Encounters with the modern that both frustrated and inspired Japanese artists

by Jeff Michael Hammond

Special To The Japan Times

Japanese oil painting of the 20th century is, in many ways, still to receive its dues. When Japanese audiences turn their attention to modern art they tend to favor the “original” works from the West, while foreign viewers all too often find Japan’s foray into oil painting too similar to the Western model and lacking the desired exoticism of more “traditional” Japanese art styles and materials.

A new exhibition at the Kawagoe City Art Museum in Saitama Prefecture challenges this prejudice and aims to show that the art of modern Japan, in its own way, had, and still has, much to offer. “A Yearning for the West: A Personal Awakening — Oil Painting in Modern Japan” brings together 59 works by 50 Japanese artists active from the late 19th century through to the 1950s. The exhibition is organized by the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, which has provided 50 of the paintings on display.

The Japanese artists here, which include names familiar in Japan such as Seiki Kuroda, Sotaro Yasui and Fujita Tsuguharu , in one way or another all looked for inspiration in the West, particularly in what was then the art world’s capital — Paris, where many headed to study in the city’s ateliers and studios. The range of their preoccupations is diverse, from capturing the delicate play of light in en plein air landscapes, to perfecting portraiture by revealing not only the sitter’s physical likeness through modeling, but something of their character, as in Takeshiro Kanokogi’s 1915 portrait of the scholar Hirase Tai in his book-lined studio.

Japanese artists also had to grapple with the nude — not only as an unfamiliar genre but as one prejudiced against in Japan (the first nude exhibited in 1895 caused an uproar). There are few very early nudes here, the handful on display dating from when Japan was engaging with post-Impressionist developments. Satomi Katsuzou goes “primitive” with raw, bold brushstrokes and vivid Fauve-esque colors of “Woman” (1937), demonstrating how Japanese artists, coming from a tradition of using mineral pigments unmixed, experienced newfound joy in combining oils on the canvas and engaging with the physicality of the medium.

The East-West encounter, however, often necessitated the artists to not only master new media and subject matter, (the nude and others) but to rethink their relationship with the world. Many of these Japanese artists were attempting to invigorate, or provide an alternative to, their own visual culture through their engagement with the West, just as modernism in Europe began its attack on the Humanist tradition to which they were attracted.

Showing one of his works to French painter Maurice de Vlaminck, Yuzo Saeki was advised to forget about the old-fashioned academic tradition he had come to France specifically to learn from. Disappointed, but fired up, Saeki went on to produce the kind of street view included in this exhibition and other scenes of everyday life. With a new emphasis in the West on the individual creativity of the artist over learning from tradition, for many Japanese artists, discovering their own distinctive voice in the still unfamiliar medium of Western oil painting proved to be a frustrating as well as exciting challenge.

“A Yearning for the West: A Personal Awakening — Oil Painting in modern Japan” at the Kawagoe City Art Museum runs till Feb. 11; open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥500. Closed Mon. www.city.kawagoe.saitama.jp/artmuseum/index.html