To Himeji and back: What this Japanese fish businessman has done for modern Indian art

Ahead of Pundole’s auction of selected works from the Glenbarra Art Museum, Masanori Fukuoka on what brought him to India and his art discoveries

Masanori Fukuoka, 67, who began collecting modern Indian art in 1990, is probably the most significant Asian collector you’ve never heard of. Back then, when few, either at home or abroad, were even aware of the Indian arts scene, Fukuoka was making regular trips here to acquire a broad array of artists. A businessman with interests in fish processing, he used some of his factory space in Himeji, Japan, to set up the Glenbarra Art Museum in 1991, featuring the works of over 60 Indian artists.

This week, Pundole’s is holding an online auction of 156 selected works from the collection, which includes significant works by VS Gaitonde, Tyeb Mehta, MF Husain, Arpita Singh, Jogen Chowdhury, Nasreen Mohamedi, FN Souza, Krishen Khanna, Ram Kumar, J Swaminathan and Akbar Padamsee.

MF Husain’s painting ‘Theorem Thirteen’. It belongs to a group of works completed in the 1970s when Husain was experimenting with the distillation of forms to pure geometric elements. The definite shapes in the work recall, perhaps sub-consciously, the unending horizon of the sea; specifically the blue form, which could resemble a sail, and the brown semi-circle which captures the moon.

MF Husain’s painting ‘Theorem Thirteen’. It belongs to a group of works completed in the 1970s when Husain was experimenting with the distillation of forms to pure geometric elements. The definite shapes in the work recall, perhaps sub-consciously, the unending horizon of the sea; specifically the blue form, which could resemble a sail, and the brown semi-circle which captures the moon.
 
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

Fukuoka was a pioneer. Two years after setting up his museum, he published a seminal book, titled Contemporary Indian Art. His efforts propelled other Japanese art institutions to display Indian art. Later, in 1997, the Government of India invited Glenbarra to hold an exhibition at the National Galleries of Modern Art in Delhi, Kolkata, Bengaluru and Mumbai. Fast forward to the beginning of the 21st century and Fukuoka began to ease up on his role as a cultural envoy and began collecting works solely for his pleasure. In 2002, he purchased Tyeb Mehta’s Celebration, which, at $317,500 (approximately ₹2.3 crore), set a record for the highest price ever paid at auction at the time for an Indian painting. He also began culling the works he owned and had his museum redesigned — it re-opened in late 2019 to critical acclaim. The upcoming auction is to pare down the collection to a manageable size for the new space.

Excerpts from an interview:

What drew you to India and its art?

I first travelled to India in 1975. As a student of Buddhism and an admirer of Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry and Satyajit Ray’s films, I was drawn to the country of their origin and soon became a regular visitor. In 1990, I discovered Indian contemporary art at the NGMA, Delhi, and was deeply impressed. As I sought out the work in [other] galleries, I realised how incredibly undervalued it was when compared to its western and Japanese counterparts. I started collecting Indian artists to bring their work to the attention of Japanese audiences.

Jogen Chowdhury’s Couple II: The woman is deeply sensual; her sari-clad figure crowned with thick, curling tresses and adorned with heavy jewellery. She poses for her male suitor, who appears to gaze at her with open admiration, creating a palpable tension in the empty space between the two figures.

Jogen Chowdhury’s Couple II: The woman is deeply sensual; her sari-clad figure crowned with thick, curling tresses and adorned with heavy jewellery. She poses for her male suitor, who appears to gaze at her with open admiration, creating a palpable tension in the empty space between the two figures.
 
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

Did you face challenges in the initial years?

I did not face many challenges while acquiring art in India. However, in Japan, it took a long time for my collection to gain acceptance as they had never seen Indian contemporary art before and could not understand why the president of a food processing business was collecting it and building a museum for it in his factory!

Your collection features the finest modern Indian artists. How did you learn about them?

When I first started collecting Indian art, there were hardly any books on the subject. Most of my education happened by visiting the National Galleries of Modern Art, gallery exhibitions and artist studios. To bridge the gap, a few years later [in 1993], I published a book that covered the careers of 62 Indian artists from my collection. Initially, instead of focussing on art that appealed to me, I collected a wide range of artists and, therefore, at the time, the museum’s collection was quite diverse.

In Fukuoka’s words

  • “I do not advise others on collecting art. But a simple rule of thumb is to follow your gut instinct.”

Why was it important for you to open a museum?

Since modern Indian art was under-appreciated in Japan, I felt it was important to share what I had collected with the Japanese public. The most efficient way was to open a museum. In order to maximise my audience, I authored the book that also attracted museums around Japan to take notice of the collection and curate exhibitions from it.

Any moments of regret in your collecting history?

When it came to acquisitions, there were times when I listened to the advice of others (The Pundole’s catalogue mentions FN Souza’s Mystic Repast and MF Husain’s Spider and the Lamp as missed opportunities). I have since learned to trust my intuition, which has stood me in good stead.

Artist Arpita Singh’s painting ‘The Seashore’. Singh, who has often located her images in the dense urban jungle or charming, interior domestic spaces, has wafted her characters to the seashore. The narrative embedded in the scene is intriguing and each individual has a story masked by a stoic demeanour.

Artist Arpita Singh’s painting ‘The Seashore’. Singh, who has often located her images in the dense urban jungle or charming, interior domestic spaces, has wafted her characters to the seashore. The narrative embedded in the scene is intriguing and each individual has a story masked by a stoic demeanour.
 
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

Why did you pare down your museum collection from 62 to 10 artists?

After several years of collecting, in 1997, I was invited by the Indian Government to showcase my paintings in a travelling exhibition titled ‘Image-Beyond Image’, at the National Galleries of Modern Art in Delhi, Kolkata, Bengaluru and Mumbai. This was a huge turning point. After that, I was confident the future of Indian art was secure. So, for the first time, I started to collect exclusively for myself. Naturally, this led to a pruning of my collection to focus on artists whose work appealed to me. I rebuilt the museum at the factory to better suit the changing mission.

What advice would you give someone who wants to buy art?

I do not advise others on collecting art. But a simple rule of thumb is to follow your gut instinct.

Your suggestion for collectors for whom price is a concern?

Collect the best art that you can afford. Every now and then, push yourself to acquire something truly special.

A painting by Ram Kumar (1924-2018) titled ‘Nest’

You are planning to have a show on celebrated artist Nasreen Mohamedi.

In the last decade, Glenbarra Art Museum has loaned works of Nasreen Mohamedi to four international exhibitions that have travelled to over 10 cities including New York, and London. For the first time since entering the museum’s collection, these works will be exhibited in India, in 2021-2022. The exhibition will open in Baroda, where Mohamedi studied art and later taught at Maharaja Sayajirao University, and will travel to Goa, New Delhi and Mumbai.

Do you follow today’s contemporary Indian artists?

My first love and lasting engagement has been with modern Indian artists. In the 1990s, gallerists, dealers and collectors were quite powerful in comparison to artists. Now the balance of power is more evenly distributed. This has given artists more control over their destinies.

Looking West: Works from the Collection of the Glenbarra Art Museum is being held on September 3-4 on auctions.pundoles.com.