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How a master circled the system

by Rhiannon Paget

Special To The Japan Times

Favorites of today’s museum-going public, the lushly colorful, sensuous and grotesque paintings of beautiful women by Tsuchida Bakusen (1887-1936) have long been written into the canon of nihonga (Japanese-style painting). It is easy to forget, however, just how transgressive Bakusen’s images were at the time of their conception, and how they thrilled and appalled his contemporaries.

Painting Circles: Tsuchida Bakusen and Nihonga Collectives in Early 20th-Century Japan, by John Szostak.
Brill, Nonfiction.
Rating: ★★★★

John Szostak’s “Painting Circles: Tsuchida Bakusen and Nihonga Collectives in Early 20th-Century Japan,” explores Bakusen’s dynamic and conflicted world, wherein artists, under the supervision of an increasingly intrusive government, asserted their respective visions of what it meant to be both Japanese and modern. Szostak’s book, the first English-language monograph on this Kyoto painter, is therefore a welcome addition to a growing body of scholarship on the various modalities of nihonga that flourished during this period of Japan’s modern history.

Szostak traces the arc of Bakusen’s career in seven chapters, his focus alternately expanding and contracting as the narrative takes us between Bakusen, his inner circle of artist colleagues, and the national art scene. Born on Sado Island, Niigata Prefecture, Bakusen began his formal training under conservative literati-style painter Suzuki Shonen (1848-1918) from 1903, before transferring to the atelier of the progressive Takeuchi Seiho, a Maruyama-Shijo school painter with a keen interest in Western aesthetic principles. As a student of Seiho, Bakusen made his debut in the government salon in 1908 with his sentimental genre painting “Punishment.”

Bakusen was a member of the first cohort of the Kyoto Municipal Specialized School for Painting, founded in 1909. There he befriended oil painter Tanaka Kisaku (1885-1945), who founded the experimental art society Chat Noir and its subsequent incarnation Le Masque. These collectives were unusual in that they included both nihonga and oil painters, and although short-lived, they were critical forums for the introduction and assimilation of post-Impressionism, Futurism and other modernist art movements to Japan. Bakusen’s relationship with Tanaka and involvement in these groups can be scene in his paintings of this period, notably “Hair” (1911), which unites the sensibilities and delineation techniques of ukiyo-e with a sense of tactile flesh conveyed through Western modelling techniques.

From 1912 to 1916, Bakusen disengaged with local art societies to devote himself to Bunten, the national juried exhibition sponsored by the Ministry of Education, and created what Szostak refers to as “some of the most adventurous and inventive paintings of his career.” These included “Island Women” (1912) and “Abalone Divers” (1913), works poised between Japanese genre painting and the modernism of Henri Matisse and Paul Gauguin. Szostak points out how in the latter work Bakusen scraped back the mineral pigments to create a curiously textured surface in part of an ongoing exploration into the limits of his medium.

The main course of Szostak’s book, however, is the founding and activities of the Society of the Creation of Japanese Painting (Kokuga Sosaku Kyokai) by Bakusen and his colleagues Ono Chikkyo (1889-1979), Sakibara Shiho (1887-1971), Murakami Kagaku (1888-1939) and Nonagase Banka (1889-1964) out of dissatisfaction with Bunten. Declaring that the “creation of art must be practiced with complete freedom,” the group attracted submissions from idealistic young artists from either side of the nihonga and oil painting divide.

The Society flourished from 1919 to 1928, with an extended hiatus after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 during which core members travelled to Europe for research and to collect European art. In a direct challenge to the hegemony of the Tokyo art scene, the Society showcased artworks exhibiting a radical and sometimes uneasy synthesis of native and foreign elements. Some of these are now regarded as representative works of the Taisho period (1912-26) nihonga canon. As with many art societies of this period, however, the group ultimately struggled to reconcile the interests of the collective with the individual freedoms it championed. Bakusen’s overbearing presence may well have driven many of the nihonga painters away.

Szostak’s book joins a growing body of research that challenges the centrality of the government salon and Tokyo-based artists and collectives in the development of nihonga in the 1910s and 1920s. The book furthermore illuminates the critical but less appreciated role of nihonga artists, as opposed to oil painters, as mediators of European modernism. Although writings by Bakusen and his circle suggest that they believed nihonga to be of international significance, their activities were remarkably introverted. There is little evidence given of relationships forged with artists outside of Japan, or efforts to promote their nihonga overseas. The fact that the group prefixed their name with koku, meaning “national,” suggests that this was not merely for lack of funds. The inclusion of some discussion of this apparent ambivalence between the international and the local would enrich our understanding of how these artists saw their practice within a rapidly developing nation in an increasingly globalized world.

“Painting Circles” is a scholarly text, based on Szostak’s doctoral dissertation, but its prose and structure are lucid. Key artworks by Bakusen and his colleagues, as well possible source images identified by the author, are illustrated in 149 plates, mostly in color. Appendices include translations of documents pertaining to the Society of the Creation of Japanese Painting and a list of names and terms in Japanese — a useful addition as the main text has been purged of Chinese characters. The production and design is as elegant as we have come to expect from Brill, but as with other books in their Japanese Visual Culture series, it is unfortunately priced more for institutions than for individuals.

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