The Kishidas kept art in the heart of the family

by Jeff Michael Hamond

Special To The Japan Times

The legacies of talented multi-generational families not only reveal each member’s individual achievements but also offer a glimpse of how the changing currents of the times impact individual creativity. Such is the case with the three Kishida generations of “Ginko, Ryusei, and Reiko Kishida: Genealogy of Innovative Spirit” at the Setagaya Art Museum.

The family head, Ginko (1833-1905), lived and ran a shop in Tokyo’s fashionable Ginza district, making and selling eye drops, but his business acumen was just part of his all-round identity as a man of culture. He was also Japan’s first war reporter, who recorded the invasion of Taiwan in 1874, and he jointly edited the first Japanese-English/English-Japanese dictionary, published in 1867 and included on display at this exhibition. That project took Ginko to Shanghai to oversee production, as there were no letterhead printing presses in Japan at that time.

In one corner of the exhibition are a selection of his hanging scrolls. Some are pure calligraphy, but a few also have images of bamboo or mushrooms painted in ink by Ginko’s own hand, alongside his poetry.

If Ginko was something of a Renaissance man — albeit one operating within a predominantly Asian axis — his son Ryusei (1891-1929) was seemingly more focused on identifying himself as an artist. Although Ryusei can be seen in many photos hatless and wearing kimono, in his self-portraits he often sports a jaunty cap, adopting the popular self-image of his favorite European painters.

The exhibition opens, however, with Ryusei’s more well-known depictions of his daughter Reiko from the 1920s. If you feel his portrayals are less than flattering, don’t worry — it’s not just you. Many Japanese have a disturbing fascination with these portraits and consider them grotesque. Particularly creepy is a double image of Reiko as a child, one dressing the hair of her other self. Painted, perhaps not coincidentally, around the time Japan was going through its “ero-guro-nonsense” (Erotic-Grotesque-Nonsense) phase, it illustrates that kawaii (cute) culture hasn’t always ruled modern Japan.

The exhibition also suggests Ryusei had something of an ambivalent attitude to modernity. His illustrations for the Tokyo Nichi Nichi Shimbun depict lively scenes of shopping in Ginza or carousing in Shimbashi, but his oil paintings on the same subject are decidedly more downbeat. While the former were carried out under commission (he was asked to draw scenes from his childhood), the almost desolate Tokyo streets of the latter perhaps reflect his real feelings. Ryusei’s versatility is elsewhere apparent in a number of portraits of his artist friends, some interesting still lives (both in oils) and some of his early landscapes in watercolors.

Born into such a family, it is no surprise Reiko (1914-1962) also caught the art bug. The fantasy land of beautiful women and gorgeous clothing in her childhood drawings turn into fully realized portraits in oils, mainly of female friends. And they are also of interest for their ambiguous spatial constructions. The exhibition ends on a nostalgic up-note with Reiko’s painting, based on a photograph, of herself as a child with her father.

“Ginko, Ryusei, and Reiko Kishida: Genealogy of Innovative Spirit” at the Setagaya Art Museum runs till April 6; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. ¥1,200 Closed Mon. www.setagayaartmuseum.or.jp