Canadian West Coast artist Takao Tanabe has gained acclaim as one of Canada’s most important and influential painters. Born in Prince Rupert, British Columbia, Tanabe has studied in Winnipeg, New York, London and Tokyo, which provided him with an opportunity to explore and master varied approaches to landscape painting. He has exhibited both nationally and internationally, and is represented in the National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario as well as many other public and private collections. Although Tanabe is renowned for his paintings of the Canadian landscape, he started off as an abstract painter, experimenting with geometric shapes, flat spatial planes and bold colours. After 22 years of abstract painting, Tanabe decided to go in a different direction and began his career as a landscape painter.
Chronicles of Form and Place is the first ever retrospective exhibition of Tanabe’s work on paper, taken from his personal collection as well as works displayed in the Vancouver Art Gallery. The exhibition features drawings and watercolours from 1949 to the present, and includes more than 60 works never before seen by the public. The exhibition examines the artist’s career and influences from working and studying abroad. All of Tanabe’s works, including his drawings, prints and watercolours provide an entry point into the many stages of study, experimentation and development.
In 1959, Tanabe travelled to Japan where he studied Sumi – a traditional style of brush painting. Sumi painting is characterized by the fewest possible brushstrokes representing the “essence” of an object. This inspired Tanabe to incorporate the Sumi painting technique into his own works of Canadian landscapes. Tanabe’s trip to Japan was also an introspective journey in which he had the chance to rethink his relationship to Canadian culture, his artistic influences as well as the surrounding environment.
Tanabe’s approach to watercolour painting employs the Sumi technique he learned in Japan. Many of his watercolour landscapes appear abandoned and uninhabited with inhospitable conditions Tanabe attributes to life and its unpredictable and changing circumstances. During an interview at the McMichael Art Gallery in 2007, Tanabe stated, “The West Coast has its bright clear days, where all is revealed, but I favour the grey mists, the rain obscured islands and the clouds that hide the details. However much we desire order and clarity in all the details of our lives, there are always unexpected events that cloud and change our course. Life is ragged. The Coast is like that, just enough detail to make it interesting, but not so clear as to be banal or overwhelming.”
Tanabe’s fascination with landscape led to a composition of prairie paintings, usually created in one session. His simplistic prairie landscapes connect to the coastal subject matter, sharing many aesthetic qualities such as long sweeping vistas, diminished human representation and an acute attention to the spatial relationship between land, water and sky. Tanabe’s Forest Drawings of the 1990s illustrate an awareness of light and the power it has to reveal and conceal a subject. The contrast between light and dark is magnified with the subtle use of colour to reveal the lushness of nature.
Tanabe’s retrospective of works is more than simply a portrayal of various landscapes. Together all of his paintings and drawings contribute to and represent a rich Canadian culture dominated by lush forests, sweeping prairies and towering mountains. From the East to the West Coast, Tanabe’s portfolio of works presents to us a Canadian identity, one focused on the preservation of our beautiful landscape.
Chronicles of Form and Place is on view at the McMaster Museum of Art (MMA) until December 8th, 2012 in the Togo Salmon, Levy and Tomlinson galleries.
Written by: Dominika Jakubiec