Finding their personal voice, something an artist can call their own, is a sublime achievement. The nihonga (Japanese-style) painter Insho Domoto (1891-1975) channeled the voices of at least a dozen others to forge his own unique one and create an exhaustive and encyclopedic body of work.

Throughout his career, Insho kept changing styles, resisting stagnation by taking in such diverse influences as Persian miniatures, Buddhist icons, narrative picture scrolls, Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky and decorative Rimpa painting. He even designed his own museum — perhaps the most contentious work of his divisive career.

The exhibition “Insho Domoto’s Challenge — What is Nihonga?” showing at the Kyoto Prefectural Insho-Domoto Museum of Fine Arts till April 8, reveals another of Insho’s contested legacies: his shift from representation to abstraction. Major nihonga painters approached abstraction infrequently, but Insho was inspired after a trip to Europe in 1952 when the artist was 64 years old. The effects of new encounters on Insho were almost instantaneous — as soon as he learned something new, it often found its way into new works. The same thing happened when he made yearly visits to China in the early 1920s, which resulted in an interest in Chinese literati painting for a decade.

Insho’s proficiency in a great number of styles was due to a wide-ranging and lengthy art education. After graduating from the Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts in 1910, he drew traditional fabric designs for eight years before deciding to study nihonga at the Kyoto Municipal Special School of Painting in 1918.

After a four-year course, he was awarded the Teikoku-Bijutsuin Prize in 1925 for the Buddhist painting “Kegon.” The prize led to subsequent commissions to decorate the ceilings and sliding door panels of some of Japan’s most distinguished Buddhist temples, such as Toji and Saihoji in Kyoto.

By the 1950s, Insho was occasionally working with oils in a Western style, even using Western techniques in conventional nihonga such as “Newspaper” (1950), which depicts a woman reading an outstretched daily with a small crowd gathered behind her. In the painting a conventional linear perspective approach is fused with a cubist upheaval of that same space, so that an up-turned fish in the left corner should, in reality, be sliding off its plate.

In 1955, Insho exhibited what is considered one of his first abstract works, “Daily Life” (1955) in the Nitten exhibition held by the Japan Art Exhibition, which created a stir even though it is a less than revolutionary work. The painting’s forms, reduced to simple blocks of color, owe much to the earlier representational cityscapes he painted when in Europe.

Soon after, Insho was making full-blown abstractions, as in “Symphony” (1961) with its dancing calligraphic swigs of black paint that course above an intense whitish void. “Reaction Against Standard” (1960), contrasts large swathes of black paint, heavily worked and tangled brushwork, and clear, resolved line work. Some works at first seem to have the slap-dash application of paint that characterized midcentury American Abstract Expressionism, but the majority were carefully prepared first in under-drawings, then transferred and transformed into finished works. The process highlights Insho’s training in nihonga.

Though his legacy was cemented when he was decorated in Japan with the Order of Cultural Merit in 1961 and the First Order of Cultural Merits of St. Sylvester by the Pope in 1963, few people warm to all of Insho. His works act like a litmus test for gallery-goers’ preferences. For some, the abstractions seem a renunciation of conventional nihonga that deals with flowers and birds, and historical and genre themes; purists reject the late works, stressing the timeless quality of his early pieces; and for others, late works are buoyed by the early ones, but abstraction was the ultimate end.

Regardless, Insho seemed happily at home in whatever style he tried, and his diversity can be seen as a sign of his commitment to art in all its variety. The undeniable achievement of his abstract works, however, was to propel nihonga into new territory that defied existing categorizations.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.