Of life's mystery and joy

The heartfelt works of Taikan Yokoyama

by Linda Inoki

He lived through the best and worst of times. His life spanned a century of tremendous change, as Japan’s focus shifted from rural to industrial, from East to West, from peace to war. He experienced poverty and success, respect and recrimination. He was Taikan Yokoyama (1868-1958), one of Japan’s most important 20th-century artists, and his lifework is now the subject of an exhibition at the Tokyo National Museum.

Although he passionately believed that art should come “from the heart,” visitors should not expect emotional thunder and lightning to flash off his works on display. Yokoyama was a follower of ancient Eastern philosophies, such as Taoism, that value insight more than expression. “Those who know, speak not,” wrote the Chinese sage Laozi, and Yokoyama’s finest pieces reflect a quiet contemplation of life’s great mysteries, as well as sympathy for life’s simple joys.

Keeping this in mind helps toward gaining a better appreciation of his subjects and techniques — from masterful scroll paintings of eternal rivers, to naive scenes of children driving oxen.

There are, however, problems. In particular, there is a distinct change of mood and a stiffening of style as Yokoyama reaches the period of World War II, and some people find the nationalistic sentiment behind these paintings offensive.

First, though, to the prewar pure land. The opening gallery contains some beautiful landscapes in Indian ink on silk. They are a series of imaginative views of “The Xiao and Xiang Rivers” in China, painted first in 1912, and again in 1927. These hazy pictures of fishermen in a world of mist may be drawn from the Chinese landscape tradition, but their sense of the transience of life and nature’s endurance is thoroughly Japanese.

Another early painting charged with subtle emotion is the defiant figure of “The Legendary Chinese Poet Qu Yuan” from 1898. The wind here is not merely depicted (in flowing garments and tumbling leaves), it is felt as an actual presence.

This steadfast figure also represents Yokoyama’s mentor, Okakura Tenshin (1862-1913), the champion of a new age of Japanese art. At the turn of the century, there were fierce disputes about the cultural value of the Western art that was pouring into the country. Okakura stuck to the view that Asian artistic traditions had most to offer, even after opponents sabotaged his academic career.

Through Okakura, Yokoyama rediscovered the bold, decorative Rinpa style of the 17th and 18th centuries. This was one way of reviving Japanese art, and also a style that was easily understood in exhibitions in Europe and America, where Okakura promoted Yokoyama’s work, among that of others, and encouraged the appreciation of Eastern ideals.

The resulting screen paintings from the 1920s and ’30s are certainly lively and colorful, and Jun Shioya, from the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, thinks they reflect Yokoyama’s most creative years. For example, he says, the pair of screens from 1918 depicting the tea master Sen no Rikyu as a child, “does not make the usual connection with the tea ceremony’s world of wabi [extreme simplicity].” Instead, it shows a youth amid vibrant greenery, “almost like a jungle.” There is just one golden-russet tree, which refers to a story about the sensitive lad who was one day told to sweep his teacher’s garden. He did so, carefully brushing up every leaf. Then, feeling that something was missing, he shook the tree so a few leaves would scatter and the autumn atmosphere would return.

However, although screens such as this, and the popular “Cherry Blossoms at Night” (1929) and “Autumn Maples” (1930) offer brilliant patterns of color, Yokoyama’s monochrome paintings seem to have more mystery.

“The Yangtse River Scroll” (1914) has the freshness of a travel diary, recording impressions with quick dashes of the brush. And there is warmth, in the glowing bridge at night, and gentle humor, in the umbrellas huddled against a sudden shower.

“The Wheel of Life” scroll painting of 1923 (also called “Metempsychosis”) is more profound. This lengthy scroll follows the course of a river from a mountain spring, attracting monkeys, deer, birds and people on the way until it spills into the sea. There, a dragon forms from the leaping waves, before all returns to mist.

Yokoyama’s inspiration was probably the commentary of Laozi, who said: “The great good is like unto water. Water which serves all things without strife.”

If Yokoyama had kept to such work, and to portraying the Indian and Chinese sages, he would not have been called to account at the end of World War II. But he assisted the war effort, and raised funds for warships with new works. These include his series “Ten Sea Themes” (1940) and views of Mount Fuji, several of which are on display, including “The Sacred Mountain” (1941).

Just a few paintings from this era seem outstanding, such as the majestic Mount Fuji of “Japan of the Rising Sun” (1940). Although he was never punished for his support of the war effort, after the war, Shioya believes he may have continued to paint Mount Fuji, and scrolls such as “Landscapes of the Four Seasons” (1947) “to console people, and to seek eternity in the unchanging rivers and mountains.”