Urushi Artwork, even now.” His devotion, passion, and strong conviction enabled Matsuoka to reach his accomplishment in this new field of art.
His devotion to pioneering in his chosen field — a devotion that lasts for over half a century–is portrayed in a book entitled Heritage of Japanese Beauty – Urushi Culture by Kazumi Murase. The book quotes Gonroku Matsuda describing three phases by which a craftsman can be recognized and established. The book states, “The first phase of the study is to learn from others. This phase provides quick answers and with the fewest hardships, among others, but it is difficult to reach beyond the accomplishments of one’s master. The second phase is to learn from physical objects, and this requires that one have keen senses. Through one’s own efforts, an artist can directly grasp the essence of superior objects. This is a highly sophisticated learning phase that provides opportunities to expand one’s view, understand traditions and achieve self-awareness. The third phase is to study and research on one’s own, a pioneer in one’s chosen course, make diligent efforts and reach the true depth of one’s pursuit. This is the phase by which a professional can reach his or her genuine accomplishment, and it is a lifelong quest for professional achievement.”
It was challenging, but Matsuoka maintained his attitude as a professional, constantly pursuing excellence in his field.
Taiwa Matsuoka’s artworks can be categorized into two periods, the first as the oil-painting era, and the latter as the Urushi Art era. Further, the Urushi Artwork era can be subcategorized into three periods; the research period highlighted by the establishment of the Japan Urushi-e Association before WWII; the creative period focusing on abstract artworks and the Japan Urushi-e Artist Association (Japan Urushi-e Association) after WWII; and the period of topical series emphasized by “Sceneries of Yamato, the ancient capital,” a series describing Matsuoka’s home region of Nara in his later years. None of these eras and periods has a clear boundary, and one overlaps the next.
Matsuoka’s extraordinary talent for sketching is evident throughout his artistic career. His pencil sketching work, characterized by naturalistic and detailed expression, is used in a fine-art textbook for primary schools before WWII, which carries the description of Matsuoka as “Matsuoka, the sketching artist” and “a master of sketching.” Thus it is evident that Matsuoka’s superior sketching technique had been recognized even then.
The pseudonym “Taiwa” means, “Everything is in harmony with comfort to each other.” As this pseudonym indicates, Matsuoka’s artworks comprise a world in which sketching and other techniques coexist in harmony through his creative passion. Matsuoka also indicated, “It is minute to state the difficulties in obtaining materials or techniques. Urushi-e is not precious because of its novelty value, nor do I consider it superior due to its durability. Only the elegance of the artwork will determine its integrity.” The content of that statement, and of his character, is reflected in each of his artworks.