R esearch the biography of any prominent Japanese artist in the last 100 years and you’ll likely run into terms such as Bunten, Teiten, Shin Bunten and Nitten. Though the plethora of names may be off-putting, they all refer to the same thing: Japan’s largest, annual open art exhibition.

In 2006, for example, 13,526 works were submitted to Nitten, of which 2,255 were selected. This autumn the exhibition will celebrate its centenary with a move from its redbrick home at Ueno’s Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Art to the curvy, futuristic National Art Center Tokyo in Roppongi. To mark this, a major exhibition of works from the first 100 years is now on display at NACT.

The name changes that the competition has undergone reflect varying degrees of government interference and control in the prewar period, and its final establishment as a competition independent of central government in the postwar period.

When it was set up in 1907, it was named Bunten (Ministry of Education Fine Arts Exhibition). Right from the start, the exhibition made a point of recognizing the apartheid that existed between the two main artistic camps, yoga (Western-style painting) and nihonga (Japanese-style painting), with two separate painting categories and an additional category for sculpture.

As exhibition curator Osamu Fukunaga points out, this reflected an existing situation rather than a prescriptive or a desired one. The pictures at the current Nitten make their own case for this long-standing and ongoing separation. The nihonga delicacy of Shoen Uemura’s “Flower Basket (Inspired by a Noh Play)” (1915), with its colorful but insipid kimono-clad figure, hangs uneasily in the section with the rugged Western realism and proletarian sentiment of Sanzo Wada’s “South Wind” (1907).

Occasionally, the division between the two categories is challenged by a yoga work with elements of nihonga, or vice versa. The unmistakable use of Western perspective in Kagaku Murakami’s “Landscape in February” (1911) gives the nihonga painting on silk a photographic realism that must be seen to be believed. The division of painting in Japan into nihonga and yoga has been much commented on, but the essential reason it exists is to prevent confrontation and conflict.

The tendency of Japanese artists to divide themselves into opposing groups is one of the factors that has shaped the character of the Nitten organization. Indeed, soon after its foundation it split, with important nihonga artists such asTaikan Yokoyama defecting to the Nihon Bijutsu In (Japan Art Institute), and yoga artists setting up the Nikakai (Second Division Society) as a nongovernmental exhibition.

Because of such factional tensions, the Nitten developed quite differently than its model, the 19th-century Salon organized by Paris’ Academie des Beaux-Arts. While the Salon laid down strict rules and uncompromising canons of artistic taste, the Nitten has typically taken a looser approach, seeking instead to be a uniting influence in the Japanese art world. Consequently, the standards and taste of Nitten have developed bottom-up rather than top-down, and are more catchall in nature.

Even when the exhibition changed its name to Teiten (Imperial Academy of Fine Arts Exhibition) in 1919, and to Shin Bunten in 1936, these changes were more attempts to get the fast-expanding art world under the same umbrella rather than to rigidly dictate taste. The changes in 1919 saw artists who had served previously as judges promoted to academicians, while an influx of younger artists stepped in as judges. The attempt to include the avant-garde brought in painters such as Torao Makino, whose “Courtyard” (1921), with its lush Expressionist sensibility, was certainly an advance on the doughty realism and Impressionism of the Bunten years.

The establishment of the Shin Bunten in 1936 was a further attempt to bring outlying artists and new styles into the Imperial Academy system, along with figures from the leading independent art groups. But when Matsuda Genji, the education minister responsible for the changes, tried to strengthen the control of the central government by abolishing the right of automatic participation for veterans of Teiten, and to increase patriotic content by giving more prominence to nihonga, yet more yoga painters broke away to set up the Shin Seisakuha Kyokai (Association of Artists for New Works).

Oddly, the patriotic content favored by the Shin Bunten in those years is little in evidence, except for Yukihiko Yasuda’s lackluster nihonga portrait, “Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku on December 8th” (1944), and the occasional picture or tapestry of a camel — perhaps hinting at Japan’s ambitions in Central Asia. On the evidence of this exhibition, the nation’s artists were more interested in portraying cute animals than expressing the martial spirit of the times. One of the most delightful pieces is Seiho Takeuchi’s two-panel folding screen, “Young Ducks” (1937), decorated with flakes of gold leaf.

Freed from the political agenda of the militaristic period, the Shin Bunten was reborn in 1946 as Nitten (Japan Fine Arts Exhibition), and in 1958 it became a private corporation to ensure its independence from government. Although many of the top nihonga names, such as Kaii Higashiyama and Shinsui Ito, are in evidence in these postwar years, there are fewer top yoga or avant-garde painters.

The desire to prevent more groups breaking away, and to give all segments of its membership a piece of the pie, saw it develop into an association with no particular style or character — unlike its rival exhibiting associations that developed a sharper focus. The Nitten, however, still remains the biggest.

“The 100th Anniversary of Nitten” is showing at the National Art Center, Tokyo, till Sept. 3; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (closed Tues.); ¥1,000. For more information call (03) 5777-8600 or visit nitten100.jp

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