Shimomura Kanzan kept nihonga clean and cool

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

Art can sometimes play a balancing or compensatory role in society, giving voice to neglected or superseded aspects of a culture. For example, the neo-feudalist ethos of Pre-Raphaelitism and the pastoralism of Impressionism developed against a backdrop of increasing urbanization and materialism. This can help steady a society and reassure people during times of rapid change.

This also seems to be one of the best explanations for the rise of Japan’s nihonga movement, and the many artists and traditional styles that it sheltered. One of the most important of these was Shimomura Kanzan.

Despite living through one of the most turbulent periods of change in Japanese history, Kanzan produced artworks that nevertheless have a particularly pristine and timeless quality, as visitors to the extensive retrospective of his work at the Yokohama Museum of Art can see. Timed to coincide with the 140th anniversary of his birth in 1873, the exhibition, takes a wide-ranging look at his career.

Born into a family of hereditary noh players, Kanzan studied the painting techniques of the famous Kano school as a child, and then joined the inaugural class of the Tokyo Fine Arts School (now Tokyo University of the Arts) in 1889. Here he came under the influence of such luminaries as Tenshin Okukura and Taikan Yokoyama, whose art recently featured in another major retrospective at the same museum.

Kanzan is often regarded as the last great painter of the Kano school, but as a school that straddled several centuries and included scores of artists, it was more of an attitude than a specific style, with its keynote being a show of effortless skill and sophistication hiding the hard work needed to achieve these effects, combined with a kind of snobbish coolness.

Sometimes Kano-school art can seem too precious and effete. One of Kanzan’s masterpieces, “Mount Ogura” (1909), a pair of six-paneled folding screens, shows a nobleman sitting in a wood glade, presumably to contemplate nature, except that nature has been prissily tidied up. The forest floor seems to have been hoovered. This turns it into an echo of a poem and demonstration of the artist’s ability to paint certain leaf types, rather than an expression of its subject.

Another point about the Kano School is the constant references to ancient Chinese styles and themes, essentially a fascination with a “distant otherness.” This creates an aura of inauthenticity that the Western viewer can miss but which the Japanese viewer regards as the height of taste.

In Kanzan’s work, this interest in a “distant otherness” even extends to certain elements of Western art. As a young man, Kanzan spent time abroad studying. The exhibition includes his copies of Raphael’s “Madonna of the Chair” and Sir John Millais’ “The Knight Errant,” among other works.

Alas, he was unable to incorporate these “exotic” Western elements into his Kano-School-dominated oeuvre, but interestingly the central figure in his Buddhist-themed “Avalokitesvara Bearing a Fish Basket” (c. 1927) bears a remarkable resemblance to Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.”

“Shimomura Kanzan Retrospective” at the Yokohama Museum of Art runs till Feb. 11; open 10 a.m.- 6 p.m. ¥1,200. Closed Thu. www.yaf.or.jp/yma/index.php