In 18th- and 19th-century Japan, the presence of female artists in painting circles slowly increased until in the 20th century, social reforms allowed them access to secondary education and vocational schools as well as art training, patronage and chances to compete in national exhibitions.

The swelling numbers led a critic in 1916 to note that for the 2,000 or so male painters in Osaka, there were 600 female ones. But this was an exaggeration, because, despite their presence, few women achieved the success of their male counterparts.

Three who did are showing at Shiga’s Museum of Modern Art till June 3, in “Three Great Women Painters: Shoen Uemura, Yuki Ogura, Fuku Akino.” Their works, which span the entire 20th century, tell of a gradual movement away from the narrow themes and techniques in nihonga (Japanese-style painting) to the artistic freedoms that were long the assumed right of their male contemporaries. It is also a story of looks and views shifting from the conservative and outwardly disengaged to penetrating stares and distant perspectives.

Shoen Uemura (1875-1949) was a child prodigy who entered the Kyoto Prefectural Art School in 1888 before studying under a host of Kyoto nihonga luminaries. Her reputation was established in the 1890s, particularly as a painter of conservative images of beautiful women — the prescribed theme for almost all early female nihonga painters.

Focusing on feminine subjects and sociabilities, Uemura fashioned an elegant world of upper-class leisured life in her paintings, filling them with elegance and introspection, refined manners and nonchalance. In “The Sound of Insects” (1907), a young woman, immaculately attired in a kimono, peers from beneath a green blind out to the informal music of the garden. It is a deeply reflective scene because the woman is half-hidden, her attention piqued by the world outside, her psychological inner life partially unfathomable.

Uemura’s “Long Night” was accepted for the first Ministry of Education Exhibition (Bunten) in 1907 and took third prize, the first of many honors she received, including becoming a member of the Imperial Art Academy, appointed a “court artist” and being the first woman to receive the Order of Cultural Merit.

With so many accolades, Uemura posthumously became one herself — Yuki Ogura (1895-2000) received the 4th Shoen Uemura Prize (Fuku Akino won the inaugural one in 1951.) In early work, Ogura focused on vegetation, such as the potted plant in “By the Window” (1924), while in her later pieces, she turned to figurative paintings and some nudes, which Uemura had only done infrequently. Ogura, however, painted bodies further down the social scale from Uemura’s rarefied upper-class world, such as the peasants in “The Folks Back Home” (1929).

Part of Ogura’s modernity lay not just in the look of her paintings, which were stylistically more free and expressionistic than Uemura’s, but in her figures’ gazes — she painted subjects that openly address their viewers. “Relaxing” (1960) looks askance at the viewer and “Portrait of the Painter” (1962) emphatically addressed the artist herself and, now, her spectators.

Born in Shizuoka, Fuku Akino (1908-2001) took nihonga lessons in Kyoto under Suisho Nishiyama, who was known for figure paintings and landscapes. Her early works emphasized the figure, but in some cases teetered toward abstraction, as in the ethereal naked bodies in “Youth” (1956). Akino and Uemura’s son, Shoko, together left the Japan Fine Arts Exhibition (Nitten) in 1948 to establish a new venue for progressive nihonga painting, the Sozo Bijitsu.

Akino’s work changed when at age 53 she spent one year as a professor at an Indian university, before traveling to Cambodia, Africa, Afghanistan and Nepal. The landscapes weighed heavily upon her, and her subsequent output tried to capture their magnificence and solitude, as well as the essential “otherness” of the temples, gods and customs of Asian neighbors — unconventional themes for nihonga.

As an art form, nihonga has traditionally been described as quintessentially “feminine,” though the majority of its luminaries have been men. Still, prior to World War II in Japan, women’s participation in painting circles was limited — increased participation was in itself an avant-garde gambit. But the essential art world structure remained intact, and even the esteemed Shoen Uemura would jury major exhibitions only twice. However incremental, these changes were the necessary background for the contemporary flourishing in women’s painting and art post-WW II, and the general trend toward the flattening out of gender inequalities.

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