The Kafkaesque Paintings of Tetsuya Ishida

I’m enamored with a set of paintings by Japanese artist Tetsuya Ishida that has floated around the internet lately. (See iterations here, here, and here). Ishida’s paintings depict young, sad Japanese people who have transformed into (or always were?) banal objects or insect-like animals. Ishida’s figures are often constrained into claustrophobic spaces, with pained expressions evincing despair and anxiety. There’s a paradoxical loneliness in his works as well: his protagonists are often surrounded by others who have also metamorphosed into machine-like beings, automatons performing sinister operations on the protagonists.

Ishida’s themes of the salaryman’s despair at the strictures of a modernized, hyper-industrialized society where conformity is prized are distinctly Japanese, but they also resonate beyond that culture. They are Kafkaesque, tapping into the alienation that the individual faces in an increasingly absurd, bureaucratic, mechanized world that turns people into cogs, bugs, things. Ishida was killed when he was hit by a train in 2005–his death was likely a suicide.

In both subject and stylistic execution, Ishida’s work is reminiscent of American artist George Tooker‘s paintings of the alienation and anxieties produced by urban bureaucracy.

Government Bureau -- George Tooker (1956)