Kansetsu Hashimoto’s Chinese rebellion

by Matthew Larking

Special To The Japan Times

From the end of the Edo Period (1603-1867), Japanese art began to shift its fundamental cultural orientation from China to Europe. Kansetsu Hashimoto, however, (1883-1945) initially abjured, and this had much to do with his upbringing

Born in Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture, his father was an eminent Confucian scholar whose own painting exploits are nowadays largely ignored. When Hashimoto was 5, his mother, herself skilled in calligraphy, divorced his father, and subsequently he was raised by his grandmother, who sang him Chinese poetry as if lullabies. Thus steeped in Sinophile interests from youth, Hashimoto nonetheless gradually brought his art to wavering rapprochement with Western Modernism. The “Hashimoto Kansetsu Retrospective” at the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art reviews his career on the 130th anniversary of his birth.

At age 12, Hashimoto dropped out of middle-school and began studying the Shijo School style of painting under the now forgotten artist Koko Kataoka, from whom he learned the skills and repertory of painting subjects, such as the historical portrait of 12th-century court dancer “Shizuka Gozen” (1896). From age 20, he sought an eminent teacher who could spur his burgeoning career, and he found one in the luminary Seiho Takeuchi. Under Seiho, his work was selected in 1908 for the second Bunten, a national juried art exhibition modeled on the French salons that often brought about widespread acclaim, patrons and financial success to artists. Successive selections by the Bunten soon certified Hashimoto as a prodigy.

Chinese themes became dominant in his work and in 1913 he made his first trip to China. On his return, he submitted to the Bunten a dazzling large-scale panel work titled “Southern Country” (1914). The painting, in brilliant red and gold, pictured the working classes tilling the oars and working the rudders on Chinese boats as they navigated choppy waters. Kansetsu’s own notes, however, indicated that he painted “Southern Country” while considering French Impressionism. Yet he continued to address poetic Chinese subjects, such as that of “Tale of Mulan” (1918), which depicts the Chinese heroine Hua Mulan valiantly taking the place of her aging father in the army. Mulan is pictured after dismounting from her horse, pensively cradling her crossed legs with her sword and armor set aside.

Hashimoto made more than 30 visits to China, returning often enough that he could claim he “smelled of China,” and from the mid-1910s he came to be associated with the “new nanga” painting movement that revived Chinese literati painting. First entering Japan in the middle of the Edo Period, the literati tradition accorded relatively equal weighting to the practices of poetry, painting and calligraphy. Hashimoto, like a number of other painters and critics of the period, claimed that because nanga was supposedly against life-like representation, it was akin to early 20th-century Western expressionist painting. However, it was considered superior because it was now the West that was catching up with Eastern painting. Nanga, Hashimoto thought, was not about the technique to arrive at realistic representation, as in the earlier Western art, but a deep expression of humanity.

In 1923, Hashimoto’s contentious relationship with his teacher was severed when he criticized Seiho’s art as being “bold and courageous though careful and meticulous.” Part of Hashimoto’s problem with Seiho’s art was what he called the “stink of Western art” — the fact that Seiho had incorporated the European influences of oil painters Turner and Corot in his painting. Rather more problematically, however, was that Hashimoto had himself already done such, and he did it again in the 1920s when he took two long vacations in Europe, bought ancient Grecian and Persian artifacts and was impressed by Van Gogh and Gauguin.

His thoughts momentarily turned to becoming an oil painter. Though he didn’t follow through, in yet another curious shift in the 1930s, Hashimoto took a deep interest in the representation of animals, a genre Seiho was particularly revered for. Perhaps his aim was to outdo his former teacher, and arguably he did with “Dark Gibbons” (1933), a painting that is generally regarded to be among the best animal pictures of the Showa Era (1926-1989).

As Japan entered its period of militancy from the early 1930s, Hashimoto’s thematic concerns also militarized, though his oeuvre largely did not turn to the depiction of Japanese soldiers and their overt self-sacrifice or tanks and bomber planes. Instead his “Air Raid Shelter” (1942) — an image that resonates with his youthful bijinga (pictures of beautiful women) — pictured a scantily clad Javanese woman emerging out of a shelter to the blue sky of day, almost as if she was a manifestation of the unrealized dream of the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.

Another work, “Hsiang Fei (Fragrant Concubine) in War Costume” (1942) depicts the 18th-century Uighur consort, the favorite of the Qianlong Emperor, decked out in European armor. Hashimoto’s depiction of patriotism — while exotic in its use of non-Japanese subjects, and both updated and backward-looking — mostly rejoins his past practices. The difference is that where his Chinese heroine of earlier times dismounts and sets her armor aside, as Hsiang Fei, she now suits up.

“Hashimoto Kansetsu Retrospective” at the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art runs till Oct. 20; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri., Sat. till 8 p.m.). ¥1,300. Closed Mon., Sept. 27, 24, 30. www.artm.pref.hyogo.jp