The holy cleansing of the Samurai signed 'Tornai GY' (lower right) oil on canvas 45 1/4 x 35in (115 x 84cm)
PROVENANCE: Private collection, Vienna, Austria
EXHIBITED: Berlin, Kunstsalon Keller & Reiner, November 1907 Kunstausstellung fuer Kunst aller Art, no. 9006
Gyula Tornai was born in 1861 in a small town in Hungary known as Görgö. He began his artistic career seeking a formal education in the academies in Vienna, Munich and Budapest where he studied under prominent artists such as Hans Makart and Gyula Benczúr. Tornai's style was heavily influenced by Makart's aestheticism and tonality known as 'Makartstil' ("Makart's style" in German). His vibrantly colored and theatrical, large-scale paintings held a lasting effect on Tornai and are evident in the complex nature of many of his works.
Tornai began his career painting numerous genre scenes, however after his travels to more exotic locales, his choice of subjects changed dramatically. His early visit to Tangier, Morocco in 1890-91, provided him with new motifs to explore. In 1900 he exhibited many of the works he completed while abroad at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. Their immense success provided Tornai with the financial ability to continue his explorations and provoked him to travel for an extended period of time through China, Japan and India. It was during his sixteen month sojourn to the Far East where Tornai was most heavily influenced and began to cultivate the style for which he is renowned today.
In the course of his travels through Kyoto, Nikko, Nara, and Nagoya, Tornai's contact with the former Prime Minister of Japan, Count Okuma Shigenobu, was one of the most significant factors in the evolution of his style. He was commissioned to complete a portrait of the Marquess Taro Katsura, and the patronage introduced Tornai to the various aspects of Oriental life and to the vast traditions of the Buddhist and Shinto religions. Through Count Okuma, Tornai was able to access a side of the world typically concealed from Europeans. His fascination with the unfamiliar civilization resonates in his body of works that followed.
The present work depicts a Samurai warrior in the act of 'Misogi', a customary Shinto cleansing ritual performed to purify the body and mind. The warrior has entered the shrine and disrobed. His traditional Lamellar armor and Katana sword lie beside him while he bows his head in devotion. Water trickles from above commencing from the three lentils of the temple's structure. The Samurai stands under one of the streams in a meditative state, as the water flows down his neck and body, purifying his soul. The canvas is a vividly colored and well-balanced composition, characteristic of the artist's style in which he completed his Far East works. The colorfully patterned kimono complements the flower blossoms and intricately designed lanterns and overall temple décor. The vast array of pigments brings the canvas to life and the textured application of paint adds another dimension to the image. The work illustrates Tornai's aptitude in creating complex and visually intriguing compositions. His skill in rendering the depth and perspective of the temple and its surroundings is an example of his adept understanding of spatial arrangement. This large scale work, accompanied by the original wood-carved, Japanese frame, is a principal example of Tornai's ability to successfully captivate the essence of the foreign world.
Upon his return from his lengthy sojourn, Tornai compiled sixty similar large-scale oil paintings, as well as smaller studies. He exhibited this body of works throughout many European cities including London, Paris, Berlin, Hamburg, Leipzig and eventually Budapest. With the exhibition, Tornai gave the European viewers a coveted insight into the Far East world of Shinto and Samurai traditions, and allowed the public to see a side of this exotic life usually concealed from foreigners. Despite his dynamic palette and energetic brushstrokes, Tornai illustrated a scene of quiet meditation and worship and successfully captured the mysticism of Japanese tradition.