Imaï once quoted, “To be international, one must be national first.”
Several factors are necessary for a Japanese artist to gain internationally:
- Cut off all bonds, as if one was going to dispose of one’s nationality altogether to free oneself.
- Originality. Strong individualism can only be achieved by one who has had the chance to take a long hard look at oneself. Such process is almost always accompanied by great psychological pain and can only be achieved by those with exceptional spiritual strength.
- Excel in self-expression, in order to be able to stand trial.
There are artists whose presence at certain moments in the history of art engender tectonic shifts. Toshimitsu Imaï was one, who not only achieved high acclaim as a painter dedicated to constantly bringing the new to the medium but also to changing the trajectory of avant-garde art movement in post-war Japan - by introducing Art Informel to his fellow Japanese artists and critics in the late 1950s. Imaï’s early days were characterised by an ‘ultra-complex structure’ using strong colours and heavy brushstrokes. Transcending after the Informel to Ka-Cho-Fu-Getsu (flower, birds, wind, and moon) series, Imaï expresses the beauties of nature indicative of his gentle and romantic sensitivity. In his final series Hiroshima, Imaï turned to a war-related series during the 90’s.
Toshimitsu Imaï trained at the Tokyo Arts Academy. Imaï showcases a prominent array of art styles over his lifetime. Imaï's early days are representative of Fauvism, characterised by strong colours and heavy brushstrokes. Receiving the Kansai-Shinseisaku Prize and then the prize of 15th Shinseisaku Salon, Imaï makes his departure for Paris to study Medieval history and philosophy.
Imaï's works convey a notable change during the 50's-60's under the influence of French critic Michel Tapié. Imaï gradually moved from Fauvism into abstraction with the presence of figurative motifs and texts. By organising a group show in Japan accompanied by Sam Francis and George Mathieu (1957), Imai played a paramount role in introducing European Abstract art to Japan. Imaï's own work was sold by Leo Castelli in New York and Galerie Stadler in Paris. The success Imaï had with his work at the 1953 São Paulo Biennale and the 1960 Venice Biennale brought him international acclaim, followed by recognition at home in 1962: Imaï was awarded a prize at the 5th Exhibition of Japanese Contemporary Art in Tokyo and the Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo bought several of his paintings.
After 1970, Imaï's paintings represented a more peaceful style where he integrated words into his paintings so that they became the support for poems. Following on from the 80's, Imaï began to integrate more Japanese elements into his pictures. In 1984 Imaï was a co-founder of the Japanese Contemporary Artists' Association.
Toshimitsu Imaï was awarded numerous distinctions in France and elsewhere in Europe: in 1991 he was made an honorary citizen of Madrid, in 1992 of Lyon. In 1996 he was made a chevalier de la Légion d'honneur and in 1997 an Officier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. In his last work Imaï turned to war as his theme, dealing with Japan's attacks on China in the 20th century and the destruction of Hiroshima and its inhabitants at the close of the second world war.
The artist derived inspiration from a wide range of sources and time periods, including medieval history, philosophy, Fauvism, poetry and song lyrics. He achieved widespread success in his lifetime, exhibiting alongside fellow leading abstract painters such as Sam Francis and Georges Mathieu. His work was notably featured at the São Paulo Biennale in 1953, Venice Biennale in 1960, the Japanese contemporary art exhibition in 1962, and the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 1982. Born in Kyoto, Japan on May 6, 1928, he died on March 3, 2002 at the age of 73 following a long illness.