Akira Tanaka /田中阿喜良年譜 (1918-1982) is a Japanese figurative painter who mainly worked in France. We owe him in particular numerous scenes describing the daily life of the Parisians, his main source of inspiration.
Born in Osaka in 1918, Tanaka studied at the School of Fine Arts of Kyoto (1943) before settling permanently in France in 1959 (in direct line with other Japanese artists such as Tsuguharu Foujita or Takanori Oguiss). Starting in 1955, he participates in several exhibitions (in Japan, United States, Australia as well as New Zealand) and receives in 1957 the 1st Prize of the Japanese critics («Grand Shell Prize») and the Grand Prize of the Kodobijutsu show.
After his arrival in France (settling in Chennevières-sur-Marne and Paris 16th arrondissement), he exhibits at the 'Salon d'Automne de Paris' (of which he becomes member in 1961) and receives the 1st Prize of Villeneuve-sur-Lot, the 1st Prize of Pont-Aven and the Grand Prize of the International Exhibition of Monaco.
Starting in 1960 and until the end of his life, he will exhibit in many galleries: Jeanne Castel (1960 and 1962 - Paris); Hervé (1964 and 1972 - Paris); Nuovo Sagittario (1971, 1972 and 1973 - Milan); Nichido (1970 and 1971 - Tokyo and Nagoya); Yaesu-Hibiya (1980 - Tokyo), etc.
He will also participate in many renowned artistic events: 'École de Paris' and 'Salon Comparaisons' (1961, Paris); International Exhibition of Figurative Art (1962, Tokyo); Masterpieces of the Year (1963, Tokyo); Biennale of Tokyo (1965); Exhibition of Modern Art (1964 and 1966, Tokyo), etc.
In 1963, the National Museum of Modern Art of Kanagawa acquires paintings of TANAKA (this purchase will be renewed in 1975 further to a great retrospective exhibition "Akira Tanaka" organized by the aforementioned museum). From there, many museums and Japanese institutions will exhibit and acquire works of the artist: Ministry of Education (1969); Central Museum of Tokyo (1972); National Museums of Modern Art of Tokyo and Kyoto (1972); Museum 'XXth Century, Ikeda' of Shizuoka (1974); Museum Sanposo of Gifu (1974); Museum Ohara of Kurashiki (1975); City Hall of Osaka (1978); etc.
The artist dies prematurely in Paris in 1982 at the age of 64. After his death, an exhibition "Tribute to Akira Tanaka" is organized by the Yoshii Gallery in Paris (1983) and several Japanese museums will mobilize again to acquire works of the deceased artist (Museum of Mie; National Museum of Modern Art of Tokyo; Museum of Himeji; Museum Sanposo of Gifu; etc.).
In 1989 and 1990, he will be exhibited in Paris at the 'Salon Comparaisons' and 'Salon des Indépendants'.
In October 2009, and after almost 20 years of absence from the French and European artistic scene, the Nicolas Deman Gallery (Paris 6th) organized an important retrospective exhibition (with an illustrated book-catalog of about 100 pages).
Finally, in October 2011, an exhibition "Tribute to Tanaka" was dedicated to him on the Champs-Élysées Avenue (Paris 8th) during the 'Salon d'Automne de Paris'.
Under the influence in particular of the Naive Art with Jean Dubuffet, the work of Tanaka is going to echo the revival of the post-war figurative movement to eventually manage to be really situated once in contact with the City of Lights.
The specificity of the work of Tanaka is above all about people and particularly about Europeans from the sixties-seventies stemming from popular layers of society - French (mainly the Parisians), Spanish, Portuguese, or Italian (particularly the Venetians).
In his work, Tanaka is going to energetically looking to describe the face of 'the Authentic Man' amongst these common people who, according to his own words, "do not wear any mask". And thus, as soon as he will settle down in France, the artist will spend most of his time wandering in the streets (e.g. Montparnasse or the Luxembourg gardens in Paris) or on country roads to grasp in a methodical and scrupulous way (by means of sketches executed on the fly) the spontaneous truth depicted in his own view by the looks and behaviors of the people.
Among the recurring themes that he likes to paint we find: The coffee-shop (French cafe), the market (fruits and vegetables, flea, or stamps), the sea and fishermen (essentially from Brittany, Spain and Italy), the newspaper (with a particular preference for the daily French paper 'Le Figaro'), professions (street craftsmen and salesmen of all kinds such as the shoeshine boy, the lottery tickets boy, the mason, the tapestry-maker, the ceramist, the glazier, the cheese maker or the postman), musicians (orchestra and street), games (chess, cards or bowls), motherhood, public transportation (bus and metro), the bench discussion, or the Spanish bullfight ('Corrida').
Tanaka painted his canvases generally in muted colors, dominated by different grays and browns but crossed frequently with lively colors (such as red, yellow, blue, or also pink). From the time of his arrival in France he will use a non prepared linen canvas which he qualified as 'coarse canvas'.
For the bottom layer, the artist used a vinyl paint soluble in water which he spread all over the canvas with a knife to give a rough and uneven aspect. Once this first layer had dried, he added back on top a white based layer mixed unevenly with bright colors. When everything was dry (on average 3 to 4 days later), the artist would begin to paint the scene and the characters selected for the work in question.
Tanaka signed the majority of his paintings in Latin characters with the references 'Akira Tanaka', 'Tanaka' or even sometimes 'Akira T'.
In a 1973 interview published the same year by the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri, Tanaka said: "...It is necessary to have first some sympathy, curiosity for human beings strictly speaking and it is only from there that the shape is born. And since it is in the face that the very expression of man appears straightforwardly, the face is an essential point in my works...".
By this unusual paradox, that of providing the feeling of a certain softness through an a priori austere personified image, Tanaka delivered an artistic message which incidentally remains unique in its kind. | Atelier ELIO, Paris, France