Independent brushstrokes

Originality follows imitation in the history of Japanese oil painting

by Matt Larking

A commonly heard accusation is that Japanese oil painters are followers rather than innovators. It is a criticism that has been made against many early adopters in this country — be they filmmakers, fashion designers, chefs or rock musicians — and one that has even come from painters’ compatriots.

When discussing the Fusain-kai exhibition of 1912, in which the artists presented an avant-garde Fauve style, Hakutei Ishii, a painter of yoga (Western-style paintings), said: “Most of the works at best rank with the works of the most minor artists of the Salon D’Autumne.” Uchida Roan was equally skeptical about the exhibition: “First of all, they lack in originality. I cannot help feeling that they represent not their own impressions but instead reproduce Gauguin’s, Matisse’s and Cezanne’s.”

To this day, museums outside Japan, while increasing their collections of nihonga (Japanese-style paintings), continue to ignore yoga. As a result, Western art-lovers are mostly unfamiliar with the 150 years of modern painting in Japan and have a strong bias that what happened at the art-world centers of the 19th and 20th centuries — Paris, Munich, New York — is fundamentally more significant than the work produced elsewhere. While people can come up with names like Kurosawa, Miyake and Nobu in other fields, who can name a Japanese equivalent of Picasso or van Gogh?

Ultimately, this mind-set does a disservice to the actual innovations Japanese oil painters have made and the alternate paths they have traveled down. And it causes them, regrettably, to be neglected by art scholars, galleries and, for that reason, the museum-going public.

Still, in Japan many yoga artists have become recognized today as masters. Individual art galleries and entire private collections — like the Terada Collection of Tatsuoki Nambata’s work and the Yamaoka Collection, which forms the basis of the upcoming “The Pioneers of Modern Japanese Oil Painting” — are devoted to the appreciation of their work.

Four current and upcoming exhibitions in Shiga and Tokyo offer excellent opportunities to examine the development of yoga painting in Japan over the last century and a half. As a whole you can see that while Japanese painters started by imitating, they quickly caught up with the more than 800-year-old Western tradition. By the mid-19th century, they were creating original works that were contemporaneous with international movements.

Playing catch-up

The first, and soon abandoned, encounters between Japanese and European art were in the middle of the 16th century with the arrival of Portuguese and Spanish missionaries. Later, in the 18th century, books and prints were brought to Nagasaki by Dutch traders. From these early contacts Japanese artists began to incorporate varying degrees of perspective and chiaroscuro in their work.

As trade relationships between Japan and the West developed from the late 1850s and the country set its sights on becoming a modern, industrialized nation-state, the Shogunate officially encouraged deeper and more lasting connections. The initial exchanges were of a practical nature, such as the government employment of engraver Edoardo Chiossone in 1875 to train technicians how to produce counterfeit-proof paper currency.

Following the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Japan’s view of China as the model of idealized culture continued to erode and was replaced by a greater European focus. The new yoga painters were eclectic in the styles they practiced. In this they were similar to their self-expressive and individualistic predecessors in the Edo Period who created “Japanized” versions of Chinese Literati paintings. Though painting with oil had been common in the West since the 12th century, in the hands of Meiji Era artists, oil paints were a distinctively modern medium.

Serious Western art training began with a string of newly established schools in the years leading up to the 20th century. The most important was the government-sponsored Kobu Art School in Tokyo, established in 1876. Here, the Italian Antonio Fontanesi trained students in the Beaux Arts and Barbizon movements which were then in vogue in the West.

The Barbizon school had been established by an informal group of French artists, including Theodore Rousseau and Jules Dupre, who had summer studios outside Paris in the village of Barbizon and the nearby Forest of Fontainebleau.

Historically, the Barbizon school is viewed as a stepping stone between classical landscape painting and Impressionism; visually, it presented humble themes of peasant life and labor in loosely composed natural scenes that were rendered with a freer technique. Fontanesi’s own Barbizon sympathies did much to establish the Japanese taste in oil painting.

The effects of this school can be seen at “The Pioneers of Modern Japanese Oil Painting” at the Museum of Modern Art, Shiga (Oct. 1-Nov 13), particularly in the numerous landscapes on show. Yuichi Takahashi’s “Salmon” (1877) — an oil-on-canvas of a semi-gutted fish — while evincing less a Barbizon style and more the manner of a 17th-century Dutch still life, is held to be a central achievement in Japanese realism. It also serves to show just how quickly (10 years after the Meiji Restoration) Japanese artists acquired the technical facility forged over centuries in the Western world. For this work and others, Takahashi — who studied under the less accomplished painter Togai Kawakami and Charles Wirgman, a correspondent of The Illustrated London News — is regarded as the pioneer of Western oil painting in Japan.

But most of these works strictly follow the Western pattern. Any Japanese sensibility they maintain is in their subject matter rather than in a studied attempt to make a hybrid art.

Flourishing of ideas

When the Kobu Art School closed in 1883, more artists went to study abroad in Paris, Rome and Munich. One of the first and most influential was Seiki Kuroda, whose work is presently being shown as part of the retrospective “The Age of Kuroda Seiki and Kishida Ryusei — Meiji and Taisho Era Painters from the Collection” at the Pola Museum of Art till March 2006.

Returning from nearly a decade of art study and travel in 1893, Kuroda introduced a Pleinair style of Impressionism — essentially painting outside with newly available tubes of paint — that was popular with artists and audiences in Paris. Kuroda also introduced Western-style nudes; unfortunately, this provoked hushed censure in Japan and stigmatized early yoga paintings as images of a potentially sexual nature that were deemed inappropriate for a morally superior and modernizing society. Kuroda’s lost painting “Morning Toilette,” exhibited in 1894 by the Meiji Art Society, was eventually withdrawn due to public consternation. (Less explicit but still revealing ukiyo-e themes such as women bathing in loose kimono also aroused occasional ire.)

Kuroda established the Hakuba-kai (White Horse Society) in 1896 to promote his approach. In the same year he began teaching Western art at the Tokyo School of Fine Art and Pleinairism quickly replaced the Barbizon school as the officially backed and dominant yoga style in Japan. The Pleinair movement, however, mostly followed the Barbizon premise of utilizing Western art techniques to render Japanese subjects. Ultimately, in the wake of a host of emerging avant-garde movements imported from Europe, such as Fauvism, Futurism, Dada and Surrealism, subsequent generations of Japanese painters came to challenge the Pleinair style for its increasingly conservative nature.

The search for identity

A number of events in the early 20th century furthered creative exploration by Japanese artists. In 1907 the government established the Bunten, an annual art exhibition based on the French Salon that was open to the public and divided into nihonga, yoga and sculpture sections. The literary journal Shirakaba (White Birch), founded in 1910, introduced Post-Impressionism and German Expressionism to Japanese audiences through printed reproductions. Over its 13-year run, it published articles and essays on van Gogh 59 times, and dedicated special issues to Cezanne and Rodin. A growing interest in individualism during the Taisho Period (1912-26) nurtured a flourishing of ideas.

The Cubism of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque was introduced in an attenuated form during the Taisho Period via Jutaro Kuroda (1887-1970), whose oeuvre is on display at the Museum of Modern Art in Shiga until Sept. 25. Kuroda marks an important turning point in the evolution of yoga. When he saw that his style was becoming closer to his Parisian predecessors, he decided to change direction and instead pursue a personal style that incorporated his own cultural background.

Before going to France to study, from 1910 to 1912 Kuroda had helped form the Kuroneko-kai (Black Cat Society) and Kamen-kai (Mask Society), which drew together ambitious young painters of both yoga and nihonga who were following trends in Post-Impressionism. His early paintings from France echoed the Impressionist/Pointillist Camille Pissarro, as evident in works like “Farmhouse and Landscape” (1912).

It was on his second journey that he became a pupil of the minor Cubist artist and popularizer Andre Lhote. His Cubist-inspired works are his most challenging — and Lhote’s addition of colorful realism to the Cubism of Picasso and Braque can be seen in figurative paintings such as “Madeleine le Punchi.” The painting turns the sinuous contours of the nude figure into blocklike planes that mimic the faceted architectural forms in the background. Even in works like this, Kuroda is a long way from Picasso and Braque — he retains clear delineation of pictorial objects and sets them in smooth transition between foreground and background while attending to the local colors, like the pinks and oranges of flesh, green foliage and blue sky. (Asian Cubism can be explored in greater depth at another exhibition currently in Tokyo, “Cubism in Asia: Unbounded Dialogues” at The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, running till Oct. 2, which explores what happens to forms of artistic expression when they cross the cultural boundaries between Europe and Asia.)

His subsequent painting career veered toward a quest to fashion a “Japanese sensibility” for oil painting. Ironically, part of this process meant returning to the Japanese tradition of exploring the Chinese theme of “the beauty of nature” (kachofugetsu), the earliest Japanese examples of which are Heian Period picture scrolls of subjects such as flowering plants and birds. His later figurative studies and idyllic landscape scenes fully realized Japan’s original intentions in adopting Western art practices — to localize and internalize the imported aesthetic.

Going international

Abstract art first gained attention in Japan as early as 1923, but all but disappeared after the outbreak of World War II through the late 1940s, due to stringent restrictions on traveling abroad and on importing books. Even so, in the 1940s the journal Shinbijutsu (New Art) and the popular magazine Seikatsu Bijutsu (Living Art) still explored yoga themes.

As international trade returned in the 1950s and Japan’s society became more Westernized, the country’s artistic tastes became more similar to Europe and America. The increase in the number of international exhibitions that traveled to Japan and the establishment of museums of modern art in major cities and provincial towns set in place the necessary infrastructure and institutional support for modern art. This exchange also went the other way, as exhibitions of Japanese art headed overseas, such as “New Japanese Painting and Sculpture” held in 1966 at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Due to these factors, in postwar times Japanese artistic movements were often contemporaneous and analogous to Western ones, while at the same time they often developed in independent directions.

“The Life and Art of Nambata Tatsuoki” at the Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery until Sept. 25 exemplifies the slide of Japanese oil painting into international modernism. The 70-year painting career of the Japanese Abstract-Expressionist (1905-1997) began with somewhat undistinguished Western-style portraits and landscapes in oils, and moved to primitive responses to ancient Greece in works such as “Votive Relief” (1935).

Original achievements

Following WWII, Nambata’s work, such as “Rhapsody” (1962), and “Lyric of Blue” (1962), became abstract, perhaps unwittingly accreting the styles of various American artists such as Sam Francis and Helen Frankenthaler. A late work, “Dawn” (1991), resembles the work of the mid-20th century painter Mark Rothko.

“Lyric of Blue,” for example, recalls the painting of American Abstract-Expressionist Jackson Pollock — but only momentarily. The delicate skeins of black paint, which are almost calligraphic, compose a serene interplay with the mottled blues and whites that dapple the background. Judgments of artistic quality based upon superficial visual similarity in the post-WWII period are no longer much of a justification for asserting the charge of derivation under a causal scheme — as if Pollock did something to Nambata to make him paint that way.

But while it is easy to use Western artists to describe Nambata, ultimately it is an injustice to compare Nambata’s highly personal works to better-known Western contemporaries; his paintings radiate original achievement and discovery. And the same is true of other Japanese oil painters.

Similarities between artists often come from existing and working in the same interconnected modern world. While it is easy to compare and contrast artist’s works, the effect is often to deflate exactly those who should be promoted. For Japanese artists, the “catch-up” phase has long since passed.

At some point in the late 1960s, Western-style painting in Japan became absorbed into an international painting context. Two implications were that yoga painting became a historical category, and that Japanese painters were contributing to the internationalized field of modernism, rather than following in the wake of its fundamental tenets. That history is an important one for Japan, full of discovery, alternate avenues and the slow but increasing international recognition that forms the basis for the contemporary art world in Japan today.