Komura Settai finds a new modern audience

by Matthew Larking

It is often difficult to fathom how an artist so popular in his own time slides into oblivion in subsequent generations. 2010 has been a good year for one such artist, Komura Settai (1887-1940), who in his time was a prolific creator, producing illustrations, woodblock prints and stage designs. His recent artistic rehabilitation began with a large-scale exhibition of his varied career at the Museum of Modern Art, Saitama, followed by a special edition of the art monthly “Geijutsu Shincho” dedicated to the artist.

“The World of Komura Settai: The Aesthetic Sense and Sensibility of an Unknown Virtuoso Painter” continues the renewed interest in the artist’s oeuvre with a show of around 60 works drawn from a collection inherited by Komura’s only pupil, Yamamoto Takeshi, and now housed at the Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum in Kyoto.

Komura had a conventional start to his artistic career, studying nihonga (Japanese painting) in the atelier of Araki Kampo (1831-1915) in 1903 and then entering the nihonga course at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts the following year. He graduated four years later and from 1910-12 he created copies of old artworks for the art monthly “Kokka,” for which his depiction of “Fugen Enmei” (undated), a Bodhisattva seated on a lotus supported by four elephants, would be representative of his employment at the time. A few years later, in 1918, Komura left behind the fine art world to take up a position at Shiseido where, among other things, he designed perfume bottles.

It was not until 1922, when he began work on book illustrations for the novelist Satomi Ton (1888-1983), that Komura’s career started to define itself. His illustrations for Kunieda Kanji’s (1892-1956) 1934 serialized novel “Osen,” which was published in the Asahi Shimbun, helped Komura’s reputation to spread further. Set between 1764-72, Kanji’s period novel followed the life of the heroine Osen, who worked in a tea house. It was ostensibly based upon a real beauty of the Edo Period depicted by the luminary ukiyo-e artist Suzuki Harunobu (1724-1770), an artist whose artwork had a strong stylistic influence on the more minimalist work of Komura.

“Osen” (“Umbrella”) (c.1941) shows Komura’s representative style, with fine vertical lines of rain streaming down on a myriad of raised umbrellas of gathered townsfolk who are frantically searching for Osen.

Though successful as an illustrator, Komura occasionally revived his fine-art aspirations with non-narrative paintings. His “Fallen Leaves” (c. 1924) depicts an autumnal scattering on and around a roofed tatami-mat pavilion that is devoid of a subject other than the solitude with which the site is invested. Similarly, in “Willow Tree” (c. 1924) we find a shamisen and two drums set on the floor of a room that opens onto a veranda, and yet there is no one in sight to play them. The same is true of “Morning Snow” (c. 1924), in which the lights inside a traditional wooden house are on, but there is no human presence.

In theses images, it appears that Komura, who took up stage design for kabuki and film shortly after his debut as an illustrator, was transferring his design skills to fine art with mixed results.

When figures are placed within settings, Komura draws both their and our attention to the smallest of details. “Woman with Sake Cup” (undated) focuses on the petite bowl pinched between the woman’s thumb and forefingers, and the work stands generally within the bijinga genre (pictures of beautiful women). It harks back to bijinga that was popular several centuries earlier, differing somewhat to that of Komura’s contemporaries, such as Inagaki Chusei (1897-1922) and Shima Seien (1892-1970), who were pursuing more modern interpretations of the genre.

“Red Dragonfly” (1937), too, focuses on detail, where a woman pokes her head through curtains to fix her gaze upon a hovering dragonfly, while in “Falling Pine Needle” (undated), an elegantly attired beauty watches the fall of a single leaf. One finds in the paintings, unlike in his commercial work, that there is either no narrative or a represented moment so specific that it occludes any thought of narrative continuities.

Komura’s transition from early fine-art training to commercial design ultimately led to a divorce from wider art-world dialogues and hence his work has received little recognition since his death. This present rehabilitation is in part due to the novelty of discovering something anew, though it seems likely that he will slip back into oblivion once the public grow weary of the current fascination and moves on.

His paintings are few and diminutive in scale and his illustrations, though numerous, are essentially backdrops to the more central arts of literature and kabuki. Like the anti-narrative focus in his paintings, Komura’s oeuvre is largely unconnected to the stories that shape art history as it presently stands.

“The World of Komura Settai: The Aesthetic Sense and Sensibility of an Unknown Virtuoso Painter” at the Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum, Kyoto runs till Aug. 22; admission ¥500; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Mon. and Tue. The museum is a 7 min. walk from Kiyomizumichi bus stop on buses 206 and 100 from Kyoto Station. For more information, visit www.sannenzaka-museum.co.jp/index—e.html