The Uemuras were not quite like mother, like son

by Matthew Larking

Special To The Japan Times

Shoko Uemura (1902-2001) was born to Shoen Uemura, the most revered and financially successful female painter of the early modern period, who arguably did more to popularize the bijinga genre (pictures of beautiful women) than any other. Artistically, however, his mother is said to have taught him nothing. As a child, he took a liking to insects, flowers and birds — and using his mothers lipsticks, he drew bird crests. The long-held reverence for East Asian flower-and-bird painting preoccupied him for the rest of his life, and the current show at the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, spans his entire career.

It is oxymoronic, but Uemura was a conservative radical. He entered the Kyoto Municipal School of Painting to learn nihonga (Japanese-style painting) in 1921, and in the same year won an award at the Teiten, a prestigious national exhibition that succeeded the government sponsored Bunten, which was based on the French salons of the time.

He finished his painting education in 1930 and became a teacher at his alma mater from 1936. As was customary for artists, he entered the private school of an older painter, Nishiyama Suisho, and studied under his elder who helped nurture his career. After becoming a postwar judge in the newly named Nitten (previously the Bunten and Teiten), it was not long before he quit his position in 1947 after losing confidence in the establishment because of the factional and fractious judging environment in which pictures were vetted, and consequently careers made or destroyed.

In 1948, he secretively formed the Kyoto contingent that teamed with a Tokyo one to create the Nitten breakaway group Sozo Bijutsu (Creative Art), the first postwar painting group to aspire to nihonga (Japanese-style painting) reform and contemporaneity with international painting movements. It was an unprecedented scandal because Uemura assembled his fellow students, but neglected to tell his teacher. Nishiyama found out in the newspaper the following day.

Uemura’s Sozo Bijutsu work shifted to applications of flat color and simplified renderings of his still familiar bird-and-plant life subjects. The use of traditional yohaku (empty, unpainted background space) in Japanese painting, however, became an opportunity for dialog with abstract color-field painting in variegated modulations of tone and color that also retained their representational function, for example as the depiction of the water’s surface in “Mandarin Ducks” (1965). The later works in particular, in a sense became psychological landscapes — a diary of his heartfelt emotions — inhabited by anthropomorphized birds and plant life.

The only major exception to his oeuvre came in 1970 with a brightly colored, large-scale figural painting of historical personages, titled “Spring Scenery Associated with the Man’yo-Shu.” This was his only pictorial accomplishment that approached the work of his mother, though in 1984 he received the prestigious Order of Culture that his mother had previously been awarded, bringing him culturally on par.

“Uemura Shoko” at The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto runs till July 6; open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.). ¥1,300. Closed Mon. www.momak.go.jp/English/exhibitionArchive/2014/403.html