【Talk】Toshio Shibata x Risaku Suzuki x Yuri Mitsuda: Chemistry Between Two Photographers and a Museum

In conversation with critic and art historian Yuri Mitsuda, Toshio Shibata, and Risaku Suzuki, participating artists of the “Photography and PaintingーFrom Cézanne, Shibata Toshio and Suzuki Risaku Jam Session: The Ishibashi Foundation Collection × Shibata Toshio × Suzuki Risaku” exhibition at the Artizon Museum (Tokyo, April 29 - July 10). (Written by Nanami Kikuchi; Translated by Alena Prusakova)

From left: Risaku Suzuki, Toshio Shibata, and Yuri Mitsuda at Artizon Museum; Photo: Tokyo Art Beat

The exhibition “Photography and PaintingーFrom Cézanne, Shibata Toshio and Suzuki Risaku Jam Session: The Ishibashi Foundation Collection × Shibata Toshio × Suzuki Risaku” is currently on view at the Artizon Museum until July 10. In collaboration with the museum, photographers Toshio Shibata and Risaku Suzuki selected and paired their works with artworks of Paul Cézanne and others from the Ishibashi Foundation's collection. Yuri Mitsuda, an art critic, specializing in 20th-century art and photography history, sat down with both artists to discuss the exhibition's attempt to reexamine the relationship between photography and painting. 

Under the curation of Yasuhide Shimbata, "Jam Session" embodies the Artizon Museum's concept of "Experiencing Creativity.” This is the third time artists and curators have collaborated to create the exhibition - the first time in 2020 with Tomoko Konoike and later in 2021 with Yasumasa Morimura. However, this is the first time two contemporary artists were invited simultaneously. 

This exhibition started from the idea that the photographs of Toshio Shibata and Risaku Suzuki share the same figurative thinking as modern paintings. The interview started in the room where Cézanne's “Mont Sainte-Victoire and Château Noir” is displayed between the works of two artists. 

Exhibition view; Photo by Keizo Kioku; Courtesy of Artizon Museum

“Long-awaited goal” exhibition

──I was shocked by the overwhelming scale of the exhibition! The collection of the Artizon Museum and the collaboration under the theme of "relationship between photography and painting" was awe-inspiring. Both of you have been developing this idea for a long time; do you feel like you achieved your long-awaited goal?

Shibata: Yes, I was finally able to bring to life what I had planned with Yasuhide Shimbata, the curator in charge, for quite a long time. Displaying photographs and paintings together in a museum was my dream. I used to paint and always thought that the two should not be separated but rather placed side by side naturally.

Toshio Shibata Okawa Village, Kochi Prefecture (2007), Collection of the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum

Suzuki: This exhibition gave form to the idea I had while I was feeling the difficulty of teaching photography at a university - “always think about the difference between the photography and the painting.” It was a wish come true for me to see my photograph of Montagne Sainte-Victoire next to Paul Cézanne's "Mont Sainte-Victoire and Château Noir" (c. 1904-06).

Risaku Suzuki Sensation 09, C-58 (2009), Collection of the artist

──The exhibition consists of six sections, including "Section III: Paul Cézanne," in which your works are displayed alongside his paintings. When I saw your Montagne Sainte-Victoire series before, they were bigger. Did you print them smaller to match the size of Cézanne’s works? 

Suzuki: Yes, I matched the length of the short sides because I think the "viewing distance" is significant in Cézanne's paintings. The large prints I have exhibited before require some distance, so they are too far away to be seen together with Cézanne's paintings. I thought it would be easier to see the difference if they were the same size. 

Paul Cézanne Mont Sainte-Victoire and Château Noir (c. 1904-06), Collection of the Ishibashi Foundation, Artizon Museum

──The clear similarities and differences, as well as the insights I gained from it, guided me through the other sections. I thought Montagne Sainte-Victoire in Cézanne’s painting was a limestone mountain, but it is granite, formed when the sea was there. I didn’t know this until I saw your detailed photograph of the mountain surface.

Suzuki: Curiously, the name "Sainte-Victoire" reminds people of Cézanne's painting rather than a real mountain. I hoped if I could capture it in a more detailed photograph, it might help to understand what Cézanne was trying to do. 

──How was it to capture it?

Suzuki: My first impression was that the scenery kept changing depending on distance and time, and I thought you could keep painting it forever, endlessly. Cézanne also kept painting that mountain as a motif. That's how fascinating it is. 

Contrast with Takeji Fujishima

──I was first surprised by the large number of contact prints lined up in the "Section I: Shibata Toshio - Simplicité and Abstraction." The section was right after the big photo projection of your works at the entrance, which provided an interesting contrast.

Toshio Shibata at the Artizon Museum, Photo by Tokyo Art Beat

Shibata: I wanted to show how I usually look for my subjects. I choose them by intuitively responding to colors and shapes without paying close attention to details, and I want the viewer to experience the same feeling by looking at the prints. I included it in the first section because searching for a subject is the "beginning" of the shooting process. I also intuitively selected and included two works of Takeji Fujishima. When we started planning, we saw the Artizon collection at the storage and research facility “Art Research Center” in Machida City.

Exhibition view; Takeji Fujishima’s Sunrise and Shibata’s contact prints; Photo by Keizo Kioku; Courtesy of Artizon Museum

──This fantastic facility demonstrates the museum’s potential quite well, doesn’t it?

Shibata: Yes. First, we selected and looked at the items from the massive collection catalog. One of the pieces was Fujishima's "Sunrise.” I was fascinated by the way he painted the purple sky. This kind of expression can only be achieved with paint. My main goal was to show the difference between the advantages of photography and painting. And I think I succeeded in establishing the contrast between Fujishima's expression and photography, which can change the impression by flexibly adjusting the size. Fujishima's works are based on the concept of "simplicité," which means to simplify and paint only what is necessary, and I felt that this concept was similar to the direction I was aiming for.

──Indeed, your work is characterized by its structural strength and the framework. On the other hand, Fujishima is a very painterly artist, and I think he validates color and brushstrokes over structure. Therefore, when I saw both works compared like that, I felt how they resonated with each other through the high level of abstraction. 

Toshio Shibata, Obanazawa City, Yamagata Prefecture (2018), Collection of the artist
Toshio Shibata, Hitachi City, Ibaraki Prefecture (2008), Collection of the artist

Sublimating previous works

──The following “Section II: Suzuki Risaku - The Present of Seeing / Re-emerging World” features the collaboration with Claude Monet. To begin with, I feel that although you are a photographer, you have a perspective similar to the Impressionist painters, would you agree?

Risaku Suzuki at the Artizon Museum, Photo by Tokyo Art Beat

Suzuki: I am not sure…One might say that everyone becomes an impressionist once they learn that "to see objects is to see the light." 

──I must say that the collaboration of Monet's "Water Lilies”(1903),  "Water Lily Pond”(1907), and your “Water Mirror” series was gorgeous. Is Monet painting the water surface, the light reflected off the water, or the light coming through the water? I got the impression that your photographs expand the perception of his paintings.

Exhibition view; Photo by Keizo Kioku; Courtesy of Artizon Museum
Risaku Suzuki, Giverny 16, G-41 (2016), Collection of the artist

Suzuki: Monet was more observational and similar to the photographer in his early years, but his work gradually became more abstract. I feel that there is a connection between his life and changing painting style and the abstraction of the water and water lilies I captured. 

──Does this mean you took the pictures with Monet in mind?

Suzuki: No, I used photos I have taken in the past for this exhibition. I didn't have a strategy in mind while shooting; it just happened. My feelings often change, but once the picture is taken, it stays the same. Every time I plan the exhibition structure, I encounter and sublimate those unchanging photographs. 

Exhibition view; Photo by Keizo Kioku; Courtesy of Artizon Museum

──I think time intervenes in this process. Perhaps these works are connected at a fundamental level beyond the collaboration for the exhibition. By the way, I was curious about what looked like a white exposed area on the right side of one of the "Water Mirror" pieces…Can you explain?

Suzuki: Oh, that was film fog caused by the film holder lid opening…

──And you kept it as it is?

Suzuki: Monet deliberately left the canvas unfinished, creating a layer between the base and painted surface. I would say I had that in mind…but with photographs, it is technically impossible to do the same thing. 

──Ah, I see! By purposely leaving that part uncut, it was like suddenly waking up from a dream. And the fact that it was displayed in the corner of the exhibition room made it even better. 

Shibata: That unexpected impediment was fascinating. For example, similar deliberate choices can be found in the corners of  Pierre Bonnard's works. At first glance, you wonder why he painted this [laughs]. But a photograph sometimes turns out well because of the uncontrollable aspects.

Exhibition view; Photo by Keizo Kioku; Courtesy of Artizon Museum
Risaku Suzuki, La plaque sensible 18, PS-434 (2018), Collection of the artis

The conflict between the artificial and nature

──In “Section IV: Shibata Toshio - Dimension, Form, and Imagination," you installed the angeled walls. 

Shibata: I wanted to display each piece separately as an independent tableau, so I purposely angled the walls. 

Exhibition view; Photo by Keizo Kioku; Courtesy of Artizon Museum

──It helped me see photographs as independent pieces; furthermore, I think that angeled walls resonated with the repeating structure in your pictures. 

Shibata: Yes, maybe it is my favorite shape [laughs]. 

──I have also sensed some sort of conflict between the artificial and the natural in your works. I find this tension fascinating because bringing geometric engineering work into nature slightly distorts geometry. As if the conflict and coexistence between nature and the artificial, material and image, humans and other things appear in front of you. I realized after seeing this exhibition that this is probably what “photography” is.

Toshio Shibata, Nikko City, Tochigi Prefecture (2013,) Collection of the artist

Shibata: I generally only shoot in areas accessible by car, so inevitably, there are roads that people have built, and many create the scenery. 

──You don't go to uncharted areas or Mt. Everest, and this is not your photography style, right?

Shibata: Through the photography medium, I try to capture the objects that can be found everywhere as a new landscape. When I started photography, I decided to search for something less photogenic. I believe that artworks require a certain degree of time sense, but photography can express itself indirectly because it also captures unintended things. For example, if you take pictures in the city, you will unintentionally capture the fashion and trends of the moment, and photographs will look outdated when you look at them later. Instead, I am looking for subjects that can capture a larger perspective. Therefore, I think that infrastructure can be an indicator of the passage of time, at least for ten years.

Toshio Shibata, Nasushiobara City, Tochigi Prefecture (2020), Collection of the artist

──I see. Although no humans appear in your photographs, indirectly, I feel the presence and existence of the people who created and arranged the scene. 

Shibata: Yes, there is not a single soul around in many cases. Because I shoot in the mountains of a rural area [laughs]. 

The back of Giacometti and Enku 

──On the other hand, in Mr. Suzuki's photographs, I feel as if I were standing in your place as the photographer.

Suzuki: My photos have a shallow focus, which probably gives the impression of someone else's perspective. If possible, I’d like to erase myself from my pictures. Photography is a medium that is both subjective and objective, and these are interchangeable depending on the viewer and the subject. This is the challenge photography faces.

For example, when we watch a movie or something similar, we are used to accepting a gaze that simply describes the scene, a perspective that belongs to no one in particular.

In the same way, the level of awareness of the viewer significantly changes in photography, so I would like to continue with this idea. 

──These ideas led you to start the "Mirror Portrait" series, in which you take portraits through a one-way mirror? Do you feel that you succeeded in erasing yourself?

Exhibition view; Photo by Keizo Kioku; Courtesy of Artizon Museum

Suzuki: I think I have succeeded in erasing myself, the photographer, from the picture. This work is more like a landscape than a portrait. When I take a picture of people, I want to capture them as they are, but then the relationship between myself and the person appears in the picture. To hide myself as a photographer, I asked subjects to look into the one-way mirror, photographed them from inside the mirror, and then inverted the images. In other words, they are the image the subject saw in the mirror, not the image I saw when I took the picture.

──In "Section V: Suzuki Risaku - Bringing Paintings to Life / Uncrossing Gazes,” you are displaying the "Mirror Portrait" series along with portraits by Ryusei Kishida, Ingres, and others.

Suzuki: I selected portraits from the museum collection that had a photographic pause, and selected from my previous photographs that matched the gestures and composition of the portraits.

Exhibition view; Photo by Keizo Kioku; Courtesy of Artizon Museum
Exhibition view; Photo by Keizo Kioku; Courtesy of Artizon Museum

──It was interesting to see the parallels between the two. The relationship between the painter and the model is complex. What's even more interesting is that on the other side of the wall there was a sculpture by Alberto Giacometti and a mirror that reflects it! Giacometti’s piece is facing the mirror, not the front. This is the first time I have seen it with its back to the viewer [laughs].

Suzuki: When we set up the installation, the installers tried to place it facing the front. I asked them several times to put it facing the mirror [laughs].

──The mirror was also beautiful, like a picture frame.

Suzuki: I asked to make it match the frame of Giacometti's oil painting "Yanaihara" (1958), which was displayed alongside it.

──So it's custom-made! Very interesting! I wondered how they found such a perfect mirror. This shows the character of the Artizon Museum. 

Speaking of sculpture, in the previous "Section IV," you displayed a statue of the Buddha by Enku along with your works. It almost looked like a cubist sculpture.

Exhibition view; Photo by Keizo Kioku; Courtesy of Artizon Museum

Shibata: I really like the back of Enku’s sculpture. It looks like a contemporary sculpture from behind. He carved his sculptures while keeping in mind the wooden structure, so they are slightly curved. This approach of letting nature take its course is also very photographic.

──This is precisely the conflict between artificial and natural objects that resonates with the essence of your photography, isn’t it? The fact that both of you selected sculpture for the latter section gave me the impression that the endless discussion about the relationship between photography and painting had suddenly turned in the other direction.

By the way, there was a segment in "Section V" with apples and apple trees. Can I assume those were the works created during the pandemic?

Suzuki: Yes, they are. Since I couldn’t travel, I focused on still life, one of the subjects of the paintings. I had no problem taking photos of trees with many apples, but I was a little embarrassed to take still-life photographs. Because it absolutely says, "I put the apple there." Such a statement of artifice is common in a painting, but in a photograph, it shows too strongly that I placed the apple there. That’s why I don’t think it suits me...

Risaku Suzuki, Apples 21, P-13 (2021), Collection of the artist
Risaku Suzuki, Still Life 21, ST-127 (2021), Collection of the artist
Pierre Bonnard, Peaches (1920), Collection of the Ishibashi Foundation, Artizon Museum

Cézanne as the starting point

Shibata: Speaking of the structure, this exhibition is created around and starts with the main theme of Cézanne. My selection includes works of Mondrian and Kandinsky from around the time of Cézanne's death when the style of the masters was changing, but Cézanne’s influence was still present. 

Suzuki: I also chose Bonnard and Giacometti because of the Cézanne influence. I think Bonnard is a classic late Impressionist painter. 

──Giacometti was influenced by Cézanne?

Suzuki: I think rather than influence, the presence of Cézanne was significant. Giacometti's paintings are excellent, but I don't think he could have achieved his idea of the subject and himself constantly changing without Cézanne's precedent of incorporating his existence into the paintings through sensation rather than sight.

──Yes, I agree. Both of them pursue the elusive nature of space. This seems to be a common element in your photography as well, isn’t it? 

Suzuki: Part of me is encouraged by Giacometti's contradictions.

──He often wrote in his diary or noted that he was unsatisfied with the sculpture he made yesterday and wanted to redo everything. This impulse remains in the paintings, and the conflict is exposed in the work. Your work is filled with gentle light and wind, and I don’t feel any harshness. There was probably no light and wind in Giacometti's atelier. I also think that he probably had to eliminate them to see the model. 

Shimbata (Curator): I like the contrast in that section with Bonnard's space behind Giacometti's. I think it is very well done.

──The detailed composition of this exhibition is astonishing. 

Shimbata: Yes, I think they thought of every detail.

Exhibition view; Photo by Keizo Kioku; Courtesy of Artizon Museum

“Three-person exhibition" with the Museum

──This exhibition was in planning for approximately three years. Did you come up with the idea of having six sections? 

Shimbata: Yes. We wanted to avoid the impression of having two solo exhibitions side by side, so we first discussed the possibility of having artists present their approaches in alternating exhibition rooms. Also, as you mentioned early, we wanted to focus on the “artist's figurative thinking.”

Shibata: Yes, indeed. I went through the process of re-evaluating all of my work. I could not shoot something new because of the pandemic, but I went through all of my previously unseen works.

Piet Mondrian, Dune (1909) Collection of the Ishibashi Foundation, Artizon Museum
Toshio Shibata, Minobu Town, Yamanashi Prefecture (2021), Collection of the artist

──I see. So the challenge was to work on your formative thinking, right? 

Shimbata: Yes. Collaborations with collections tend to become cliches, and the viewer sees them that way. However, we were sure that wouldn't be the case because both artists were interested in Cézanne's work. Both artists have solid figurative thinking, and I was convinced that their ideas could be expanded.

──This is precisely Mr. Suzuki's current theme. 

Suzuki: Yes. One of the themes was how much it is possible to suppress the record functions of photography. For example, if I took a picture of Cézanne's atelier, the reality of what the atelier looks like and what it contains would naturally be seen. But I would like to take it one step further and have the viewer imagine Cézanne's perspective.

Risaku Suzuki, Sensation 09, C-96 (2009), Collection of the artist
Exhibition view; Photo by Keizo Kioku; Courtesy of Artizon Museum

──There are still many things that can be explored and experimented with in photography. This was a joint exhibition, but such an attempt would generally be quite challenging due to the tension between the artists. But this exhibition gave full creative freedom to the artists and achieved harmony between the sections. 

Shibata: Since the Artizon collection was at the center, and both of us were looking in the same direction, there may have been a point where we naturally began to blend and interact with each other. I don't think this would have been possible without the museum’s collection.

──I see, so it is a triangular relationship. It is not a two-person show but a three-person show with the museum. Collaboration between the collection and contemporary artists is now an essential theme in museums worldwide. But it is not likely that a session where two contemporary artists stand on the same ground as the artists from the past will ever be created again. 

Shibata: It is human chemistry, after all [laughs]. There were no disruptions, and we got along very well. 

When we were young, there were few museums where we could see the originals. There were only the Bridgestone Museum of Art, the predecessor of Artizon, and the Museum of Western Art. Everyone used to go there. So to come back and hold an exhibition was a great honor and pleasure. I’m thrilled. 

──I could feel these emotions in the exhibition hall. You mentioned that you achieved your biggest goal, which is exactly what I thought in this triangle composed of the two artists and the museum’s collection.

Exhibition view; Photo by Keizo Kioku; Courtesy of Artizon Museum

Natsuko Fukushima

Natsuko Fukushima

Editor-in-Chief at Tokyo Art Beat. After working for a music magazine and the "Bijutsu Techo," she took up her current position in October 2021.