Lot 1071
  • 1071

Imai Toshimitsu

1,000,000 - 2,000,000 HKD
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  • Imai Toshimitsu
  • Temps Modernes
  • oil on canvas
signed in Japanese and English, titled in French and dated 1956 on the reverse, framed


Anthony Denney Collection (Acquired directly from the artist)
Takemoto Tadao Collection
Private Asian Collection (Acquired from the above)
Acquired by the present owner from the above


Japan, Osaka, The National Museum of Art; Tokyo, Meguro Museum of Art; Iwaki, Iwaki City Art Museum, Imaï- A Retrospective, 1950-1989, April - October 1989, pp. 26-27
Japan, Gifu, Hikaru Museum, Imai Toshimitsu Exhibition, September - Decmeber 2002


Toshimitsu IMAÏ, Kyuryudo Art Publishing Co., Tokyo, Japan, 1975, p. 6
IMAÏ, Electa, Milan, Italy, 1998, p. 68

Catalogue Note

Virginal Magic
Imai Toshimitsu

Even in Paris that looks at first gay and free, we must leap into the turmoil, living in the Parisian art world and participating in the creation of art. It is not allowed to remain a lukewarm onlooker, but must stand up as the others as creator and inspire the response of others in a plastic language … a stay of only a year or two is ultimately impossible. – Toshimitsu Imaï, January 1955 1

The enigmatic, darkly resplendent Temps Modernes (1956) (Lot 1071) is archetypal of Imaï Toshimitsu’s extraordinarily prolific early years in Paris. As a young Japanese artist thrust straight into the heart of Europe’s budding Informel movement, Imaï’s signature 1950s epoch displayed swift yet measured transitions in style and subject: rich colors burgeoned progressively from hitherto dark monochromatic tones; concrete outlines dissolved into abstract gestures imbued with pure emotion; while surfaces became dynamically, fiercely, textured. The breakthrough Modernes series, a group of monumental paintings created shortly after Imaï’s encounter with French critic Michel Tapié, marks the artist’s official abandonment of premeditated forms and wholehearted embracing of expressionist processes. 

Hailing from this revolutionary series, the current lot was the first of Imaï’s paintings to be sold after his association with Informel – Temps Modernes was promptly acquired, immediately after its completion, by prominent English photographer, interior designer and art connoisseur Anthony Denney (1913-1990). One of the first art collectors to recognize the new visual language championed by Tapié’s art autre philosophy, Denney’s perceptive and anticipatory vision led him to quickly amass one of the most important and influential modern art collections in Europe and the world. In addition to Imaï, Denney acquired groundbreaking pieces from artists such as Karen Appel, Alberto Burri, Jean Dubuffet, Lucio Fontana and Georges Mathieu from the West, as well as the Gutai group from the East, well before they became widely known. 

Crucially, on account of his bold move to Paris in 1952 in spite of his blossoming fame in Japan, Imaï was the first Japanese artist to become associated with the European Informel movement. Spurred on by Tapié, the Informel artists strived for a postwar break from all prior notions of order, form and composition, including those of Modernism, emphasising not just the non-figurative but also the non-geometric. Imaï lived out Informel’s unbridled spontaneity and instinctive expression with bold and unreserved abandon: forsaking both outline and brush, he began throwing on paint in thick splashes and spatters, heaping and layering with knives, and dripping acrylic directly onto the canvas. 

The result, in Temps Modernes especially, is a stunningly complex pictorial surface uniquely idiosyncratic of Imaï’s paintings. The technique and outcome achieved in the extraordinarily progressive piece would go on to become distinctive of Imaï’s entire oeuvre: ridges, sinewy tendons and craggy crevices leap, writhe and cut through molten coatings of paint; scatterings of sand grit augment the organic textures; while mesmerizing sheens of color shimmer through a subtly glossed lacquer finish reminiscent of traditional Japanese pottery. The palette is dark, muted and somber from afar; up close, rich earth colors emerge in steady tides even as the eye roves the canvas, as if carried forth from the unfathomable depths of the painting itself.  

At once rugged and majestic, simultaneously gritty and graceful, the quietly gripping piece exudes a kind of cosmic dynamism that is humble yet transcendent. Imaï’s new Informel works impressed Parisian media overnight: in 1957, writing in the catalogue for Imaï’s solo exhibition at Stadler Gallery in Paris, poet and critic Shuzo Takiguchi used the distinctive phrase une magie virginale (“a virginal magic”) to describe the raw exuberance of Imaï’s paintings. A similar expression, geste virginale (“virginal gesture”), was used by French author Jean-Jacques Lévêque, also in response to the 1957 Stadler Gallery exhibition. The defining show played a key role in establishing Imaï’s international status: compared to contemporary Informel artists of the period, Imaï’s Japanese roots set him apart with a fresh aesthetic and East Asian sensibility that reach into the very depths of human existence.  

In Takiguchi’s words, Imaï’s art is “directed toward the sources, and goes back to the primitive elements of Japanese art whose masterpieces formerly realized the perfect unity of signs and matter […] Imaï admits in his picture his sympathy for the magic of earth and fire of ancient Japanese potters […] In the old craft of European painting Imaï is going to accomplish a virginal magic”. A tireless lifelong proponent as well as practitioner of Informel, Imaï went on to play a central role in introducing the movement to Japan. He organized the first Informel show in Japan as early as 1956, selecting paintings by Appel, Dubuffet, Mathieu, Francis, Jean Fautrier and Jean-Paul Riopelle, etc, and promoted Tapié’s writings and theories in the country. In 1957 Imaï personally arranged for Tapié and Mathieu to visit Japan; soon afterwards, Tapié and Mathieu became important associates and advocates of the Gutai movement in Europe and beyond.  

IMAÏ Toshimitsu, Kyuryudo Art Publishing Co., Tokyo, 1975, p. 75