For the first time in Switzerland, we exhibit the mesmerising lapis lazuli works by Hiroshi Ōnishi. In 2003 as part of the scientific group the artist traveled to Kabul, Afghanistan. There he encountered the raw lapis lazuli, and decided to use it as his painting medium. Hiroshi Ōnishi fused the Eastern traditions together with the Renaissance recipe developed by Cennino Cennini from the 14th century. The thoroughly ground lapis lazuli used to be the most expensive painting pigment available during the Middle Ages. Hiroshi Ōnishi continued the tradition of “nihonga” painting, coined in the Meiji period. Manually he extracted 16 shades of luminous blue, ranging from pale to intense ultramarine color. For the first time a Japanese painter used real lapis lazuli pigment.
The series “View of Remembrance” became Ōnishi’s artistic mark. It was thinly diluted in water lapis lazuli pigment mixed with animal glue and egg yolk.
The landscape floats out of the depths of an early morning mist or fog during the seasonal change. Monochromic blue in its turn gives no clear indication of the seasonality. The landscape goes beyond the terrestrial and exists in a realm of endless space and absolute harmony. The sight of a sky through the tree’s crown is an image that one can visualize while meditating. The underlying pasty layer of tree twigs and pine needles recalls a look of branching capillary network. The thin paint layer above it gives an effect of a printed or woven surface.
This series reminds of the prominent folding screen (byōbu) from the late 16th century by Hasegawa Tohaku, depicting a view of pine trees in the mist or the work “Fallen Leaves” (1909) by Hishida Shunsō.
In 2007 Ōnishi and his colleagues from the faculty went even further and developed an innovative technique of lapis glaze for the ceramics and other tea ceremony utensils, created on the occasion of the 120th Anniversary of Tokyo Geidai.
In 2010 Ōnishi received a commission by the main priest of the Nanzen-ji in Kyoto, famous Zen Temple, to re-paint the 500 year old fusuma-e of the Tenjuan Temple in his lapis-lazuli technique. This work comprised 73 fusuma-e (paintings on sliding doors). He was able to complete 12 fusuma-e before his sudden decease in 2011.
Since his childhood Hiroshi Ōnishi strived for the tradition of Northern European painting. His graduation work, a self-portrait, in many respects echoed Jan van Eyck’s portrait of a man in a red turban. After the completion of his studies in Tokyo and Nuremberg, Ōnishi rediscovered his origin in belonging to the Eastern artistic tradition and the philosophy of Shintoism and Zen Buddhism. His first series “Waterscapes” presents the traditional painted motifs in ink e.g. mountains, bending rivers and koi fish. The thin layer of washi paper is then applied on the surface built up out of many small pyramid stupas cut by hand.
Ōnishi worked on the interpretation of ‘sunyata’, a Buddhist concept of emptiness or voidness. His paintings become less figurative, reinterpreting the motives of water, its inhabiting creatures and deities.
In 1998 Hiroshi Ōnishi returned to Japan and began to work as an oil painting instructor at his Alma Mater in Tokyo. He researched on the traditional characteristics of both Chinese and Japanese art ‘yohaku’, leaving the space on the painting consciously empty. The effect of depth and impression of a translucent veil over the painting is reinforced by
a technique interpreted by Max Doerner as ‘Schummern’, when glazing is done with a light color over a darker one. Ōnishi used partly emulsion primer as a painting medium, experimented with glue solution, egg tempera, Arabia gum on chalk in order to construct the stratified structure on the surface.