A realist and an eccentric


‘If you want a real painting, you must come to see me. If it’s only a drawing you’re after, you should try Okyo,” the artist Soga Shohaku famously joked about Maruyama Okyo (1733-95), a renowned practitioner of Western modes of representation.

Realism in Japanese art has occasionally met with such resistance, as the style was considered nothing more than the mechanical copying of the natural world, and therefore bereft of “inner spirit.” But Shohaku’s criticism was contrived — for while realism is, at its least, a relatively faithful painted record of things in the world, it can also be much more than that. The issue is presented in the Nara Prefectural Museum’s “Okyo and Rosetsu,” now in the second of two stagings of exhibited works that shows till Dec. 3.

By introducing realism to Kyoto painting circles, Okyo was breaking from the past. But rather than slavish fidelity to depicting the world in the way an anatomical book might do, he was synthesizing an array of Japanese, Chinese and Western traditions. Not simply an imitator of Western methods, he turned to neither the West’s mediums, such as oil paint, nor to the West’s typical subject matter.

What Okyo took from his study of Dutch art was a willingness to sketch from life, aided by mirrors and lenses. Combined with his adoption of perspective and chiaroscuro (the use of light and darkness to produce a sense of depth), he came to a keen understanding of how to render various subject elements consistently in space. This is obvious in his depictions of animals. The carefully delineated petals and plumage in “Peonies and Peacocks” (1771) are ample evidence of diligent observation.

To portray tigers — since none were available in Japan — Okyo studied the movements of cats for their form, and an imported tigerskin rug for its fur. Dragons were, understandably, even more difficult to come by, so he relied on previous artistic conventions and, probably, the nine elements the beast was composed of: the horns of a stag, a camel’s head, a snake’s neck, and so on.

For a newly rich merchant class, Okyo’s style was a popular alternative to the dominant Kano School (in which Okyo trained in his 20s), which called its style “unchangeable through 10,000 generations.” Critic Shirai Kayo observed at the time, in “Essentials of the Way of Painting,” that Okyo “soon became the No. 1 artist, his name spreading throughout the land with all others seeking to follow him.”

Nagasawa Rosetsu (1754-99) sought out the master when he was 25, and quickly distinguished himself from other students, so that by 29, he began to work on his own. But Rosetsu broke from Okyo to create highly expressionistic portrayals that were closer in temperament to Shohaku. This started in 1786, when, at Okyo’s behest, Rosetsu went to Wakayama to work on commissions, and there his style diverged from his teacher’s. Afterward he became known — with Shohaku and Ito Jakuchu — as one of the “three eccentrics.”

Being an eccentric essentially meant painting in a highly individual manner at some distance from Okyo’s patient realism or other more orthodox styles. It also related to character. Rosetsu was known as something of an argumentative hothead and his behavior and excessive drinking are part of the background that adds to the enjoyment of his pictures.

An excellent example is “Flowers, birds, insects and animals” (1795). The bamboo imagery was painted first by the Zen monk So Doi, with Rosetsu afterward adding the flora and fauna. The inscription prefacing the scroll by the scholar Minagawa Kien conveys Rosetsu’s disposition: “Each time Rosetsu produced a motif, he would go to the monk’s residence and request a drink, altogether at least 40 or 50, before completing the scroll.”

Though the disciplined coloring and brushwork do not betray Rosetsu’s inebriation, “The Drunkenness of Joyo” (circa 1786) does. The slurring line and smearing ink suit the theme of the tottering reveler only too well. Rosetsu’s later work turned to ethereal and abstracted distortions of landscape, as in “Eight Famous Views of Miyajima” (1794).

Rosetsu was reputedly poisoned by an unnamed rival at age 45, and so had no followers to speak of. After his death, only those of his sons and students who took “Maruyama” as a surname continued Okyo’s style, while the Okyo pupil Matsumura Goshun brought his early literati origins into rapprochement with the Maruyama style, creating a meaningful direction for Kyoto painting to follow through to the modern period.

Nevertheless, the 18th century was a peculiar time of stylistic freedom in which originality and novelty severed bonds with tradition. This was instructional for subsequent generations, as it paved the way for the stylistic eclecticism that came with Japan’s opening to a much expanded Western artistic repertory from the mid-19th century.