(Onomichi, Japan, 1936 - )
“I am concerned with the relationship between aesthetics and real life experiences. Each painting is a diary page, documenting my thoughts about the time and society in which I live. Expressing my being is crucial to my art. Often I am drawn to subjects that are difficult and provocative because they make life compelling.”
- Masami Teraoka, 1996
In the 1980s, Masami Teraoka first gained recognition for watercolors that combined "ukiyo-e" prints with images of the Westernized present. (1) Characters that look like they came out of nineteenth-century Japanese prints eat McDonald’s hamburgers, carry video cameras and golf bags. Initially, Teraoka came across as a gentle social critic, commenting upon the American commercialist attitudes and habits that had invaded Japanese society. However, as the 80s progressed, Teraoka’s subject matter began to darken. He continued to produce watercolors in the same style, but he addressed AIDS and random violence that has become normal in American society. He continues to be concerned with contemporary issues and his works serve as a gentle reminder of the state of modernity.
Teraoka was born in the western-Japanese harbor town of Onomichi in 1936. As a child, he was exposed to many elements that later influenced his style. His family owned a kimono shop, which exposed him to bright color and strong design. His grandmother owned a collection of traditional woodblock prints, which exposed him to the medium of prints for the first time. He first studied watercolor painting under a local artist, Moemon Sugihara and often painted the coastal landscape of Onomichi. He worked with Sugihara for two years and then continued to study watercolor independently, perfecting his skills and learning to control his brush to create a precise fluid line, layering tints and applying even washes free from accidental pools of color that characterize most watercolors today. Recognizing their son’s talent, Teraoka’s parents encouraged him to pursue an artistic career.
Teraoka studied at the Kwansei Gakuin University in Kobe, majoring in aesthetics. He continued to paint while at the university and studied art, drama, and literature-—a range of subjects that would serve him well in the years to come. While at school, Teraoka was fascinated with the late paintings of Dutch artist Piet Mondrian. Mondrian’s flat grid paintings with bold black lines and juxtaposition of color were a natural influence on the young artist—being similar to the flat outlined forms and architectural elements of the Japanese aesthetic.
In 1961, at the age of twenty-five, Teraoka moved to Los Angeles, California where he studied at the Otis Art Institute. He witnessed the emergence of Pop Art and was greatly influenced by its focus on American commercialism and bright colors. Teraoka was also influenced by Japanese print masters Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1864) and Katsushika Hosukai (1760-1849). He had rediscovered his Japanese heritage by studying their works from print books at the Art Institute. As a result, Teraoka combined the elements of traditional woodblock prints and pop art in his first two series of paintings: "Hollywood Landscape" and "Ukiyo-e." Among the "Hollywood Landscape" series was a painting of Marilyn Monroe with an erotic content and flattened composition that was influenced by Tom Wesselman’s "Great American Nude" series.
In 1974, Teraoka began the "McDonald’s Hamburgers Invading Japan" Series. The series was a commentary on the invasion of American culture in Japan and included works such as "Geisha and Tattooed Woman" in which a geisha grasps a hamburger and looks at a tattooed woman eating noodles. Teraoka incorporates Japanese text, which explains the story: The tattooed woman opens, “Well, I’m going to start eating now.” The geisha asks her: “Are you really going to eat that Japanese noodle soup?” She replies: “Yes, I’m starved. I hope you don’t mind my slurping.” The geisha, no longer able to contain herself demands “How am I supposed to eat this? Should I just bite into it?” (2)
The medium of "ukiyo-e" prints was ideal for Teraoka to express his ideas on American consumerist culture. First, Japanese woodblock prints were plebian mass produced for commercial reasons. They were not a serious art, but were well-known among the public, especially because they depicted the underbelly of Japanese society. Second, ukiyo-e prints often explored single themes with a number of related images, and thus Teraoka grouped his paintings in series, which enabled him to build a theme and comment on it in depth. Other artists had returned to traditional prints before, however, Teraoka stands apart because he made a successful transition with watercolor.
In 1979, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York held an exhibition of Teraoka’s work that traveled to Newport Beach, San Francisco, and Honolulu. Teraoka fell in love with Hawaii and its interesting cross current of American and Japanese society, and moved there in 1980. For the first time, the artist painted a landscape series that included views of the Hawaiian coastline and waters. Hokusai’s wave prints were clearly an influence as the two are nearly indistinguishable.
In 1986, Teraoka’s work diverged into two different streams that he explored simultaneously. In one, the "Wave Series," the artist explores the role of the hunter and the hunted, specifically between an octopus and a pearl diver. The Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts "Pearl Diver and Octopus" (1986) is one from this series. In the second stream, the artist took a dark and brooding turn. An infant daughter of a friend was infected with AIDS through a blood transfusion and it left a deep impression upon the artist. Teraoka took another genre of Japanese print—the ghost print—and explored the AIDS epidemic in a new series.(3) Wanting to express the dangers of AIDS, and emphasize practicing safe sex, Teraoka incorporated geishas grasping condoms. In another painting from the series serpents, which represent the epidemic, wrap around and attempt to devour the men who try to contain the virus. One particularly poignant work, "Mother and Child" (1990, Artist’s collection) depicts a mother holding her dead child who was born with AIDS and thus died from the disease.
Teraoka’s paintings changed again when, in 1992, he took an extended trip to London and Europe. He was strongly influenced by Northern European Christian art, especially Dutch Heironymous Bosch (c.1450-1516). Teraoka explains that
Bosch worked at a time when plague and pestilence were devastating society, and the church was the dominant moral and social force. His images went beyond straightforward observation and religious belief. He created elaborate and fantastical scenes that mixed daily life, religious mores, and parables with a visionary intensity, much like the ukiyo-e artists I admire. Bosch’s paintings carry forceful, timeless, and universal messages and show a human nature and experience not very different from ours today. Perhaps the only things that are new in our world are the accessories—personal computers, computer mouses, e-mail, and the Internet. (4)
Upon his return, and influenced by the collision of the ancient and modern, Teraoka began a series of paintings entitled "Adam and Eve." Similar to the Northern European Renaissance depictions of Adam and Eve, the works are tall and narrow as if they are meant to be a part of an altar panel. However, Adam and Eve are seen grasping condoms and tangled up with mouses, keyboards, and computer cords. In one particulary disturbing image entitled Mousetrap (1995, Pamela Auchicloss Gallery, New York), Adam and Eve are bound with computer cords and are being eaten by vultures. Teraoka explains that he wondered how Adam and Eve would have responded to our high-tech culture. Americans are trapped by computer mouses, so he thinks that Adam and Eve might be trapped just the same. “My Adam and Eve are perhaps the first casualties of this high-speed rush hour.” (5)
Teraoka continues to create works that involve contemporary society and issues. More recently, he has adopted western artistic panoramic paintings which comment on the social implications of America’s tendency to transform political sex scandals into voyeuristic media spectacles. Teraoka’s works provide stirring and sometimes haunting images that not only provide a social commentary, but force the viewer to examine the society within which we live.
(1)Ukiyo-e prints are commercially produced woodblock prints that celebrated the “floating world,” the sector of Japanese society that encompassed brothels, geishas, Kabuki theater and sumo wrestling.
(2) Howard A. Link, "Waves and Plagues: The Art of Masami Teraoka," (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1988): 15.
(3) Ghost prints are ukiyo-e images inspired by ghost stories from the kabuki stage.
(4) James T. Ulak, Alexandra Munroe, and Masami Teraoka with Lynda Hess, "Paintings by Masami Teraoka," (New York and Toyko: Weatherhill, Inc., 1996): 53.
(5) Ibid, 100.