Economically in decline, and with its traditional craft industries going the same way, the city of Kyoto, having lost its nominal status as Japan’s capital city in 1868, turned to education. Sixty four elementary schools were established by 1869, and secondary schools followed. The 130th anniversary of Kyoto City University of Arts traces its own foundation as the Kyoto Prefecture School of Painting in 1880 to these educational reforms.
“The Formation of Kyoto Nihonga — The Master Painter’s Challenges” at the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art celebrates the school and attempts to trace the development of the formative concepts of what became known as nihonga (Japanese-style painting) in later years and what was distinctive about Kyoto’s contribution to it.
Nihonga, however, is a varied genre, the divergent and occasionally antagonistic elements that formed it barely held together by regional designation. Nihonga tends to geographically divide between the city rivalries of Kyoto and Tokyo (though others such as Osaka might make strong bids) each with their own ideals, models and antipathies.
Kyoto nihonga stakes a claim that its direction followed less from the ubiquitous Kano school, de facto copybook painters to Edo-Period (1603-1868) shoguns that formed the basis of Tokyo nihonga, drawing instead on the realistic sketching that was central to the local Maruyama-Shijo School of painting. “Peacocks and Peonies” (1771) by the school’s founder, Okyo Maruyama (1733-1795), is representative. The realism, however, is obfuscating, because it often masks other realities.
By 1908, for example, Bakusen Tsuchida’s (1887-1936) “Punishment,” which depicts a little girl crying into her handkerchief while two emotional boys stand close by, did not specifically draw from the Maruyama-Shijo tradition. Rather, Tsuchida employed the techniques of Western painting, noticeable in details such as the depiction of eyes and mouths, which his teacher Seiho Takeuchi (1864-1942) had learned from his European travels in 1900.
Despite the stimulus Western painting could offer nihonga — and the two discourses were more mutually regarding than antagonistic, as they are conventionally taken to be — the Western-painting instructor Soryu Tamura (1846-1918) resigned from his position at the school in 1889 in anticipation of the department being shut down. It was, and specific Western-style instruction was discontinued until 1947.
The factionalism of the Kyoto school, which led to the dissolution of the Western-style department, was not intended when the school was founded. Originally built on the cooperation of distinct traditions and artists in Kyoto to overcome the differences between the various Edo painting hierarchies, the school sought only to raise the city’s level of arts and crafts, which were also its major industries.
Long-held rivalries prevailed, however, and friction among school staff resulted in a series of resignations and new appointments from the outset. With Western-style painting on the way out, the Northern, Eastern and Southern Divisions representing the different Japanese painting schools were combined into a single Eastern Painting Division before a decade had passed. This became the stylistic impetus for Kyoto nihonga: An amalgamation of styles, including everything from ukiyo-e (woodblock print) influences and Buddhist painting to the atmospheric literati painting of the school’s first principal, Chokonyu Tanomura (1814-1907). And this became a subject of hostility in Tokyo.
All of the major painters associated with the early Kyoto City University of Arts are covered in the exhibition. And the stylistic diversity that was embraced in the development of nihonga through the early years of the 20th century is well represented, including the more unusual use of contemporary subject matters unrelated to traditional religious or historical themes, such as that of “X-ray Room” (1936) by Chuichi Nishigaki (1912-2000).
The strength of the exhibition is twofold. Rather than merely showing celebrated works of painters who taught or were educated at the school, teaching resources, painting-model books and reproductions of old paintings that students were required to imitate are abundant in display. Not only this, the intricacies of nihonga as a source of design for kimono is explored, something that extols the occasionally decried “decorative” role of the genre.
The alarming weakness, however, is that the most contemporary works are Tekison Maeda’s (1895-1947) “Fish Formation,” and “Moonlit Night” by Shoen Uemura (1902-1949), and date to 1939, leaving the 70 years since essentially neglected. The implication is that nihonga’s formation somehow came to an end. Whereas, in fact, Maeda’s and Uemura’s paintings pointed one way nihonga would subsequently go. Their reduced palettes and diminished details are the fundamental beginnings of Kyoto nihonga’s postwar dialogue with near abstraction, of which Shinsen Tokuoka (1896-1972) is exemplary but not considered in this show.
The omission of the school’s more recent nihonga achievements is all the more striking because, while the origins of the school are illustrious, the exceedingly different postwar circumstances and realities for nihonga are left incongruously, to the exhibition’s and school’s detriment, without mention.
“The 130th Anniversary of the Founding of Kyoto City University of Arts: The Formation of Kyoto Nihonga — The Master Painter’s Challenges” at the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art runs till Nov. 7; admission ¥1,200; open 9 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Mon. except national holidays. For more information, visit www.city.kyoto.jp/bunshi/kmma/en/index.html.