In a society where group dynamics, deferred gratification, and sticking to the plan have always been paramount, the occasional cross current that tells you to live in the moment, do the unexpected, and seek truth directly, blows like a real breath of fresh air. This explains the appeal of Zen, and the growing appeal of the paintings of Kako Tsuji, an artist deeply influenced by Zen, whose work is now enjoying a major retrospective at the National Museum of Modern Art (MOMAT).

The Japanese intellectual Tenshin Okakura and the American professor Ernst Fenollosa, who taught at Tokyo University and was a promoter of modernized Japanese arts, responded to the cultural challenge of Western art by stridently rejecting it, and setting up the Tokyo Fine Arts Academy in 1888 to preserve indigenous artistic traditions. Artists in Kyoto, though, such as Kono Bairei and his apprentices, persevered in the old ways in a less nationalistically self-conscious or purist way, as the former capital was largely shaded from the glare and flash of Western influences that were making inroads in Tokyo.

Born in 1871, Kako began studying under Bairei at the age of nine. As one of the foremost artists of his day, Bairei had about 60 apprentices, according to Kaori Tsurumi, the curator of the exhibition at MOMAT.

“Although Kako was special enough to be selected in the top four of Bairei’s apprentices, he has traditionally been overshadowed by Seiho Takeuchi [Bairei’s most famous student],” Tsurumi says. “Only now is he starting to be fully appreciated.”

Kako has been so neglected over the years that a lot of curatorial investigation into his career still needs to be done. The best evidence of the neglect is that this exhibition is his first large retrospective since the 1932 memorial show that followed his death the previous year.

As a study in art history, Kako presents quite a few problems. Among his early works, the screen paintings “River Fish and Sea Fish” (1901) sees the artist using shading techniques to create the three-dimensional feel usually associated with yoga (Western-style paintings). Yet the stunning painted screen, “Sound of Waves,” showing a sea eagle perched on a rock feeling the sea breeze beneath its wings, painted the same year, is as much a nihonga (Japanese-style painting) as the strictest traditionalist could wish, especially in its pointed use of negative space with only the merest hint of the landscape background.

Throughout his career, his art alternates between purist nihonga and nihonga with obvious Western influences. Around 1911, he painted the Impressionistic and luridly colored screen painting, “Green Waves,” in which the scene extends into the distance instead of being flattened in two dimensions and the way pigment is heaped on pigment in the style of an oil painting. But later works just as easily eschew these foreign influences, suggesting an artist who clearly crossed the new border drawn between Western-style and Japanese-style paintings without even bothering to have his artistic passport stamped.

As with Takeuchi, who studied abroad and found affinities between elements of nihonga and Western styles, Kako was strongly influenced by the Shijo School of painting associated with Maruyama Okyo in the late 18th century and made popular by pupils such as Matsumura Gekkei, who was better known as Goshun. The Shijo School depicted natural subjects with the spontaneity and brush feel of sumi ink and literati paintings. By the 19th century, it had developed into a casual, unfussy style of sketching — rather than painting — that sought to capture an immediate and subjective response to a stimulus from nature or poetry.

Unlike French Impressionism, which is more of a scientific technique that laboriously aims to re-create certain effects of perceived light, the Shijo School represents true impressionism in jotting down the impression of the moment in the moment. In its unaffected directness, it has much of the Zen spirit.

The many artistic notebooks on display present the best examples of this aspect of Kako’s work, but the Shijo style can also be seen in the casual lines and relaxed style of larger works, like “Beating by Tokuzan” (c. 1902), which captures the grim Zen monk as he administers a beating to an unseen acolyte.

Kako’s Shijo-influenced work contrasts with his more meticulous and precise pieces, such as “Sound of Waves,” which he painted, according to Tsurumi, after becoming interested in the methods of Hashimoto Gaho (1835-1908), one of the last painters to work in the heavily traditional style of the Kano School. Nevertheless, it is the influence of the Shijo School that seems to resonate the most with Kako’s own character and his deep spiritual interest in Zen.

“I think Zen helped him,” Tsurumi explains, “because he said that due to Zen he had stopped worrying about small things.”

For Kako, the small things clearly included the artistic border that fussy nationalists and patronizing foreigners had drawn between Western-style and Japanese-style paintings back in Tokyo, or the imagined borders between Japanese art schools. The only lines he was interested in were the fluid and elegant ones that flowed from his brush.

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