Concave and Convex

“Concave and Convex: A Sumikawa Kiichi Retrospective” was held at the Yokohama Museum of Art from February 15 to May 24, 2020

Sculptures in Sumikawa Kiichi’s Yielding Form series exhibited at Yokohama Museum of Art, 2020; created, from left, in 2014, 1997, 2018 and 2001 JAPAN JOURNAL PHOTO

As a high school student in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, Sumikawa Kiichi (1931–) liked to visit the Nishiki River and draw pictures of the Kintaikyo Bridge. Composed of five wooden arches on four stone piers, the bridge has been the subject of artists for many a crescent moon.

Top, Suo Province: Iwakuni, Kintaikyo Bridge, from the series Famous Places in the Sixty-odd Provinces, Utagawa Hiroshige, 1856  PUBLIC DOMAIN


Sumikawa, though, was enrolled in machinery classes, and his interest was in the mechanics of the bridge design. Why was this bridge so beautiful?

Sumikawa learned that straight planks had been bracketed in tiers to form the arches and that specific timbers had been selected and positioned according to their respective durability, rigidity and flexibility. His studies inspired him to dream of becoming an architect. 

A section of the Kintaikyo Bridge CHRIS GLADIS VIA FLICKR, CC BY-ND 2.0


Then disaster struck. In 1950, the Kintaikyo Bridge was swept away in a storm.

The self-dismantlement of the wooden arches in the event of a flood is partly by design, to protect the supporting stone pillars so that the bridge can be rebuilt. Nevertheless, as a witness to the destruction, Sumikawa was devastated, and his dream of becoming an architect suddenly altered. The splintered arches of the bridge, lying in abstraction on the banks of the river like sculpture installations, steered the young Sumikawa in the direction of art.

In 1952, Sumikawa enrolled in the sculpture department of Tokyo University of the Arts. Under the tutelage of Hirakushi Denchu, a master of modern wood sculpture, he began sculpting clay and wood.

Bronze bust by Sumikawa of Scottish civil engineer Richard Henry Brunton, Yokohama, 1991 JAPAN JOURNAL PHOTO

“I created works using saws and chisels, hacking away at the camphor wood, with no compassion for the soaring trees,” he says [quotes in this article from the exhibition literature]. “According to the historical records of Horyuji Temple, wood from southern-facing trees was used to build the southern facades of its wooden structures. I have learned that trees ringed with age continue living gracefully even after they have been felled. I realize now, that concealed in the beauty of every tree, is a ‘yielding form.’ Trees are filled with life. I open my heart to the voices of the trees.”

Sumikawa’s Yielding Form sculptures have become his lifework and are a subject he continues to explore. The magical balance of convex and concave curves in opposition in many of his works is almost musical to the eye.


A Yielding Form sculpture from 2018; 215 x 85 x 50, cedar JAPAN JOURNAL PHOTO OF THE EXHIBIT AT THE YOKOHAMA MUSEUM OF ART, 2020



A Yielding Form sculpture from 1993; Bank of Yokohama, Yokohama; 400 x 120 x 100; zelkova, Japanese pagoda JAPAN JOURNAL PHOTO


Sumikawa’s feel for natural materials and the environment is equally extended to stone. His art is even manifest to uncanny effect on a grand scale in Tokyo Skytree, on which project the sculptor was invited to serve as design director. Contrary to first impressions, the Skytree is not symmetrical, and from many angles even appears to be leaning.

Sumikawa’s Seed (Monument for Shimomura Kanzan), Yokohama, granite, 1998 JAPAN JOURNAL PHOTO




Visitors peer up at Tokyo Skytree through Sumikawa’s To the Sky sculpture at its base. PHOTO Dick Thomas Johnson VIA FLICKR, CC BY 2.0


Tokyo Skytree PHOTO By Kakidai – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0


Alex Hendy, The Japan Journal

Notes: 1. The quotes in this article come from the literature accompanying the exhibition. 2. A version of this article appeared in the March/April 2020 issue of the Japan Journal magazine, when the exhibition was being held at the Yokohama Museum of Art


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