Nihonga: without the hand over the eye

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

At its essential level, art is a battle between the eye and the hand; the first representing sensory input, the second artistic habit and convention. When the hand outweighs the eye, art can become over-stylized, clichéd, and eventually dead. Asian art has been particularly prone to this; with young artists faithfully repeating the themes and styles of their masters in unbroken chains without looking far beyond.

This is evident throughout much of the history of Japanese art and also in the nihonga (Japanese-style painting) movement that emerged at the end of the 19th century with its famous mantra of “kachō fugetsu” (a term that uses the kanji for flower, bird, wind and moon) by which it limited itself to a narrow range of subjects treated in a classical manner.

But, while the world of nihonga has often been guilty of blind veneration for artistic traditions, an exhibition of the works of Takeuchi Seiho (1864-1942) at the Museum of Modern Art Tokyo shows another side of the story, as the artist was a keen observer as well as an excellent brush man.

Seiho’s career spans the Meiji, Taisho, and early Showa eras. Like any young artist, he learned to copy the styles and techniques of his masters and predecessors, in his case the Kyoto-based artists Tsuchida Eirin and Kono Bairei.

Just as a modern-art student will experiment with different “isms,” Seiho tried different schools of Japanese painting. This makes the first part of the exhibition stylistically varied. One work is a convincing copy of a 15th-century ink and wash painting by Sesshu Toyo, while others show the influence of the Maruyama, Shijo, and Kano schools.

But this is just a prelude. In the main part of the exhibition we see a range of works that were the product of direct observation, testament to the dominance of the eye over the hand. These also range well outside the typical subject matter of nihonga, to include European scenery and unexpected animals, such as lions and elephants.

These are painted in a way that seems naturalistic and convincing. The most impressive is “Tiger and Lion” (1901), an Indian ink painting across a pair of gold-decorated, six-paneled screens. This expansive work has none of the cute and comic feel that such exotic animals usually have in traditional Japanese art. Also impressive is “Elephants” (c. 1904), showing two of the giant creatures painted on a similar background that can hardly contain them.

But these are not textbook zoological paintings either. At times Seiho uses his brush in an almost impressionistic way that more effectively captures the spirit of the beasts.

This development of his art was the direct result of a trip to Europe in 1900, when he visited museums, galleries, art schools, and — yes — zoos. During his time abroad he saw how important direct observation was in European art, and so did some himself.

But, even though he was very impressed by Western art, he did not, as so many other Japanese artists did, turn his back on his native artistic traditions to become a “Western” painter. Instead, he sought a synthesis between the two styles.

In Seiho’s view, Japanese painting, especially ink-and-wash, sought to express the spirit of an object in a very direct way, often with hit-or-miss results. Western art, by contrast, had progressed from observing actual objects and mastering subtle gradations and shading, to finally reach the essence of its subject. In short, while Japanese art tried to work from the inside out, Western art worked from the outside in. Seiho’s hope was to combine both approaches to make the realization of the essence more certain.

This ambition suffuses his landscapes of European scenes such as “Historic Spot of Rome” (1903), again a large work across two pairs of six-paneled screens. The way in which the ruins emerge, as from a golden mist, almost puts one in mind of Turner’s paintings of Italy.

This grand scheme of combing Western and Japanese art held Seiho’s attention for a few years it seems, but, as time passed, his painting became a lot more eclectic. This was influenced by his work as an art teacher as well as the artistic milieu around him. Trips to China also put him back in touch with the roots and influences that he had once seemingly outgrown.

The effect of this was a weakening of artistic energy that expressed itself in a softening and sentimentalizing of his art. The great beasts of his golden period were succeeded by pictures of puppies, ducklings and cats; charming enough but with a loss of essence. In the later part of his career, there is a sense of the hand reasserting its dominance, once again, over the eye.

“Takeuchi Seiho” at the Museum of Modern Art Tokyo runs till Oct. 14; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.). ¥1,300 (includes entry to MOMAT collection). n.b. Some works will be changed during the exhibition period. Closed Mon. www.momat.go.jp