Exploring the stylistic diversity of nihonga

Japanese-style painting is far more multifarious and draws from a wider pool of influence than we might at first imagine

by Matthew Larking

“The Avant-Garde of Nihonga 1938-1949″ at the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto takes issue with nihonga (Japanese-style painting) of the period as a reaction to what has been passed down to the present as the traditional aesthetics and thematics of the genre. These include the conventional materials of mineral pigments and their binding agent nikawa and the long-held respect for themes such as kacho-fugetsu (beauties of nature) and historical and mythological subjects. It also refers to the emergence of a divide that posited nihonga, the amalgamation of Japan’s various traditional schools of painting, up against yoga (Western-style painting), which represented the newly imported trends from the West.

The strength of the exhibition is that it lets the artworks tell the story and gives little attention to art-history texts, impractical applications of terminology and the misconstrued essentialism that has come to characterize the nihonga/ yoga gulf.

Given this, “The Avant-Garde of Nihonga” is undoubtedly this year’s most provocative Japanese-style painting show so far. In 2008, The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, exhibited the work of avant-garde nihonga painter Ryonosuke Shimomura (1923-1998), a member of the Pan Real Art Association, whose unusual work was exhibited in a Pan Real Art show just after World War II. At that time, curator Hidetsugu Yamano proposed such works as Japan’s first real avant-garde nihonga. For the present exhibition, however, the same curator and his colleagues have now identified a precursory avant-garde impulse that existed between the foundation of the Rekitei Fine Art Association in 1938 and the foundation of the Pan Real Art Association in 1949.

The exhibition begins with a radical counter to the received purity of so-called traditional nihonga that uses the stereotypical subjects of seasonal flowering plants and beautiful women. In 1938, Ryobun Yamaoka (1911-70) exhibited the work “Spannung” in the inaugural Rekitei Fine Art exhibition. The title, a German word meaning “tension” or “strain,” refers to a formative concept in Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky’s 1926 text “Point and Line to Plane” (1926), which explored the key elements of nonobjective art. Yamaoka came across the concept in a 1934 architectural publication and sought to pursue it in his own paintings of abstract triangular bodies that offered a figurative suggestion of animals.

In “Image” (1938) by Yamaoka’s compatriot Takashi Yamazaki (1916-2004), no figurative suggestion is retained, the artist opting for hard-edged geometrical abstraction. This shift to, however, did not necessarily obviate the decorative role of painting within the home. Yamaoka’s “Spannung: Small Sliding Doors” (1938), for example, was displayed in the artist’s residence.

The Rekitei exhibitions also included various pictorial approaches — the near abstract-expressionism of Iri Maruki’s (1901-1995) “Horses (A Part)” (1939), the exceptionally attractive, though traditionally more conservative, miasma of blooms in Gyokuju Funada’s “Flowers (Image of Evening)” (1938) and even the ceramics of Kyohei Yagi (1918-79). In doing so, the show stretches the range of what nihonga can incorporate beyond painting.

Following the introduction of Rekitei’s artistic activities, the exhibition turns to the reciprocal borrowing between nihonga and yoga. Such borrowing, already a strong feature of nihonga since its inception in the 1880s, when the genre appropriated perspective and modeling techniques from Western art, continued throughout the early 20th century in pictorial terms. For example, Taikan Yokoyama’s (1868-1958) hazy morotai style is considered a result of nihonga’s dialogue with Impressionism. In seeking to overcome the nihonga/yoga dichotomy, Ai-Mitsu’s (1907-46) Surrealist-inspired “Landscape with an Eye” (1938) is exhibited to illustrate how the purpose of Japanese Western-style paintings were not so distinct from that of its nihonga contemporaries.

A further section includes sensoga (war paintings), which, because of their commonly propagandist nature, are often considered an artistic blight. Toyoshiro Fukuda’s (1904-70) “Attack on North Borneo” (1942), a depiction of soldiers scaling down the side of a ship during Japan’s successful occupation of Borneo in 1941-2, is representative of this. However, Yamaoka’s “Scream of Arrows” (1940), though still included in the sensoga genre, seems a less likely candidate. Here, Yamaoka’s abstracted elements sourced from 17th-century Rinpa painting point to a larger need for the historical revision of war paintings and their production, reception and breadth of activity.

“The Avant-Garde of Nihonga” culminates with the early works of the Pan Real Art Association and the return to an artistically focused avant-garde, though this is tempered by war reminiscences such as Makoto Mikami’s solemn “A Scene of Disasters of War (1948).” The works in this section are relatively conservative compared with Pan Real Art’s later activities in papier-ma^che and folds of sacking, though they are still primarily conceived of as nihonga.

For some, this exhibition will seem the antithesis of nihonga. Others will observe that nihonga’s formative moments and stylistic diversity are only now being brought to light.

“The Avant-Garde of Nihonga 1938-1949″ at The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto runs till Oct. 17; admission ¥850; open daily 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.), closed Mon. For more information, visit www.momak.go.jp/English. The exhibition moves to The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo from Jan. 8 to Feb. 13, 2011, and then to the Hiroshima Prefectural Museum of Art from Feb. 22-March 27, 2011.