Kanae and Sumiko Itakura: Retrospective Exhibit of Paris Works by Japanese Painter Couple on Display in Chiba

Courtesy of the Chiba City Museum of Art
“Reclining Woman in Red Dress” by Kanae Itakura, which is part of a private collection

An exhibition featuring painters Kanae Itakura (1901-29) and his wife, Sumiko (1908-34) — whose talents flourished in Paris, but who both died young — is currently being held at the Chiba City Museum of Art. The exhibition highlights the path of the Japanese couple who built their careers as artists in Paris, the center of art, during the interwar period.

About 240 works by the two artists are on display, some of which are being exhibited for the first time, along with about 70 items, such as photographs and letters. The exhibition is intended to commemorate the donation of 33 works to the museum by Kanae’s family in 2021.

Kanae grew up in present-day Matsudo, Chiba Prefecture, and studied Western-style painting at the Tokyo Fine Arts School, now Tokyo University of the Arts. He married Sumiko, the eldest daughter of a scholar of Russian literature. In 1926, the couple moved to Paris via Hawaii to study art.

“Paris is truly like heaven for artists,” Sumiko wrote in a letter about the joy of learning in Paris. There, Kanae was close to Shikanosuke Oka (1898-1978), who had been his classmate at the Tokyo Fine Arts School and studied under French artist Roger Bissiere (1888-1964), who was influenced by Cubism. Kanae eventually moved away from a realistic style of painting and developed his distinctive poetic style, in which he painted with concise forms and vivid colors. His major work, “Reclining Woman in Red Dress,” depicts Sumiko lying by the window with a meticulous composition, showcasing the techniques he studied in Paris.

Meanwhile, Sumiko began painting in Paris under the guidance of her husband and created lively paintings. As both of their works were selected for the prestigious Salon d’Automne the couple appeared to have launched their careers smoothly.

However, Kanae and Sumiko both died young of illness at 28 and 25, respectively. Their activities as artists were short-lived, and almost a century has passed since without their works becoming widely known.

Noriko Tanaka, a former curator of the Matsudo City Board of Education who has long conducted research on the couple and published a collection of their letters, highly praised the two artists’ works, saying, “They created new, original paintings that were worthy of acclaim in Europe during the second half of the 1920s.”

Examining the background of “Reclining Woman in Red Dress,” one would notice that the emerald green sea and a white sailboat depicted in it echoes the sea drawn in Sumiko’s paintings in her “Belle Honolulu” series.

Courtesy of the Chiba City Museum of Art
“Belle Honolulu 24” by Sumiko Itakura, which is owned by the Matsudo City Board of Education

“That sea may have been connected to her inner world,” Tanaka said. “If they had lived longer, how would they have grown [as artists] by being influenced by each other? I hope many people will become interested in them, and that it will give a boost to research about them.”

The exhibition will last through June 16.