Japan’s role in the 19th-century modernization of Chinese art

by Matthew Larking

Special To The Japan Times

Last year was an excellent one for engaging Chinese art in western Japan. A series of exhibitions got underway with the airing of the Ueno Collection at the Kyoto National Museum in January, the superlative holdings of the Osaka Municipal Museum of Art and the Sumitomo Collection housed at Sen-oku Hakuko-kan in Kyoto and exhibitions in other areas.

The final installment of the yearlong indulgence culminates at the Kyoto National Museum with “Modern Chinese Painting and Japan,” which runs through Feb. 26. The show explores a re-orientation of the long-established line of cultural transmission from China to Japan. It is a culturally sensitive topic, but since the early 20th century, Japan began to point the way forward for Chinese painting.

The show gets underway with revised continuations of the traditions of Chinese literati, also known as Southern School of Chinese painting, in the works of the mid-19th century Shanghai School, a loosely affiliated group of individualist artists who gathered in the economically booming port city. Their stylistic lineage could be traced to the “Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou,” the individualist painters of the 17th and 18th centuries, though an essential difference was that unlike the “eccentrics,” the Shanghai School had money.

Shanghai was a merchant town, and in previous centuries when literati painting was ideally practiced for moral refinement, Shanghai School painters acquiesced to their new patron’s demands for decorative compositions in bright colors — a shift from the almost exclusive literati devotion to landscape to the depiction of bird-and-flower motifs and portraits. Ren Bonian’s (1840-1896) “Portrait of Feng Gengshan” (1877) and Wu Changshi’s (1844-1927) “Ink Plum Blossoms” (1914) are emblematic.

Wu Changshi achieved enviable commercial success in Japan and arguably this owed something to creating a product receptive to Japanese tastes. His work is often compared to that of the Japanese literati-style painter Tomioka Tessai (1836-1924), whose work featured in this exhibition includes “Ode to the Red Cliff” (1922). Tessai was so well versed in the Chinese tradition that he could recreate it anew in his own guise through blotchy pools of ink that combined refined linear brushwork. The degree of Tessai’s influence on 20th-century Chinese artists remains for the most part unmeasured.

Gao Jianfu (1879-1951) studied in Japan twice in the first decade of the 20th century. Along with his brother Gao Qifeng (1889-1933) and fellow artist Chen Shuren (1884-1948), he became a master of the Lingnan School of Guangdong Province. The Lingnan School’s aim was to reform Chinese national painting, and they adopted the visual vocabulary and compositions of nihonga (Japanese painting), specifically the atmospheric ink washes of Kyoto’s Maruyama/Shijo School of painting that had come under the influence of Japanese literati painting and whose primary exponent in the early 20th century was Takeuchi Seiho (1864-1942). The stylistic emphasis is clearly apparent in Gao’s “Zhenhai Pavilion” (1926), and Gao privately acknowledged his debt to Seiho. Public mention of this was never made by Lingnan artists themselves, however, and criticism of the school then and now frequently concerns its distinctive Japanese sensibility.

As Japan had modernized faster than China owing to the 1868 Meiji Restoration, Chinese artists flocked here to learn Western painting styles from its well-established art institutions primarily in and around Tokyo. Liu Haisu (1896-1994) is the most representative of these, having studied in Japan in 1919. His output, such as his vaguely Van Gogh-inspired “Swiss Scenery” (1931), followed in much the same steps as his Japanese contemporaries working in the styles of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. As was the case with many Chinese oil painters, though, Liu continued to also work in more traditional modes, such as the ink work “Roaring Waves” (1927).

Chen Shizeng (1876-1923) studied natural history in Japan, though he returned to China as an artist and educator who was instrumental in advising China’s most famous 20th-century painter, Qi Baishi (1863-1957), to gravitate toward the style of his own teacher, Wu Chanshi. He did, and when Chen took his paintings to Japan in 1922 they all sold, fetching prices much higher than he could have expected in China. Chen was also receptive to intellectual interchange with the renowned Japanese art historian, Omura Seigai (1868-1927). Both sought the revival of literati painting in China and Japan and both wrote impassioned pleas for its rehabilitation. Chen even translated Omura’s “The Revivial of Literati Painting” into Chinese in 1922, which features in the exhibition as reference material.

That the works on display are so amenable to long held Japanese aesthetic proclivities also reflects the fact that the majority of works come from the collection of Yakichiro Suma (1892-1979), a diplomat stationed in China for a decade from 1927. The works were, for the most part, obtained as the result of artistic and political friendships — ones that became strained, and consonant with the demise of Japan’s painting influence on China with the early mid-century rise of Japanese imperialism.

“Modern Chinese Painting and Japan” at the Kyoto National Museum runs till Feb. 26 ; open 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.); ¥1,200. Closed Mon. www.kyohaku.go.jp