by Roderick Conway Morris

| | | | | | | | | | | | |
Osaka City Museum of Modern Art
Fukuda Heihachiro's 'Ripples,' from 1932

The Meiji Crisis in Japanese Art

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 29 March 2013


After more than 200 years of self-imposed isolation Japan re-established diplomatic and trading relations with the outside world in 1854, during the last years of the shoguns. With the restoration of the rule of the Meiji emperor in 1868, Japan was opened up to an unstoppable flood of influence from the West.

Even during the period of isolation some artists were exposed to Chinese and Western art through the privileged port of Nagasaki. Chinese artists visited the city, which also acted as a conduit for Western books and prints, introducing techniques such as scientific perspective and chiaroscuro shading.

But the vast scale of Western inroads and the collapse of traditional patronage that followed the Meiji restoration threw Japanese art into a state of crisis. In the face of this, artists found themselves dividing into two broad schools: nihonga, which continued to use time-honored Japanese materials and techniques, and yoga, which adopted Western-style oil painting.

Nihonga artists are among the least known outside their home country of all the principal historic schools of Japanese painting, and are little represented in international collections. Two important exhibitions of nihonga paintings were held in Rome, in 1911 and 1930. The second event, showing 177 pieces by 79 artists, attracted 166,500 visitors.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of founding of the Japanese Cultural Institute in Rome and the 400th anniversary of the departure of the first official Japanese embassy for the Eternal City, the National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto has organized a dazzling and revelatory exhibition of 170 nihonga paintings and decorative art pieces from their own and more than 50 other collections around Japan.

For conservation reasons the show at the National Gallery of Modern Art here, curated by Ozaki Masaaki and Matsubara Ryuichi, is being staged in two phases, to allow the works on silk and paper to be substituted with examples by the same artists, the first continuing through March 31, the second from April 4 to May 5.

The influx of foreign advisers into Japan in the Meiji era also brought with it an American who was to have an incalculable influence on the future of the country's art. Ernest Francisco Fenollosa, the son of a Spanish pianist and a graduate of Harvard, arrived in Tokyo in 1878 at the invitation of the government to lecture on philosophy and politics at the Imperial University. Fenollosa found himself being assisted by a brilliant young student, Okakura Kakuzo, who became his close collaborator.

The American became an enthusiastic admirer of Japanese art and saw that, in the rush to Westernize, the government was throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Fenollosa himself bought extensively and urged the authorities to value traditional skills while encouraging painters to benefit from the study of Western styles.

Fenollosa and Okakura were also responsible for a series of initiatives to train and promote nihonga artists. The first was the founding of the Kanga Association. Okakura went on to preside over a new Tokyo Art Institute starting in 1889 and, on resigning from that job, to establish the Japanese Art Academy in 1898.

Two major painters of the traditional Kano school, Kano Hogai and Hashimoto Gaho were prominent among those recruited by Fenollosa and Okakura to put their ideas into practice. The teaching of these and others sympathetic to the nihonga enterprise at the Tokyo Art Institute and the Academy helped nurture a new generation of younger artists, notably Shimomura Kanzan, Yokoyama Taikan and Hishida Shunso.

The first room of the exhibition displays characteristically striking works by Hogai and Gaho, and a pair of beautiful and witty six-part screens of cormorants and seagulls perched on rocks amid breaking waves by Kanzan.

Also here are two scenes of waterfalls, pools and woods by Yokoyama Taikan and Hishida Shunso from around 1900. These are in a subtle, atmospheric, sfumato style that marked a radical departure from the traditional Japanese emphasis on line. This was dubbed morotai, or indefinite style, like the term Impressionism, originally a dismissive critical description.

The second room introduces works from the other main innovative center, Kyoto, where Fenollosa lectured in 1886. The local Maruyama and Shijo schools there had already embraced elements of Western art, to some extent preparing the way for nihonga. A pair of wonderful screens, with exquisitely subtle mist effects, depicting rural scenes in summer and winter (on loan from the Vatican) are by Takuichi Seiho. The Kyoto-born artist became a key figure in the nihonga movement in the city, eclectically drawing on influences as diverse as Turner, Corot, 15th-century Chinese painting and the native yamato-e school of art.

This room also contains screens derived from the nanga school, which was to make its own contribution to the variety and vitality of modern Japanese painting. Nanga, or southern painting, had its origins in Song Dynasty ink painting, beloved of intellectual Japanese painters. The integration of poetry and calligraphy was a vital component - nanga artists emphasizing their amateur status and the importance of the act of creation as much as the end result.

Tomioka Tessai's nanga images of an old legend of an earthly paradise discovered via a cavern by a fisherman and of the Island of the Immortals, in almost monochrome greens and grays, are as wildly expressive as they are arresting. Another memorable work marrying elements of nanga and Western art, Imamura Shiko's 'The Slope of Shiomi,' can be seen in the fifth room of the show.

For the next half century nihonga artists continued the delicate balancing act of reconciling Japanese and Western traditions, a story unfolded in the subsequent rooms of the show. This challenging but productive process was paralleled in the decorative arts, fine examples of which are also on display.

Among the most distinctive genres to emerge was in the field of female figure painting developed by the likes of Kaburaki Kiyokata, Matsuoka Eikyu, Yasuda Yukihiko, Kobayashi Kokei, Kikuchi Keigetsu and Tsuchida Bakusen, all of whom were born in the 1870s and '80s. Those artists blended to different degrees lessons learned from the bijinga (portraits of beautiful women) of the old ukiyo-e (floating world) masters like Kitigawa Utamaro and from European art.

The first exhibition of Western painting in Japan was not held until 1872, but many nihonga artists clearly managed to familiarize themselves with European art to a remarkable extent without seeing it in situ. One of the first to make the journey west, in 1900, was the Kyoto painter Takeuchi Seiho, who exerted a powerful influence on his contemporaries as both a teacher and an artist.

Kobayashi Kokei and Maeda Seison traveled to Italy together in 1922. After returning Seison produced his extraordinary 'The Christian Embassy to Rome,' on show here. This surreal vision, inspired by an embassy sent in 1585 by daimyo (samurai provincial governors) who had converted to Catholicism, places a samurai horseman against a giottesque backdrop of medieval Italian towers and domes. Seison was just one of a number of nihonga artists who felt a spontaneous affinity with Giotto's frescoes.

Tshuchida Bakusen, author of the eye-catching 'Dish of Salmon' - he started life as a Buddhist monk but changed course and became a student of Takeuchi Seiho - went on an extended tour to Europe in the early 1920s. He was influenced by a wide range of sources, from ancient Buddhist painting to post-Impressionism and genre pictures of the Edo era.

One of the most masterly works in the exhibition is a screen by Fukuda Heihachiro, 'Ripples.' Bold in its minimalist palette of white and blue and almost abstract in style, it is at the same time an intensely observed figurative record of the artist's experience of gazing at a shimmering expanse of water. This classic nihonga image is both unmistakably modern and quintessentially Japanese.

Art in Japan: 1868-1945. National Gallery of Modern Art, Rome. Through May 5.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024