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As the boy, so the man — Kazumasa Nagai's first-ever retrospective in Hong Kong

“One of Nagai's strengths lies in incorporating the influence he absorbed from Western art movements into his own repertoire and cultural identity, shaping a unique design language that combines contemporary aesthetics with traditional Japanese styles, particularly from the Rinpa school.” — Alan Chan, Founder of Gallery 27

Some 100 posters by Japanese graphic designer Kazumasa Nagai (b.1929) are displayed on the walls in “From Now to Eternity” — a retrospective presented by GALLERY 27 that has opened last Friday at Kunsthalle in Hong Kong cultural-retail destination K11 MUSEA.


Charting the seven-decade career of the acclaimed graphic designer, the splendor of the show lies in both its breadth and depth. Nagai designed primarily for corporations, cultural events, and magazines throughout the 1950s to 1970s, where his imagination first found its expression in abstract, geometric compositions  — suggesting the designer’s profound association to the Bauhaus movement. Then came Nagai’s fascination with landscapes and the universe in the 1980s, transforming bold, hard-cornered shapes into concrete, life-like imagery, often anchored by a singular sense of space. And, from the 1980s onwards, Nagai shifted his gaze from the cosmos to life itself, accenting figurations of living creatures with a heightened awareness of endangered species and the environment at large. Up till today, aged 93, Nagai reportedly still creates new artwork on a daily basis.


Prior to the show’s opening, we sat down with Alan Chan, founder of GALLERY 27, to take a closer look into the works and practice of Nagai.

Beginning with his first job as a graphic designer for Daiwabo Co. during the early 1960s, Naiga established his reputation with a slew of distinctive works, the foremost being the "Asahi Stiny" (1965) poster, with which he became the first Japanese person to win a Gold Prize at the Warsaw International Poster Biennale.


"One of Nagai's strengths lies in incorporating the influence he absorbed from Western art movements into his own repertoire and cultural identity, shaping a unique design language that combines contemporary aesthetics with traditional Japanese styles, particularly from the Rinpa school," says Chan.


An archetypal work is the Sapporo 1972 Winter Olympics emblem. Wordless but not soundless, the design effortlessly delivers the message of the games taking place in Japan by pairing the hinomaru (the crimson red circular sun of Japan's national flag) with the Olympic rings. At the center, the circular branches of the snowflake is more than an aesthetic choice to complement the other two logos, it is also inspired by a Japanese coat of arms dating as far back as the Heian period (781–1185 A.D. ). Another defining trait — which probably separated Nagai from the other eight top-notch designers in securing the commission — is the aspect ratio with which he designed the emblem, one of a narrow, vertical rectangular plane, comparable to a smartphone screen. "It carries significance because no one would've designed it in such a radical aspect ratio during that era; normally people would go with the conventional scales," says Chan.

"It was as if he were a child again — one who draws whatever he likes, without a worry in the world." — Alan Chan, Founder of Gallery 27


Using a compass and ruler as his main tools, Nagai defined a better part of his career — as well as Japan's postwar graphic design world — with his signature geometrical and spatial design. It wasn't until the late 1980s that he decided to depart from his usual practice altogether and "betray", as Nagai put it, the audience with his seminal "LIFE" series. 


Taking center stage in this series are hand-drawn living creatures, each with their own state of mind: some looking afar, some staring directly at the viewers, and others leaping towards the shadowed mysteries in the pitch-black canvas, totally oblivious to our gaze. While the series garners our attention towards the predicament faced by endangered animals and the natural environment, it also marks an important shift in Nagai's mentality. "It was as if he were a child again — one who draws whatever he likes, without a worry in the world," says Chan.


In seeking self-renewal in his own practice, Nagai attempted to attain the innocence of a child, through drawing "the hard to draw", as Nagai reflected in a recent interview. Visit the last section in “From Now to Eternity”, and you will get an idea of how “difficult” looks like to the master graphic designer. In a couple of single-line sketches from the 1998 "SAVE" series, the shaky lines, outlining the shapes of a giraffe and a wolf, were drawn with Nagai's weaker left hand. Hating to repeat himself, Nagai "[chose] the freedom of not being trapped" rather than continuing with the mechanical pursuit of consistency.


In the early 2000s, the choice to break free also informed the reappearance of copper plates in Nagai's printmaking practice after a 35-year hiatus. The labor-intensive copperplate printing method, often complicated by the etching process, involves a great deal of uncertainty as there is no way to gauge certain aspects of the work until it is printed. Seemingly an irrational practice in an algorithm-driven era, this printmaking approach brought Nagai a sense of joy that no laser-like accuracy could match. When completing a piece to his desire, the designer described it as the kind of bliss "when against all odds you get the result you want".

"From Now to Eternity" also marks another chapter in Nagai's constant pursuit of breakthroughs. Amidst a sea of posters, figurines of five living creatures from the "LIFE" series takes the center spot in Kunsthalle. The figurines, alongside a 1.9-meter-tall installation, were derived from various collections such as "I'M HERE" (1992) and "DESIGN LIFE" (1993). Each of them were created using a 3D-printing method, and hand-painted to the finest detail in order to match the coloring in Nagai's original drawings. Produced by THE HOUSE OF DESIGN & ART — a firm that specializes in fostering the culture of collectibles, particularly amongst the younger generation — the 3D creations offer a fresh take on Nagai’s whimsical world of imagery. "He is impressed and more than happy to see the protagonists from the 'LIFE' series transformed into real life characters," recalls Chan.


For a retrospective such as "From Now to Eternity'' that is rich in context and diverse in styles, attaining a full understanding of the significance for the works could seem like a daunting task to the unassuming eyes. However, to Chan, it is simply a matter of joyful aesthetic appreciation. "As with viewing an artwork, the experience of 'From Now to Eternity' should be a straightforward one: If a poster speaks to you in any way, it doesn't matter even if you don't understand the underlying message," says Chan. “And the perseverance [shown in Nagai’s practice] is in itself an inspiration.”


So, lest at some point the works become too much to take in, give it a break and take in Nagai’s extraordinary story simply through his colors, flair, and gusto. Demonstrating an imagination running free through the ebb and flow of life throughout more than seven decades, the works by Kazumasa Nagai are as timeless as they are topical.



Kazumasa Nagai: From Now to Eternity

September 30 – October 12


Kunsthalle, 6F, K11 MUSEA

18 Salisbury Rd, Tsim Sha Tsui

Hong Kong