Enigma and Elegance in Chie Yoshii’s Surrealist Paintings

“Ethereal,” “luminous,” “cryptic,” “sensual,” and “surreal” are adjectives used frequently to describe the work of Japanese-born artist Chie Yoshii. And for good reason. One look at her paintings — which are featured in  Pomegranate’s 2024 calendar “Guardians” — and it becomes clear that these descriptors of Chie’s work are apt.

In Tsuru no Ongaeshi, an oil painting on wood panel Chie produced in 2020, for instance, a beautiful, dark-haired, young woman clad in a crimson and gold garment decorated with cranes in flight, pauses in her walk through snowy woods to glance over her shoulder at us. Snowflakes dance in the air, doubling as stars around her face and among the tree branches. Two pure, white feathers drift toward the snowy ground while the girl grasps two additional feathers to her breast. There is the illusion that the feathers have been plucked from the cranes, yet how is that possible? The expression on the woman’s face seems furtive. Is she holding a secret as tightly as she grasps the feathers?  

Click on image to enlarge

In a 2018 interview with Miroir Magazine, Chie discussed some of the major influences on her distinctive artistic style. Most notable were a few historical painters: Jan van Eyck (an Early Northern Renaissance painter & Flemish master), Michelangelo Merisi aka Caravaggio (an Italian Baroque painter), and Gustave Moreau (a French Symbolist painter). 

You see the impact of each of these artists in her work: the rich hues and luminous, polished surfaces of Van Eyck’s paintings along with the expert brushwork so masterfully disguised; the dramatic contrasts of dark and light resemble Caravaggio’s famous chiaroscuro; and the enigmatic and often unsettling tableaux of Gustave Moreau (whose art so often delved into the human psyche). 

Like the wide-ranging influences impacting her work, Chie’s artistic education was quite varied and partly self-directed. She recalled, “I took evening and weekend classes from various art institutions such as ArtCenter College of Design, LA Academy of Figurative Art, and Otis College of Art and Design, for about 2 years.” Then she met her mentor, Adrian Gottlieb. He is, she explained, “a naturalistic portrait painter who trained in Florence.” She spent six years under the tutelage of Gottlieb before going on to explore and develop her own style. 

“I chose oil paint for the color brilliance and its wide value range.”

Chie’s painting technique is definitely reminiscent of Van Eyck’s. While he was once credited with having invented oil painting, that is not the case as the method had been used at least since ancient Rome; however, he did refine it extensively. He worked on wood panels as Chie often does (although she does sometimes use canvas); wood provides a smoother surface. Layers of pigment and oil built up painstakingly created the shimmering, jewel-like finishes of his pictures and Chie took those methods to heart. “I chose oil paint for the color brilliance and its wide value range,” she noted. 

Van Eyck was also noted for his exactitude. Chie’s paintings echo a similar level of verism. She has been referred to as a “surrealist” and “neo-surrealist,” labels that do seem to represent her style accurately. The works feature some of the major qualities of surrealist art such as symbolic imagery, scenes that seem to come from dreams rather than real life, and odd juxtapositions of unusual or unexpected objects, for example. 

A painting titled Mediator from 2022 (also on the Pomegranate calendar) is a prime example of the uncanny juxtaposition of objects that is so redolent of the surrealist style. In this arresting image, a woman wearing a transparent garment and closely resembling a statue of an ancient goddess or priestess, steps out of the portal of what may be a temple. At her side is a tiger on which she lightly rests her right hand. On her left side and still mostly in the shadows is a second tiger. Meanwhile, colorful parrots hover in the air on either side of the temple entrance. 

What is the meaning of Mediator and Chie’s other enigmatic pictures? In keeping with the first wave of surrealist painters, the goal in inducing fascination and a sense of inquiry in the viewer is to prompt them to seek out deep, personal meaning in a given image and even in the individual objects therein. Looking becomes an exercise in delving into one’s own subconscious. But what about the artist? Is there a similar process at play in the production of such an image?

“Painting for me is ‘participation mystique.’”

“Painting for me,” Chie mused in an interview with Symbol and Aesthetics, “is ‘participation mystique.’ It is not about reality, but about the fantasies aroused by its effects. They are viscerally conceived and more tangible than reality.” It seems that, for her, \the results of her work are not merely mystical, so is the experience of painting itself, a process that takes on symbolic, spiritual import.

Ideas advanced by the Swiss psychiatrist and psychologist, Carl Jung have affected Chie profoundly in her personal and artistic endeavors. In particular, Jung’s reliance on universal archetypes and myths holds powerful significance for the artist. 

When queried about the role myth plays in art and lives, Chie commented to Creative Boom, “When we say, ‘That is myth,’ we mean that it is not true. However, myth does reveal psychological truth. When we experience events, what remains in the psyche are the fantasies that arise with the emotions they cause.” It is these fantasies that become myths, in her view, and they can take on both personal and universal, timeless meaning.

The concept of duality pervades Chie’s images both in relation to her technique and to interpretive possibilities. For instance, the arresting chiaroscuro of her paintings reminds one of the Jungian shadow self. Jung wrote, “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” In Mediator, for instance, one tiger steps into the light while the other remains in the shadows. 

From a formal perspective, the radical contrasts between dark and light emphasize the theatricality of Chie’s works.

From a formal perspective, the radical contrasts between dark and light emphasize the theatricality of Chie’s works. They tell us that something significant, something dramatic, is unfolding, and they call us – and our subconscious selves – to attention. Whether it is moonlight glow on snow versus coal-black hair and deep shadows in Tsuru no Ongaeshi or the mysterious and potentially anxiety-inducing depths of the temple in Mediator, the extravagant contrasts between near-black tones and luminous hues draw us in. 

We are further captivated by the almost magical-seeming qualities of the pictures. They read as individual objects suitable for divination purposes and perhaps that is one of Chie’s overarching goals. Indeed, whether we are thinking about Jung’s archetypes and their personal relevance for us or, say, tarot cards with their reliance on common themes and archetypes, perusing her paintings feels like a deep, self-reflective process that extends beyond mere looking and musing.

Chie explained this notion rather poetically, “Just like bees know how to dance without learning, we all inherit images–archetypes-in our collective unconsciousness.” Part Jungian, part something much older, her paintings and the process of making them coalesce into something beyond an artistic act to a sacred ritual. 

© Debra Thimmesch (1/17/24) — Special for FF2 Media


PomCom offers fans of Chie Yoshii’s art the ability to incorporate them into their daily lives with a gorgeous calendar. Shop PomCom’s Chie Yoshii calendar here.

Visit Chie Yoshii’s website to learn more about her work.

Check out Chie’s 2023 exhibition at the Haven Gallery.

Read more about Chie at Creative Boom.

Check out Chie’s work in the Symbol and Aesthetics article.

Read Miroir Magazine‘s interview with Chie.


Featured Image/Middle Image: Tsuru no Ongaeshi, 2020 © Chie Yoshii (January). Images of Pomegranate’s 2024 Chie Yoshii calendar have been provided by Pomegranate, and are used by FF2 Media with their permission. All Rights Reserved by Pomegranate.

Bottom Photo: Chie Yoshii at work in her studio. Photo provided by Chie Yoshii from her website and used with her permission. All Rights Reserved.

Tags: Adrian Gottlieb, Carl Jung, Chie Yoshii, Debra Thimmesch, Japanese-American Painters, PomCom, Pomegranate, Pomegranate Calendars, Surrealist Painters, Women painters

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Debra Thimmesch is an art historian and critic, activist, independent researcher and scholar, writer, editor, and visual artist. She mentors graduate students in art history and is attuned to current endeavors to radically rethink, decolonize, and reframe the study and pedagogy of art history. Her work has appeared in Art Papers, The Brooklyn Rail, and Blind Field Journal.
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