Yuki Ogura: The other side of modern

by C.B. Liddell

Visitors to the current exhibition at the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo might be excused for thinking they’d been misled. Instead of encountering a display of works expressing the essence of 20th-century Japanese art, perchance, or the challenge of assimilating Western artistic techniques, this show features works by one of the foremost exponents of nihonga — traditional Japanese painting.

Yuki Ogura died two years ago at the advanced age of 105. At first, her sedate, flat-looking pictures of women in kimono, and delicate studies of flowers that hark back to the Edo Period seem out of place in MOMA. But it should be remembered that nihonga, despite the overt traditionalism of much of its subject matter, was the other side of the great art odyssey that began when Japan’s 2 1/2 centuries of isolation was shattered by the arrival of the Black Ships of U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry in July 1853.

Following the 1868 Meiji Restoration, many talented young Japanese artists eagerly embraced the styles of Western art and traveled overseas to explore and learn. However, an equally strong countermovement developed, led by the art critic Tenshin Okakura and Ernest Fenollosa, an American who taught at Tokyo University from 1878 to ’86 and helped convey an appreciation of Japanese art to the West. This resulted in the founding of the Nihon Bijutsu-in (Japan Art Institute), which consciously rejected Western artistic trends and tried to promote a purely Japanese aesthetic.

To distinguish themselves from Western-style, or yoga painters, nihonga artists confined themselves to traditional materials such as Indian ink and powdered mineral pigments applied to hanging scrolls, screens, or paper and silk mounted on board. When Ogura first started painting, in the 1920s, they were also relying on an equally narrow range of motifs. These typically encompassed nature scenes, usually with a seasonal theme; patriotic symbols such as Mount Fuji; and limpid young ladies in traditional dress, as exemplified by the bijinga (pictures of beautiful women) of Shinsui Ito (1898-1972).

This emphasis on the idealized Japanese female reminds us that nihonga, as with so many areas of Japanese culture, was very much a man’s world. It is surprising, therefore, that even though Ogura was the first woman to be accepted into the Nihon Bijutsu-in, in 1932, most of her works share this fixation with the female form.

Moreover, there are few male figures in her paintings. Those males that are either have their back turned, such as the foreign priest in “A Joyous Baptism” (1936), occupy the background, as in “My Family” (1959), or are androgynous spiritual beings, as in “Bodhisattva in Motion” (1968). Indeed, one painting I initially took to be a frank frontal view of a short-haired man turned out to be a 1962 self-portrait!

Many of Ogura’s female figures adhere closely to the conventions established by such nihonga masters as her teacher, Yukihiko Yasuda (1884-1978). For example, “Silent Thoughts” (1936) shows an elegant, poker-faced lady. The focus on shape rather than movement, so typical of nihonga, creates a feeling of stillness in this work, as if its subject were holding her breath. We are left to infer the woman’s mood from subtle visual clues, like the way she discreetly touches a book. Apparently, she has just read something that has made her think.

A work like this conjures up an alternative reality of a Japan that never came into contact with the West. But despite the mutually exclusive categories of nihonga and yoga, ideas and inspiration did occasionally cross over. Even before Japan’s defeat in World War II led other nihonga artists to question their artistic isolationism, Ogura was willing to experiment, introducing new, everyday themes and startling compositions into her works.

The most refreshing of these is “Women Bathing I” (1938), which shows two ladies enjoying the daily ritual in a large tiled bath. What is striking about this painting is the way Ogura uses the rigid geometry of the wall tiles to give perspective to the picture — and then subverts this using the water’s distorted refraction of the submerged bath tiles. Not only does this accurately represent the quality of the water, it also creates the dizzying, tilting effect of leaning back in a Japanese bath.

Paintings like this brought Ogura recognition, though she only came into her own after the war. By then, when nihonga was considerably discredited by its association with nationalistic militarism, Ogura’s more flexible style and mundane subject matter helped it find the new visual vocabulary it needed to redefine itself in a more approachable form.

Ogura also played an important role in breaking down some of the barriers between nihonga and Western art. The composition of such paintings from this period as “Young Woman” (1951) and “Ko-chan Resting” (1960) reveal the influence of a major 1951 exhibition of Henri Matisse’s paintings held in Japan. These two works both show women in relaxed, naturalistic poses, giving them a refreshing, earthy quality that contrasts markedly with the doll-like depictions of earlier nihonga.

Although nihonga generally lacks the experimentation and dynamism of yoga, this exhibition should convince any visitor that Ogura’s work occupies an important place in the story of modern Japanese art. And if you still feel shortchanged, you can always check out MOMA’s extensive permanent collection of Japanese modern art, shown upstairs.