Modernizers of Japanese art tended toward tradition


In the drive to modernize Japanese art in the 19th century, artists frequently attempted to create a fusion of Eastern and Western styles of painting. But what at first sight seemed to be radical combinations of the two, now actually appear to be more happily at home within pre-existing Japanese traditions.

Take Tamura Soryu, for example. Soryu studied art under a Buddhist priest before learning oil painting from an Englishman, Charles Wirgman, in Yokohama. In his painting “Dragon King” (Late Meiji Period), showing at “Modern Art in Wanderings: In Between Japanese and Western Style Paintings” at the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto till Feb. 25, a Buddhist deity brings rain in response to prayers by the Japanese monk Kukai. The hands and face are rendered in compelling Western-style realism, the robes in the traditional patterning of Japanese painting, and the background in sumi ink. The fullness of the figure and the flatness of the clothing do not cohere, nor do the clearly delineated body and the murky background.

The result was a false start in creating a new Japanese painting idiom, as it really represents a late point in Buddhist portraiture, which has a long tradition of combining realism and flat-looking clothing designs. There were, however, a great many successes in modernizing Japanese painting.

Kano Hogai’s “Avalokitesvara as a Merciful Mother” (1888) is lauded as a landmark in Meiji-Period art (1868-1912) and the first masterpiece in the development of modern nihonga (Japanese-style painting). Hogai, who was trained at the Kano School popular in the Edo Period (1603-1867), was prompted by American professor Ernest Fenollosa, a promoter of modernized Japanese arts, to revise the school’s style for a new era.

The painting shows a goddess floating above a mountain, with an infant in a bubble at her feet. Its form hints at the influence of Western images of the Madonna and Child and Western approaches to perspective. But there is also a Buddhist theme, conventional Kano-School compositional lines, and influences from the Chinese paintings the work took its cue from. This set it somewhere between East and West in an alternative universe to Western modernism.

Yoga (Western-style painting) and nihonga were terms that emerged in the 1880s. They were institutionalized in 1896 as courses in The Tokyo School of Fine Art and cemented in the Bunten — the Ministry of Education Fine Arts Exhibition — in 1907, when it was required for painters to enter their work in one of the two categories. Although the two terms suggest a clear division, though, “Modern Art in Wanderings” shows that many artists were working somewhere between the two.

When Japan opened to the West in the late 1850s, it was inevitable that Western art would influence Japanese artists. The compelling question for them was, “How to modernize Japanese Art?” Tenshin Okakura, principal of the Tokyo School of Fine Arts, spoke of four options in 1887: artists could retain past forms and proceed conventionally; discard Japanese art and embrace the West; eclectically pick and choose from Japanese and Western methods; or take traditional Japanese painting and make it contemporary.

Okakura preferred the last option because it meant East and West could be equal partners. But paintings from the 1850s to World War II show that most artists pursued the third option, drawing on both Japanese and Western methods in a hotch-potch of styles.

Yorozu Tetsugoro, a later, transitional figure in Japan’s art world, worked in a variety of styles. He is usually considered Western-style as he enrolled in the Western Painting Division of the Tokyo School of Fine Arts. By 1915 he was painting abstract landscapes in black ink, like “Composition.” Two years later, at the fourth Nikaten, an exhibition held by The Second Society, a group of progressive Western-style artists, he showed his oil painting, “Leaning Figure,” a Cubist-inspired treatment of the female body. As Cubism had not really been explored by Japanese artists, it generated widespread attention.

Further refinements to Eastern and Western modes can be seen in Kumagai Morikazu’s striking paintings. His oil painting “Highland’s Path” (1940), is an abstract landscape formed from a handful of abutting planes of color. In the sumi ink on paper work “Raindrops” (1950), he used just a few lines to convincingly express water pooling at an edge, swelling in size, then dropping. In another oil painting of the same name in 1961, however, the raindrops take on the strange appearance of fried eggs.

The uneven quality of some works is characteristic of an exhibition of this kind, as is the seeming lack of continuity between different paintings by a single artist. For some the incongruities will seem stark. But Japan’s discovery of the unfamiliar methods and traditions of the West was always likely to have moments of wavering and points of contention — the two were never to mix as easily as may at first have seemed possible.

While a few of the early paintings fail the test of time, they stand as an absorbing historical record of an almost once-in-a-lifetime interaction between vastly different traditions. Interestingly, the eclecticism on show here has come to be cherished in contemporary art. Theses days, acclaimed artists like Hisashi Tenmyouya and Akira Yamaguchi draw from traditions running deep through Japanese art history and combine them with modern subjects, making such stylistic eclecticism their stock in trade.