Modernism, which was born in Paris and came of age in New York after World War II, was one of Europe’s most successful cultural exports of the 20th century, making it to South Africa, Vietnam, Brazil . . . and Japan.
Japan’s assimilation of Western art began with the Meiji Restoration. Japanese artists made trips to Europe; many stayed, like Yuzo Saeki, but others such as Seiki Kuroda and Chu Asai returned home to teach the theory and practice of emerging Western art forms. In 1871 Togai Kawakami published his influential “A Guide to Western Style Painting,” and reproductions of foreign art works appeared in progressive journals, such as Shirakaba (founded 1910). The term yoga(literally “Western picture”) became synonymous with novelty, while nihonga (“Japanese picture”) stood for tradition.
A new exhibition, “Selected Works from Oil Paintings and Watercolors,” showing at the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, till March 7, looks at the troubled relationship between these two artistic schools.
It wasn’t a straightforward struggle for dominance. Sometimes the battlefield was a single work: a painting might fall into either the Japanese or Western idiom, yet contain elements of the rival school. In such cases, the two aspects tend to sit awkwardly alongside each other — attempts to reconcile Japanese and Western art forms resulted in nothing so utopian as a harmonious fusion.
Other Japanese artists (braver, perhaps — or less daring?) opted to work wholly within the Western idiom.
Showing at the Kyoto museum are works like Masanari Murai’s “Ile de la Cite” (1939), which could easily be mistaken for a work by a member of the Dutch De Stijl group, headed by Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesberg in 1917. Or Gyo Fumon’s “Deer and Sunbeams” (1919), which comes incrementally close to the work of German Expressionist Franz Marc. Or “Reading by the Window” (1908-13) painted by Kijiro Ota in the style of Renoir. These are Western paintings that just happened to be produced by Japanese artists — they form a kind of Madame Tussauds of Western art.
More interesting are those works that reveal artists rummaging through the repertory of the West for themes or compositional features, then putting their discoveries to work in different contexts.
Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky frequently used a theme pairing a horse and rider, symbolic of the artist’s flight from a modernity he regarded as apocalyptic. Evidently, Japan’s rapid modernization aroused similar apprehension in Eitaro Ishigaki — and he used the same motif to portray it. “Whipping” (1925) depicts a rider mounted on a horse that rears in distress at the sight of an industrialized city shrouded in industrial darkness and billowing smoke. ‘People” (1955) by Shinjo Saito, borrows from Picasso’s “Guernica.” Passengers adrift at sea in a boat huddle together and carry with them the trappings of an agricultural past; a person at the bow screams or, perhaps, prays. It is an ambiguous statement of postwar uncertainty in Japan.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is a painting like Ryusei Kisida’s “Reiko Playing the Shamisen” (1923), which contains no discernible Western elements at all — except for the medium, oil, it is rendered in. Reiko, dressed in kimono and at musical practice, sits in an area less like a perspectival distance and more like the flattened space found in ink painting.
And then there are works like Kinya Arai’s “Autumn Garden of Toji-in, Kyoto” (1910), depicting fiery maples in decline, and Yasuo Kazuki’s semiabstract “Stream” (1961), which may appear stylistically Western but which partake of conventional Japanese sensibilities and notions of nature, declaring allegiance to a tradition not Western in origin.
Watercolors representing street scenes of Kyoto or famous landmarks, such as Gennosuke Kato’s “Yasaka Shrine” (1906), or oil paintings, such as Keizo Koyama’s “Shirasagi Castle in the Rainy Season” (1976), likewise seem to fall in with a long established Japanese tradition, in this case the scenes from travelogues or “views of famous places” so popular with ukiyo-e woodblock artists. Paintings like these are not really Western in any important ways. To be sure, they are painted in oil or watercolor, and may achieve a degree of realism by using perspective or chiaroscuro, but their real point of departure is Japanese art: They merely incorporate Western pictorial methods into native artistic practices.
These diverse trends continue well into the 1960s — and beyond. There is nothing “Japanese” about Kozo Mio’s “Fiction Space M1, M2” (1972) and everything un-Western about Yukihisa Isobe’s “Work 64-14 & 15: A Court Dance and Music” (1964).
Creating a successful synthesis of Western and Japanese forms was a tall order, but one artist who pulled it off was Jiro Yoshihara, represented here by seven works.
The artist’s engagement with modernism was oblique — he seems to have considered it a repertory of resources on which he could draw freely. His “Morning Glories and Marine Products” (1928) and oddly comical “Diver and Dog” (1931) achieve a degree of expressive realism; then in 1936 he was making almost architectural, Bauhaus or Russian-influenced works. Some 15 years later he was painting in a Neo-expressionist primitive style, represented by “Face With a Tear Drop” (1949), and by 1971 he was producing full-blown abstractions.
Yoshihara was ill at ease with various modern movements that strayed too far from his native traditions to be meaningful to him. So he moved skittishly across contemporary movements, searching for a fusion that was to come with his late abstractions — works not fully Japanese or Western, but harmoniously reconciled.
Even today, such reconciliation is uncommon. Art education continues to divide painting into yoga and nihonga — as do art exhibitions. The union of Japan’s two artistic inheritances has remained curiously elusive.
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