Painting: Toshio Shibata

Chose Commune unearths 16 previously unpublished works from the contemporary Japanese photographer, best-known for his painterly depictions of rural landscapes

Photography and painting have an undeniably tender relationship. In a time before the camera, realistic imagery would be produced by artists, employing a brush to hand and putting to use a mastering eye of realism. Now, in a world over-saturated with imagery, it’s hard to imagine a time when the long and intricate process of painting was the only format of replication – witnessing the skill and patience it would take to craft each stroke, gesture and expression. But the influence of both mediums works twofold, and the earliest practitioners of photography turned towards painting to find their subjects, be it a still life, landscape, nude or portrait. 

So when photography presents itself in a way that correlates highly with the process of painting, something wonderful happens. Your mind is instantaneously transported into otherworldly places; the locations which seem unfathomable, too scrumptious, too perfect, too colourful or vivid. Toshio Shibata is a photographer who’s mastered this canon, and he’s spent a healthy career perfecting the marriage of abstraction and realism through his camera. A contemporary Japanese photographer, he’s best-known for his large images of civil engineering in rural Japan, where manmade constructs are paired eloquently with notes from the natural world, causing ripples in light and sheds of water as they pass and flicker through the structural compositions of humankind. Dams, lakes and water ways are synced with the earthy notes of the environment; but rather than viewing these opposites as two juxtaposed elements in his work, Toshio depicts them in unmatched harmony.

You’d be unsurprised to learn that Toshio’s career first began in painting, having graduated with a BA and MFA in the subject from Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. After leaving Japan in 1975 to pursue his studies at the Royal Academy in Ghent, Belgium, that’s when Toshio decided to test his hands at painting and printmaking, later discovering his interests in photography. Gas stations were his primary subject while making his debut into the medium, but it wasn’t long until he’d moved onto the landscapes of Japan, documenting the fine moments where the artificial and natural collide. To such success that Toshio received the Kimura Ihei Award in 1992, and he’s also had works exhibited internationally since 1971, including a solo show at Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography; the Sprengel Museum in Hanover; the Centre National de Photogoraphie in Paris and many others.

In a new book published by Chose Commune, 16 previously unpublished colour works are brought to the surface in an artful curation of his finest and meticulous compositions. Aptly titled Painting, the publication turns an ultra-fine lens onto the more abstract and painterly of his pieces, and is designed in concertina format – to represent the kakemono, a Japanese unframed scroll painting. Below, I chat to Cécile Poimboeuf-Koizumi – director and co-founder of Chose Commune alongside Vasantha Yogananthan – to hear more about the publication. 

What inspired you to make this book?

I had been looking at Toshio Shibata’s work for a while but the idea of making a book came quite late. When I decide to reach out to an artist and propose a book, the intention has to be quite strong. When artists have never made a book before, it’s easier. The lack of an existing book on an important work is a good enough reason to make a book. In the case of Toshio Shibata, he had already made quite a few monographs. I asked myself: “why would it be relevant to release yet another book?” Including new and/or unpublished photographs can be a good reason. But I thought it would make even more sense if the concept was innovative and strong. I started selecting over 50 images and in the end, I kept only 16 and imagined this very tightly edited book that can also be turned into a kakemono (a Japanese unframed scroll painting made on paper or silk and displayed as a wall hanging).

What is it that you enjoy about Toshio Shibata’s work specifically; is it the subject matter, the aesthetic or process, for example?

I have always admired Toshio Shibata’s work for the quality of the composition in his photographs, as well as his prints. His colour work is fantastic. Also, although Toshio Shibata is best known for his landscape photographs, I was more drawn to the more abstract ones, when Toshio Shibata’s lens is closer to his subject matter and the photographs become a mysterious abstract composition. 

The book unearths 16 unpublished colour photographs, why bring these into light now?

Bringing those 16 unpublished colour photographs is a personal choice. It could have been any 16 other images, and my only guide was to choose the most abstract ones. This was also a reference to Toshio Shibata’s interest in painting, which he studied before he took on photography. This intention gave its title to the book as well: painting, as in the act of painting. For me, Toshio Shibata photographs the landscape as a painter would paint it: carefully choosing his colours from a palette, and bringing a lot of detail and texture to his compositions. 

Talk me through the design of the book, why make the comparison to a concertina and kakemono? What does this add to the presentation and interpretation of the artwork?

The book was designed as a concertina book, which means that one can unfold the book and discover the whole sequence. It’s a very different experience from actually turning the pages of a traditional book. The sequence is uninterrupted. 

But I thought it would also be interesting to give a vertical reading to the images, as a hint to Japanese scroll paintings. When hanging on a wall, the eight images on each side become something else. One doesn’t really read them as eight single images anymore but as one larger abstract image. The multiple readings of the images add an interesting layer to the interpretation of the work. 

What about the structure, was there much consideration to the order and placement of each image?

Yes, the order and placement were carefully thought through. My partner, the photographer Vasantha Yogananthan, pitched in for that. It was like a puzzle: we moved around the pieces, and found the harmony and connections between the shapes and colours. It was like composing another image from existing images.

Can you pick out a couple of personal favourites from the book and talk me through them?

16 images isn’t much, so I guess they’re all favourites. But if I had to pick only two, I would say the apple tree and what I call the “blue canvas with holes”. I wouldn’t know how to explain it. I think I like how the apple tree is a figurative photograph, but the bright apples looking like distinct dots of colour in the branches make it look almost like “pointillism”, the painting technique branching from Impressionism. And the blue canvas is the photograph that looks the most like a painting, almost like a Mark Rothko who’s one of my favourite painters of all time. 

How do you hope the audience will respond to the work?

As a publisher, it’s always impossible to predict the response to a book and the work inside. It’s daunting and magical at the same time. 

Painting is available here.

A Museum of Light in Nantes

A total transformation of the Musee d’arts de Nantes carried out by London-based architecture practice Stanton Williams has reimagined the museum as a modern shrine to natural light

In recent years, scores of museums and galleries have sought to rebrand themselves with bold extensions and redesigns. While the objective is often the same, approaches and execution tend to vary almost as much as the results and their reception; by turns controversial or celebrated, triumphant or tragic.

For architects, the task of bridging past and present is marked by competing concerns, and there is a case to be made for architectural intervention with a studied sense of place. Even where contrast appears single-minded, it is underpinned by the need to conserve and modernise at the same time. In the case of the Musee d’arts de Nantes (formerly the Musee des Beaux-Arts de Nantes), British architecture practice Stanton Williams has engaged the opposing forces of continuity and transformation in thoughtful dialogue throughout the museum’s all-encompassing overhaul. Here, sensitivity is tantamount to success. 

Since winning the commission in 2009, Stanton Williams has spent the last six years on the project, drawing on founding director Paul Williams’ background in exhibition design and architectural planning for museums and galleries. The practice’s vision for the museum extends far beyond the usual scope and encompasses a full-scale interior renovation of the original Palais des Beaux-Arts, a new extension for contemporary art, a new graphic arts centre, a sculpture court, and a new link to the 17th century oratory chapel, where a video triptych by American artist Bill Viola is on permanent display. Uniquely, the architects have also collaborated with London-based design studio Cartlidge Levene to redesign the museum’s visual identity – including exhibition design, interior design and signage – in order to create a seamless experience. 

Internal view of Palais with installation by Susanna Fritscher © Hufton + Crow

While excavating the Palais, digging six metres down into the ground to create new spaces beneath the Beaux-Arts building, they uncovered the hand-laid stonework making up its foundations. “This is the beauty of unpicking things,” says Williams. Archways of exposed stone have been incorporated into the minimal appearance of the lower-ground floor, understatedly bringing old and new into balance and reflecting a subtle attention to detail apparent throughout the whole project. 

Patrick Richard, the lead architect on the redesign and director at Stanton Williams, explains that the marble, brass and wood used throughout also aim to heighten the senses. “Every time people engage physically with the building – benches, doors, walls – all of these materials create something very sensual.”

The renovated Palais des Beaux-Arts and its extensions make the gentle Atlantic light – which floods in through the pitched skylights and illuminates the abundance of alabaster – strangely physical. The shaft of an old service elevator inside the Palais has been remade in translucent glass, tunnelling diffuse light down from roof to the basement, while existing skylights have been fitted with layers of glass, stretched fabric and adjustable blinds as part of a complex system that helps optimise natural light.

This continues in the new contemporary art extension, the Cube, where one facade is clad with ultra thin sheets of Portuguese marble, hung between two pieces of glass. During the day, light from outside filters through, and at night, glows from within, throwing veins of marble into relief. At only 7mm, it is so thin that shadows can be seen on the other side. Richard refers to it as a contemporary fresco of sorts. 

“The Palais was very introverted in some ways but in the upper galleries, the sky and the light gives you a sense that you are part of a city as well,” he says, returning to the original building designed by local architect Clément-Marie Josso and planned around a central courtyard. “The clouds pass, the light changes. The space is open and you are part of something else.” This thinking, which puts the play of light at the heart of the Musee d’arts de Nantes, informed each step of Stanton Williams’ soft-footed approach. “This is a museum of light.”

As it reopens to the public under a new name, the Musee d’arts de Nantes takes its place as the sixth largest fine arts institution in France. The museum has been a beacon of Nantes’ cultural standing since it opened in 1900. Now, its collection of over 12,000 works spanning 13th century to contemporary has a home truly fit to rival anything in the French capital.

The Musee d’arts de Nantes is now open to the public