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Shogo OTANI's essay

"Q Ei, Explorer of Light"

by Shogo Otani (Chief Curator, The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo)

Who exactly is Q Ei? From the 1930s through the 1950s, the bizarrely named artist made a reputation for himself on the Japanese avant-garde art scene with his highly original artistic practice, yet summarizing the nature of his contribution in a few words is no easy task. For a start, Q Ei used a myriad of different media, from the gphoto-dessinsh with which he became synonymous to oil painting, collage[PB1] , etchings, and lithographs. That his expressive style fluctuated wildly will be clear from the range of works displayed in this small-scale exhibition, and yet he was not one of those artists who constantly attempted to mimic the rapidly changing movements that came over from the West. When we trace the path of his creation, what comes into view is the figure of a profoundly earnest artist, committed to exploring how to capture the world around him in the realest way possible.

Q Ei, whose real name was Sugita Hideo, was born in Miyazaki Prefecture in southwest Japan as second son to an ophthalmologist. He dropped out of his local junior high school, moving to Tokyo in 1925 to enter art college at the age of just 14, only to quit this also after a short time. The decade that followed was a time of exploration for Sugita. At the age of just 16, the precocious youth began to write reviews for art magazines, and by 1930 he was studying for a short course at photography school, where he first tried his hand at making photograms.[i]

lui[  Work-B@i|a

 When those experiments too came to a standstill, he once again took up his brush, coming and going between Tokyo and his Miyazaki hometown as he worked on his oil paintings. He submitted his work to several different exhibitions but was repeatedly rejected. Work-B (1935;, created in the final stage of this period of experimentation, shows a flower-like form depicted with an impassioned artistic touch that emphasizes the materiality of the paint. Around this time period, Sugita also began studying Esperanto, and it was through this he made the acquaintance of art critic Kubo Sadajiro, who would go on to be his lifelong supporter.        


The turning point in Q Eifs career came in 1936. At the very start of that year, he returned to the photograms with which he had previously experimented, and in February he took the fruits of his labors to Tokyo, where he showed them to Hasegawa Saburo. An experimental painter who had returned to Japan in 1932 from his studies in France, Hasegawa was at that point just beginning to attract public attention as a proponent of abstract art, in the roles of both artist and critic. After lavishing Sugitafs photograms with praise, Hasegawa introduced him to his acquaintance, art critic Toyama Usaburo, and thus engineered Sugitafs debut appearance on the art stage. It was at this time that Sugita came up with his artistfs name, Q Ei. His deliberate choice of the most unusual-sounding name possible came out of a wish to be grebornh and move away from his former persona of Sugita Hideo. His photograms also renamed as photo-dessins, and in April that year, a selection of ten of them were released in the form of a portfolio entitled Nemuri no riyū [eThe Reason for Sleepf] from the art association owned by Toyama, as a limited-edition run of forty copies. At the same time, a solo exhibition of these photo-dessins took place in Ginza, Tokyo. Q Ei was promptly introduced in Mizue, a major art magazine at the time, and began to garner attention.[ii]

Viewed from an international perspective, that Q Ei made his artistic debut in 1936 with a selection of photograms might not appear that extraordinary. After all, Christian Schad, Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagy were already producing works using this technique in the 1920s, and many of these had found their way into Japan in the late 1920s[iii] However, it should be stated that Q Eifs photograms—or rather, photo-dessins—were unique in kind, and belong in a different context to the Dadaism and structuralism of the 1920s.    

Be it the works by Man Ray, where forms float across the photographic paper like matter released from the burden of its original mass, or those of Moholy-Nagy, which rely on the contours of physical items to create a composition in light, what we invariably observe in such photograms is the use of some kind of preexisting object. In contrast, Q Ei incorporated not only preexisting objects, but also his own dessins (sketches) which he cut out and used as templates, arranging them on the photographic paper and exposing them to light to create images—hence the origin of the term gphoto-dessin.h Here, the photogram, which records the vestiges of reality, is put to use in recording the traces of the movements made by the artistfs hands. On the page, solid matter melds dreamily with the abstracted forms of people and animals.

Viewed formally, these works can also be seen as providing a solution to an issue faced by the world of avant-garde painting in the late 1930s. In 1936, when Q Ei made his artistic debut, Japanfs avant-garde art scene was divided into the two factions of abstract art and surrealism, which stood in a rather antagonistic relationship to one another, and there is a sense in which it was seen as the work of the avant-garde artists to find a way of reconciling the two. In March 1936, directly before Q Eifs debut, the Swiss painter Kurt Seligmann visited Japan, where he was presented as someone who had been involved in the Abstraction-Création group in France, but was attempting to leave.[iv] At the same time, Okamoto Taro, the only Japanese artist to be involved in the Abstraction-Création group, wrote an article for a Japanese newspaper about overcoming the opposition between abstraction and surrealism.[v]  

What, then, was Q Eifs take on all this? In a catalog essay for his 1936 exhibition, he stated that abstract art was in danger of narrowing the boundaries of painting, while surrealism was in danger of unconsciously overstepping those boundaries. As for the question of which category his works belonged to, he said, he wished to leave that to the judgment of the viewers. On the flip side of this diplomatic statement, we find the expression of a confidence that he in fact belongs to neither camp.  Work@i  Work@i  Three people@Ol  Work@i  Fish@

lu̒  In the water@̒  Three people@Ol  Walk (Paradise)@Uiyj

lusځ  Untitled@s

gWhat Ifm seeking,h Q Ei wrote, gis a mechanistic form of expression churned out by the confusion of the 20th century machine,h stating that it was for that reason he was using gphotographic paper, which captures lightfs most delicate secretsh.[vi] He wanted to represent the real world around him with a contemporary sense of reality, believing that this was impossible with oil painting, which had been around for so long, and even with straight photography. It was thus that the photo-dessin came about, combining as it did worldly objects with his own sketches.[vii]

However, it would be hard to conclude that Japan at that time fully understood his endeavors. In a letter to a friend, Q Ei wrote, gThey donft understand what Ifm trying to do, and think Ifm doing the same thing as Man Ray, which displeases me.h[viii] With the Second Sino-Japanese War beginning in July 1937, followed by the outbreak of the Pacific War, there was a clampdown on avant-garde expression. It would not be until after World War Two had ended that he would be able to resume work on his photo-dessins.

The majority of the ten or so photo-dessins displayed in this exhibition were produced after World War Two, when Q Eifs experiments were unrestrained and far-reaching. The animals and people appearing in the stencils are portrayed with the utmost freedom, and are at times so charming that they resemble something from a childfs picture book. Lace and netting are incorporated for their decorative functions, and a technique of taking multiple exposures while gradually moving the stencil generates subtle depth and movement. In Work (, color has been sprayed onto the image, while the undulating lines in Little Bird ( were created by moving a penlight across the surface of the photographic paper. Q Ei combined these techniques in his photo-dessin work, so that by this point it had become much like a new kind of light painting with a multi-layered structure. Song of Birds ( and Red and Yellow ( use a spray gun with an air compressor to create a layered structure that echoes the photo-dessins.  Work@i  Little bird@

luԁ  Flowers@ԁX

lủ́  Song of birds@̉

luԂƉ  Red and Yellow@ԂƉ

Another point of interest is Work ( To create this complicated image, the artist covers glass, cellophane and other transparent materials with line drawings, before placing them onto photographic paper and exposing them. The finished result may appear at first glance like an Informel painting, of the kind that were just being introduced to Japan at the time of its creation. However, the crucial difference is that Informel paintings almost without exception emphasize the materiality of their paint, whereas Q Eifs work has been created on photographic paper, meaning its sense of materiality is extremely limited. Interestingly, the same also applies to the oil paintings Q Ei produced toward the end of his life, represented in this exhibition by Archetype of Sea ( and Yellow Morning [PB2] ( In his later years, Q Ei arrived at a unique form of expression where grains of light covered the entirety of the canvas. In Archetype of Sea, blotches of assorted colors spread out radially across the surface of the picture, floating free from gravity, leaving the viewer unsure even which direction is up.

Archetype of sea@@Č^  Yellow morning@F

The following year, Q Eifs daubs of color grew even smaller, his paint became thinner and its sense of materiality reduced, and his canvases increased in size. The artist stated that he wished for his canvases to be arranged outside, under the sunlight, side by side so they surrounded the viewer[ix]. By this point, Q Ei was already unwell, his health suffering as a result of pouring too much into his creation. He died in 1960 at the age of just 48. His dream in the final stage of his life was the purification of our visual experience. When held up against the majority of Japanese artists of his generation, who were influenced by the Informel movement and perceived painting as a tussle between the medium of paint and the body of the painter, Q Eifs originality is outstanding. Looking back across his artistic career from the perspective of where he ended up, what comes vividly into view is a single path, winding yet determined, coming and going between paintings and photographs, all the while attempting to capture reality through light. I sincerely hope that this small exhibition helps spark a reappraisal of Q Eifs work from the 1930s to the 1950s within the international art context.

[i] Sugita Hideo, gThe Free Creation of Photogramsh in Photo Times, Vol.7, Issue No. 8, August 1930

[ii] Uemura Takachiyo, gThe Origin of Conscious Painting: Q Eifs Raison Dfêtreh in Mizue, Issue 375, May 1936

[iii] Nakada Sadanosuke, gNew Trends in Photographyh in Asahi Camera, Vol. 2., Issue No. 4, October 1926; Nakada Sadanosuke, gMan Rayfs Abstract Photographyh in Asahi Camera, Vol. 2., Issue No. 5, November 1926

[iv] Kurt Seligmann, gTo All the Avant-Garde Artistsh in Mizue, Issue 375, May 1936

[v] Okamoto Taro, gAbstraction and Surrealismh in Nagoya Shimbun, February 28th, 1936

[vi] Q Ei, gOn My Workh in eQ Eifs Photo-Dessinsf Exhibition Catalogue, Sankakudo, Osaka, June 1936

[vii] Although they are not displayed in this exhibition, the range of photo-dessins Q Ei produced includes those which were created by placing film negatives that had been drawn on or had sections cut out of them directly onto photographic paper to create an impression. The works made using this technique illustrate more directly Q Eifs violent intervention into reality. Perceiving this, Umezu Gen made the important observation: gPhoto-dessins should not be seen as a special kind of photogram. We must rather reverse this perspective and say that the photogram is one part of the wider concept of photo-dessin.h Umezu Gen, gQ Ei as a Device; Play, Forward, Review, Pause, Reverse, Stoph, Exhibition Catalogue for eThe 100th Anniversary of Q Eifs Birthf, The Museum of Modern Art, Saitama, and others, July 2011

[viii]Q Ei, Letter to Yamada Coshun, March 9th, 1936.

[ix]Kimizu Ikuo, gI like Q Eih in eQ Ei, Father of Contemporary Artf Exhibition Catalogue, Odakyu Grand Gallery, June 1979


(Shogo Otani) (Trans. Polly Barton)

wQ Ei ExhibitionxCatalogue

PublishedFWatanuki Ltd@2019
EssayFOtani ShogoiChief Curator, MoMATj
ImagesFapprox. 44 images
EditedFOdachi ReikoiWatanuki Ltdj
DesignFOkamoto Issen Design Company
TranslationFPolly Barton, Katsumi MioiWatanuki Ltdj
This catalogue includes the 17 works from the exhibition, as well an archive of the previous 27 Q Ei exhibitions held by Toki no Wasuremono. English and Japanese.

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