Murai Masanari (村井正誠), 1905-1999, also called himself Murai Maçanari after the French spelling of his given name, a result of five years spent living and working in France (1929-34). In fact, he seems to have always considered himself a Western-style painter.
The artist was born in Ogaki City, Gifu prefecture, and raised in Shingû City, Wakayama prefecture near Osaka prefecture. In 1928 he graduated from the Bunka Gakuin (Culture Institute), Department of Fine Arts, in Tokyo, where he studied painting under Arishima Ikuma (有島 生馬), 1882-1974, and Ishii Hakutei (石井柏亭), 1882-1958. (He also taught at the institute in later years.) After Murai moved to France in 1929, with the intention of further developing his skills as a landscape painter, he also traveled throughout Europe and had paintings accepted in the Salon des Indépendants, established in 1884, whose annual exhibitions in its first 30 years established the trends in modern art of the early 20th century.
Murai's direct involvement with non-representational art had a profound impact, as he began to simplify and develop his personal responses to abstraction. In the 1930s he became one of the pioneers of abstract art in Japan. Murai was an active participant in various art associations during his long career. After his return to Tokyo in 1934, he founded, along with Kaoru Yamaguchi (1907-1968) and Rokurô Yabashi (1905-1988), the New Age Painting Exhibition. In 1937 he helped form the Jiyû Bijutsuka Kyôkai (Free Artists' Society, later called Jiyû Bijutsu Kyôkai), which promoted abstract painting and advant-garde art. Enthusiasm for such Western-style art suffered in the wake of advancing militarism and Japan's entry into World War II, although it revived soon after. Murai eventually left the association to form the Modan Âto Kyôkai (Modern Art Association) in 1950 (again with Yamaguchi and Yabashi). Along with Onchi Kôshirô (1891-1955), Japan's leading sôsaku hanga (creative print: 創作版画) artist, he was a founding member of the Nihon Abusutorakuto Âto Kurabu (Japan Abstract Art Club) in 1953.
Murai took up prints as a profitable way of making his art more accessible and to provide less expensive presents of his work to his many pupils. He used woodblock, lithograph, and silkscreen, all compatible with his abstractions based mostly on the human face. He was interested in revealing what was "inside the face." He hinted at a systemic symbolism, indicating that certain colors represented character traits and particular shapes suggested moods and attributes. Thus a solid square shape with a strong vertical line might combine to indicate "stability," whereas a tilted and angular shapes could represent a person who is highly active or unstable. Yet Murai also said that "the spectator can follow his own imagination," leaving interpretation open-ended.
Murai typically did the basic carving or other preparation but left the printing to professional artisans. Since around 1960 his work was dominated by a limited or monochrome palette and his abstractions became simpler and often more monumental. He also worked in stained glass and ceramic decoration. He received many awards during his lifetime. In 1962 he received first prize at the Fifth Modern Japanese Art Exhibition and the Education Minister's Prize at the Third International Biennial Exhibition of Prints in Tokyo. Several retrospectives of his work were held at important institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art, Kamakura (1973 and 1995), Museum of Modern Art, Wakayama (1979), and Setagaya Art Museum (1993). In 1997 he received the Chunichi Cultural Prize and Setagaya City Culture Contribution Special Award, and in 1998 the Tsune Nakamura Award.
On March 29, 2005, in the 100th anniversary year of his birth, the Masanari Murai Memorial Museum of Art was officially opened in Setagaya City, Tokyo. The museum includes part of the studio where Murai painted in his later years. It is full of artworks, unpublished materials, and a variety of small objects that he enjoyed having around his work area. Other exhibitions that focus on Murai's work held within the museum are changed annually.
This image (no. 1 from an edition of 33) is one of Muari's signature abstracts based on the human face. Through economical means Murai achieves a distinctive assemblage of forms to suggest the head, neck, and face (with eyes, nose, and open mouth) of a person singing. Another impression (19/33) is housed in the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. Others are in the Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art, Haifa Municipality, Israel, and the Masanari Murai Memorial Museum of Art, Setagaya City, Tokyo.
- Catalog of Collections: The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, p. 249, no. 2394.
- Margaret Johnson and Dale Hilton, Japanese Prints Today: Tradition with Innovation. Tokyo: Shufunotomo Co., 1980, pp. 130-135.