The fusion of East and West is a major theme in 20th-century art, even though, in important ways, the two don’t mix. What seems at one point to be their ostensible unification, appears in another as discordant. Such inconsonance lurks in the background at the retrospective of Kunitaro Suda’s work at the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art.
While Suda (1841-1961) is usually posited as having developed an Eastern style of oil painting, it is difficult to overlook the familiar story of how the materials he used may have been Western oil paints and canvas, though his subjects were Japanese. The result is a composite of Western modus operandi and a somewhat peripheral theme of “local color.”
Suda was acutely aware that the introduction of oil painting to Japan toward the end of the Edo Period (1603-1867) was in many ways a repetition of the trends in the West. His 1947 text “Wither Our Oil Painting” condemned this, making the argument for the development of the medium in response to the necessities and specifics of Japanese art.
The “cut flower,” as he called oil painting and its transference into the Japan, had led to its withering on native soil because of a lack of roots. Reviving the debate on the future of oil painting in Japan during the post-World War II period, Suda’s own pictorial propositions, however, were less a reorientation of painting than a way to use it to preserve the Japanese past.
Suda had been interested in painting from childhood, and some Van Gogh reproductions he saw in 1907 were an early influence. He started painting in oils in high school before he entered Kyoto Imperial University in 1913 to study art history and aesthetics. A few extant works from around 1914, such as “Schoolhouse,” reveal him to have been a fairly conventional painter with a mild Expressionist bent.
Graduating university in 1916, he went on to the Kansai Academy of Art from 1917 to study drawing and design, all the while pursuing painting independently. Kyoto, unlike Tokyo, had no official Western-style painting school as the course had been abolished at the Kyoto Prefecture Painting School in 1889. It was only reinstituted in 1945 when the school was restructured and named the Kyoto Municipal Special School of Art.
In 1919, Suda chose to pursue four years of practical study in Europe. Madrid was his base of operations and he frequented the Museo Nacional del Prado, where he became a copyist, learning the styles of the Venetian school. His Titian “Reproduction of Musician and Venus” (1919), El Greco “Reproduction of Resurrection” (1921) and versions of Tintoretto and Goya were not just copies of a trove of works that he could bring back to Japan as art-historical references or showpieces: They helped him learn the minutiae of oil painting that would yield him the secrets of the medium’s development, in particular the color theories of the Venetian school and the chiaroscuro of Baroque painting.
While copying the European masters, he took up the arid Spanish landscape as his own subject in works such as “Jaca” (1922).
Returning to Japan in 1923, he lectured art history at his alma mater and at the Higher Commercial School of Wakayama, while he painted views of the southern suburbs of Kyoto. Still known primarily as a scholar, however, it was not until 1932 in Tokyo that he had his first solo exhibition. In 1934, he became a member of the Independent Art Association, and in 1947 a member of the Japan Art Academy.
In 1950, he became professor and acting president of the Kyoto Municipal College of Art in the dual role of artist and scholar, and in 1956 he was selected as Japan’s representative at the Venice Biennale. By then, he was so overworked that he had little time to paint and even set up an easel in his office so that he could daub in his spare moments. The workload, sadly, made him ill, and Suda spent his last four years on his back in a hospital bed, still working with his canvas suspended above him as he painted from below.
While Suda developed a distinctively dark body of work that owes something to his encounter with Goya’s paintings, as well as a scratchy, scumbled application of paint, his subjects were the conventional ones of premodern art, including portraits, landscapes and the nature-based themes that had formed the core of Japanese painting and poetry since the Heian Period (794-1185). These can be found in “Cherry Blossoms Reflecting Bonfire” (1941), “White-naped Cranes” (1953), “Summer Flowers” (1954) and many other works.
These classicizing references direct attention to the past and not the future, making them seem nostalgic, as in “Remains of the Rai Family’s House in Takehara, Aki” (1946). Rather than a new Eastern oil painting, what we find here is the preservation and propagation of the past.
“Suda Kunitaro: Looking Back 50 Years After His Death” at the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art runs till Feb. 3; open 9 a.m-5 p.m. ¥1,000. Closed Mon.