Monday, September 19, 2011

Patron Saint #6: Sakiko Ide, an Artist Obsessed

Sakiko Ide, Untitled - Oil on canvas, 1973 - Azuma Gallery

"If you would be happy for a lifetime, grow Chrysanthemums."

(a Chinese philosopher)

"To dream that you gather white chrysanthemums, signifies loss and much perplexity; colored ones, betokens pleasant engagements. To see them in bouquets, denotes that love will be offered you, but a foolish ambition will cause you to put it aside. To pass down an avenue of white chrysanthemums, with here and there a yellow one showing among the white, foretells a strange sense of loss and sadness, from which the sensibilities will expand and take on new powers... Often death is near you in these dreams."

- From an online Dream Dictionary found here.

Scene: New York City, Time: 1975. Police are called to an uptown apartment by the building's superintendent who, upon entering said apartment - to turn a tenant's water off, which apparently had been running for some undeterminable amount of time - is met by an unpleasant discovery. When the police arrive on the scene, they find "large canvases... stacked against the wall, reaching almost to the ceiling in the small apartment." Strangely, these canvases seemed to hold images of chrysanthemums exclusively. "A narrow path led through the giant chrysanthemums to a bed, a kitchen and a bathroom." It also led to the lifeless body of a middle-aged woman, apparently the artist. Her wrists and stomach had been slashed in such a "brutal" way, however, the police were initially inclined to describe it as homicide.

Shortly thereafter, or so the story goes, the verdict is changed as the police are tipped off by one of the woman's "male co-workers" - at a company which reproduced antique Asian-motifed screens - that the artist had recently inquired about "the best way to commit suicide".  It couldn't have helped that she had suffered a nervous breakdown five years hence to remove any suspicions regarding her death.

But, I can't help but wonder why a few warning bells didn't go off. regarding the fact that not long before her death, she had "received" a life insurance policy, and having no one to claim as a beneficiary - as, apparently she had no family - one of her afore-mentioned co-workers was chosen "almost at random", so that the necessary forms could be filed.

In any event, that was the end of investigation. Death by seppuku, also known as harakiri, a form of ritualistic suicide originally reserved for Samurai warriors, and, in this particular case, a method generally reserved for males ("the best way..."?).

Sakiko Ide, Kikusui VI - silkscreen with hand coloring, 1973

The artist's name was Sakiko Ide, born in February, 1927, in Japan, and relocating to America to study art in Chicago during 1965 at the age of 36. After her graduation, two years later, she moved to New York where she became a member of the Japanese Artist's Association. She painted in oils as well as made serigraph prints, which were delicately hand-colored with pastels and inlaid with gold and silver leaf; some of which were bought by the Museum of Modern Art.  Others were exhibited at the Azuma Gallery, which, after her death, held a posthumous one-woman show.

I was introduced to Ide's story from an article - "The Chrysanthemums of Sakiko Ide" - written by Tricia Vita, appearing in the now historical rag, The Feminist Art Journal, (Spring issue, 1977) (from which the two B/W reproductions above originate). I even made a pilgrimage to New York to view her work. In my impressionable (and theoretically suicidal) youth, I was drawn to Ide's story like a moth to... well, a moth. There is a certain romanticism surrounding suicidal artists and poets, a tradition that flourished from the mid 19th century leading up to its end in Fin de Siecle culture, that "ominous mixture of opulence and/or decadence", Death, and especially suicide, was an obsession amongst the Romantics and their future incarnations, the Symbolists. One might say, the Pre-Raphaelites wouldn't have existed otherwise. Paintings like "The Death of Chatterton" or Millais' "Ophelia" are just two cases in point.

As a young artist - and "Goth" before there was such a thing, the Fin de Siecle held a peculiar fascination for me, and stories like Ide's fit into my personal paradigm like a calla lily in a narrow black vase. But, as a middle-aged woman, and an admittedly failed romantic, I am no longer so sure that Ide took her own life. Certainly death did not help her career in any way. Apart from that one posthumous exhibit, many of her works were destroyed. And, after that exhibit, all mention of Ide seemingly ends. For instance, in researching Ide online, I came up with zip, nada, and nothing. That is, apart from what I imagine are a few of her lesser works up for auction... and even here the artist is referred to as male!

Sakiko Ide - found here

So, perhaps this is the real tragedy. A woman bravely comes to this country alone with hopes of a brighter future and winds up anonymously dead, without warranting even a truncated Wiki entry. So, yes, Sakiko Ide is Patron Saint #6 of Trans-D, but I think my real motivation for this post is to ensure that, at least, there is one article about her online.

In the last analysis, I'm haunted by Ide's chrysanthemums to a greater degree than I am haunted by her suicide, if suicide it was. What did she mean by all these Zen-like constructs, that floated on oceans and hovered in skies, clustered amid fluffy, almost child-like renderings of clouds? In Japan, the chrysanthemum is considered a symbol of the sun and perfection. A Chrysanthemum Festival is held each each year, which is known as the "Festival of Happiness". Ide's last paintings were of single white chrysanthemum "those flowers which faithfully bloom after all the rest of the fragrant species have departed.'" Of these last four canvases, only one remains. A friend recalls that "she bought four large tubes of white paint. I think she was trying to do more."

I think so, too. And this is why I don't necessarily buy the suicide angle. Artists who are obsessed with a subject do not declare "the end" quite so abruptly. Then, too, she had won an award earlier that year at the Silvermine New England Exhibit, as she had the two previous years. It wasn't as if she had no future as an artist, and, as a mature woman in her late 40's, I would suspect that she'd come to terms with the solitary aspect of her life.

One may argue that Sakiko Ide is not to be placed amongst "the greats" - examples of her chrysanthemums hanging alongside Van Gogh's or Monet's is an imppossible occurrance - and that her legacy is of no great loss. I feel differently. "An artist obsessed" is an artist with a voice, with something urgent to say and to which they dedicate their lives in the saying. Relevancy is relevant only to what any single one of us needs to know at any given moment. In the end, an artist can do no more than present a vision, a vision that exists with(in) or without the "eye of the beholder", but a vision that will continue to exist, despite the demise and interment of its creator.

Sakiko Ide - found here

Note: Pending permission from Tricia Vita, the author of the article found in The Feminist Art Journal - a magazine which I still possess and from which I have quoted extensively for this post (and of which there is no online resource) - I will insert page scans here in the future. I believe this article may be the only thing written about her, although, if someone out there has more information, I would be most happy to include it here.


UPDATE: For those interested, the PDF file of the article (text) mentioned can be viewed here.

Also, this photo of Sakiko Ide (to your left)  accompanied the article. Click on for a larger view.


  1. a point I can see the parallels between her obsession and yours -- that seeking of the perfect portrayal of form via detail, as if mapping the universe point by point. Her chrysanthemums are nearly fractal in nature...self replicating in minute examination - the form becomes the universe of the artist.

    And a tragic figure as well -- her death does seem rather suspicious...but sadly, without a family to answer to, things are often swept under the convenient rug.

    You present an sad intriuging portrait of the artist...and it's a crime her work does not live in the present.

  2. Thanks for your interesting comment, Bob, but, no, I wasn't trying to draw any analogies between Ide's work an my own... presently, I have no obsessions in the technical sense. Which is not to say I never have, because, oddly enough, I, too had work of an obsessive nature when I lived in Manhattan... maybe it's just the way some artists react and/or utilize the peculiar type of energy existent there.

    Obsessions can be very empowering... a good "high"... in that the obsessed person can imagine - either justifiably or not - they're on to something immensely important. Unfortunately, it's kind of like the manic side of manic-depressiveness... the down side being a particularly virulent strain of self-doubt. Could this lead to suicide? For an extremely weak ego it might. Was this true in the case of Ide? From my point of view, the jury's still out.

    1. I was a student at SAIC when Sakiko was there. I bought one of her paintings titled Emotion and Intellect in both Japanese and English. I still have it. As I remember, she once told me she had studied in the medical field before coming to SAIC.

    2. Thanks so much for your input. I never expected someone who knew her to drop by. Judging by the lack of any information I discovered online about her, had it not been for the old magazine article, I'd imagine I dreamt her story up.

      You're lucky to have one of her images... they, too, seemed to have vanished for the most part!

      The article (link posted above) mentioned she failed to pass the exams for medical school in Tokyo. She seems to have lead a strange life. And a very solitary one.

      Thanks again, and best to you.

    3. I remember her well. She was very quite but for some reason, took to me. I remember her smile and some of what we spoke about. The medical school is all I remember clearly. I was in a print making class with Sakiko. I moved recently and she came to mind when I took her painting down to crate it for the move. So I did a search on google and came across your blog. I could send a photo of her painting if you give me an email. I don't want it published on the web. Let me know.

    4. Thanks, Kathy!

      Yes, I'd love to see the photo... if you ever decide to put it on the web yourself, send me a link and I'll add it to this post. Meanwhile, my only email address at this time is the araqinta one on the sidebar - near the bottom - of this blog.

      Best of luck in your new habitat! I'm relocating shortly myself.

  3. In researching Sakiko Ide - I was grateful to have found your blog and the shared article. The foundation I work for is in part inspired by her story. Our collection has two large canvas pieces by the artist which I am happy to share via email if you would like to view. Additionally, I was curious if you were able to connect with anyone who may have known her on a greater level.

    1. Thank you for your comment! Sorry for the delay in responding.

      I am happy to hear Ide's work is still in circulation. At the time I wrote the post there was no information online... which just added to the overall tragedy of her tale.

      I am curious about your foundation and it's connection to Ide... and would love to see more of her work... so, I've returned my email address to my blogger's profile. (I'd forgotten I removed it!) It now looks more complicated to actually access, however, so I hope there won't be a problem.

      Thanks again!

    2. Thank you for your response. The PBF was created by the late Dr. Peter Bullough with a goal to support and celebrate emerging artists at critical points in their practice. Having lived in New York at the same time as Sakiko Ide, Dr. Bullough was aware of her talent and tragic story. The two pieces he acquired serve as a somber reminder of what could happen when a brilliant artist is unable to find the acknowledgement they seek. In that regard, Sakiko Ide played a large role in the development of our artist residency program with a goal to support living artists with time and space to focus. I will follow up via email with the images as promised but would also be more than delighted to hear from anyone else who may be able to share more about Sakiko.

    3. Kudos to the PBF; its goals represent a real need for many artists. And, thank you for sending links to the 2 canvases! They were very illuminating in more ways than one. I had an epiphany. What (subliminally) attracted me to her work all those years ago was its underlying geometry... a path I was shortly about to take in my own work. My hypothesis is that she was formulating her own sacred geometry based upon the chrysanthemum. Indirectly, this strengthens my resolve that her death was homicide, not suicide... as I don't feel an artist can willfully drop the geometric "ball" once discovered... that is, until their work is done. Was her work done? I don't think so... but, I may be wrong. Just my 2 cents worth. ;-)

      Good luck with your research!