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Ikuo Hirayama clearly represents how the Japanese like to see — and project — themselves.

His paintings, located in the strong traditions of nihonga (Japanese-style painting), are unmistakably Japanese, but they look outwards to the rest of the world and express the spirit of peaceful cooperation and appreciation of our common world heritage that is a popular theme on Japanese TV travel programs. For this, he has been noticed and honored abroad, most notably when he was made a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador in 1988.

This must be one reason why “Ikuo Hirayama: A Retrospective — Pilgrimage for Peace,” a major show of his paintings now at the Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, has been so well attended. Others include his skill as an artist, as well as how his career touches on themes that are central to postwar Japan’s sense of itself — redemption, regeneration and respect for the past.

The story dramatically opens with Hirayama, born in 1930, witnessing the atomic bombing of Hiroshima as a junior high-school student mobilized for the war effort. In his autobiography he described the bombing, which he was lucky to survive, as “the greatest mistake mankind ever made.” It had an undeniably enormous impact on him, but it was his inability to face it directly that shaped much of his artistic career.

After graduating from Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music in 1952, Hirayama became a disciple of nihonga painter Seison Maeda. Like many painters who felt the threat of social chaos in the post-World War II period — and the criticism that nihonga was out of touch with reality — Hirayama originally created scenes that emphasized everyday life’s traditional aspects and order. But these early works are not included in the exhibition, as his ultimate style lay in the opposite direction.

In 1959, while suffering from an illness caused by radiation from the A-bomb, he painted scenes based on Buddhist themes, such as “The Transmission of Buddhism” (1959). Buddhist subjects gave him the freedom to paint symbolically, abstractly or figuratively, and develop a luminous, lyrical style characterized by muted-but-glowing colors, unclear lines and ambiguous forms.

Compared to the great canon of Christian art, Buddhism, in purely artistic terms, lags far behind. This is partly the result of an otherworldliness that puts little value on the realms of sense and “illusion,” and partly the effect of a stoicism that eschews passion and drama. Hirayama’s Buddhist works, though, show the marks of a trip he made to Europe in the early ’60s to study Western religious art. “Fantasy of Nirvana” (1961) and “The Jetavana Monastery” (1981) have an element of the religious dramas more typical of Christian Renaissance paintings.

While Japan was in the throes of rampant modernization and materialism, Hirayama headed in the opposite direction, going back to the roots of Japanese culture and spirituality. He traced it to its sources in China and India, as the scholar Tenshin Okakura, one of the founders of the nihonga movement, had done in the 19th century when Japan faced the first onslaught of Westernization. This meant that Hirayama went looking for Japan in the wilds of Central Asia, as he developed a fascination for the Silk Road and the seventh-century Buddhist monk Xuanzang, who spent 17 years traveling between Tang Dynasty China and India in search of Sanskrit sutras.

The works from Hirayama’s extensive travels around Asia form the largest part of the exhibition. In the bleakness of the landscapes with their ruins, there is a feeling he was facing up to the cataclysm he witnessed at Hiroshima.

“Glowing Ruins in Turkestan” (1970) shows Bamiyan, the famous Buddhist site destroyed by Genghis Khan, and finished off by the Taliban, as a scene of desolation. Despite this, it is infused with a light that seems to recall the history of the place and its people.

The paintings of scenes along the Silk Road often have the sublimity and spirituality that comes naturally to the vast and the ancient. This reflects that, in essence, spirituality is about how far we can remove ourselves from the here and now. In visiting and painting such vistas, there’s a palpable sense of Hirayama finding the perspective that allowed him to look once again at his country and the unbearable events of Aug. 6, 1945.

In “The Glorious Imperial Palace of Fujiwara-kyo” (1969) the grandeur and simplicity of his Silk Road paintings are transposed to Japan, as the great city glows golden among the greenery — a vast, living Utopia rather than the mix of petty hopes, dreams and irritations that make up any city.

The vision he nurtured in Central Asia allowed him to paint what his art had been slowly moving toward for decades. “The Holocaust of Hiroshima” (1979) avoids the hysterics and shrill condemnation in other works dealing with the atrocities of the 20th-century, such as Picasso’s “Guernica” (1937).

In Hirayama’s work, the red inferno fills six panels above a suggestion of the Hiroshima skyline. Painted in rich, soft waves of powdered pigment with occasional flecks of gold, it becomes, surprisingly, a thing of beauty. Riding in the flames is Acalanatha, the Buddhist deity whose function is to destroy delusion. As well as representing the integrity of the longstanding Japanese culture, the painting shows the new maturity found in postwar Japan.

“Ikuo Hirayama: A Retrospective — Pilgrimage for Peace” runs till Oct. 21 at the Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, 3-1 Kitanomaru Koen, Chiyoda-ku; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.; closed Mon.); admission ¥1,300. For more information call (03) 5777-8600 or visit www.momat.go.jp

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