Quixotic quest of a ‘revolutionary’

Longed-for mainstream success escaped Hokuto Tamamura


Breaking away from the herd, exploring new artistic directions and assuming time itself will bring the ultimate vindication is one of the great romantic ideas of avant-garde painting in the 20th century. But rather than defining the field for generations ahead, such an artist risks simply becoming obscure, or worse, forgotten.

At age 48 in 1943, nihonga (Japanese- style painting) artist Hokuto Tamamura (1893-1951) could ask exactly what it was he had been doing up until that point. Despite a long career, Tamamura had yet to be included among the 190 members of the state-selected Nihonga Inventory Control Association. To assuage the sleight, he came to consider himself the 191st member, adopting the personal artistic seal of “No. 191,” with which he signed his paintings.

The passage of time has been unkind to Tamamura. Works have been lost or destroyed, and what, when and where he exhibited is often a matter of conjecture. It is only recently, at Kyoto’s National Museum of Modern Art in “Tamamura Hokuto: Revolutionary of the Japanese-Style Painting,” that the artist’s oeuvre, previously known only in fragments, has been assembled. But the issue remains as to whether Tamamura will now be recognized as a pioneer or remain a contemporary curiosity when the exhibition doors close.

Tamamura attended the painting department of the Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts before joining the Kyoto Municipal Fine Arts College, from which he graduated in 1915. Though he studied under Kyoto nihonga luminary Hobun Kikuchi at Kyoto Municipal, Tamamura remained aloof from conventional Kyoto painting circles. Instead he formed the Mitsuritsui-kai with associates from his two schools, with a view to studying and exhibiting nihonga.

His earliest work was a loose, colorful and simplified version of literati painting. In 1915, works submitted to the prestigious Inten (Reorganized Japan Fine Arts Academy Exhibition) were accepted, and after the show, he moved to Tokyo to strengthen the connection to the organization. (It may have also had to do with escaping family discord.)

The move was initially a good one for Tamamura, and in 1918 he won the Inten’s Chogyu Prize for his picture scrolls “Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales of Moonlight and Rain.” Regrettably, the originals were destroyed in the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, and Tamamura painted the versions on display in the current exhibition between 1923 and ’24. “Ugetsu Monogatari” was a series of supernatural tales penned by Akinari Ueda in the 18th century, and Tamamura’s visual and calligraphic reworking of the text in nine scrolls tends toward a scratchy, rough finish. He focused on sensationalistic visual moments from the tales — in particular, a grotesque and nearly naked “Cannibal Priest” who gorges himself on flesh atop a ground red with blood.

But in 1920, Tamamura’s submission to that year’s Inten was rejected, so he left the association and never again had any affiliation with Japan’s other major arts organizations. From here on in, he pursued a succession of supposedly avant-garde groupings that might better be termed fringe movements, and which culminated in a series of group exhibitions named with supreme self-confidence — “Hokuto Society.”

Withdrawing from the Inten led Tamamura’s artistic activities to take on breadth. Not only did he join avant-garde groups such as Daiichi Sakka Domei (Primary Artists’ Alliance), Sanka and Tan’i Sanka (Unit Sanka), he began to exhibit geometrical sculptural works based on a Russian Constructivist style similar to that of Vladimir Tatlin, and took to playwriting, printmaking, and typography. In 1925, he even designed his own house in Constructivist Sanka-style.

In hatching the Hokuto Society in 1930, Tamamura returned to nihonga with the aim of reconceiving the nature of the medium. Despite whatever revolutionary fervor he had envisioned in the above activities, Tamamura’s return to form led him to depict highly conventional, airily Impressionistic scenes of urban contentment, with occasional forays into themes from Japanese literature and history. In his final decade’s work, a proclivity for odd combinations of imagery also arose, as in the telephone wire “Insulators and Shower (Phoenix Tree)” (1943) or “Goldfish Bowl on the Tree” (1943).

With his “Sanka house” demolished and the artist’s bold but quickly discontinued sculptural work destroyed, appraising Tamamura’s “avant- gardeness” would fall to his nihonga, given that “No. 191” was adamant about his allegiance to the art form.

While an undeniable fluidity and elegance inform works such as “Four Landscapes: Afterglow” (1926), his vistas often become dirty accretions of layered washes with figures that fade into the terrain, as in “Hougen Monogatari (War Tale) — Killed” (1928). And even in works from the ’30s where Tamamura claimed he was reconceiving the medium, it is difficult to see where he was heading — he mostly took up run-of-the-mill subjects from Japanese art history or created works in traditional pigments that took on nuances of oil paint, before quickly abandoning such projects.

Thus, in the final assessment, Tamamura seems less the revolutionary than the dilettante.

“Tamamura Hokuto: Revolutionary of the Japanese-Style Painting” is at the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, till Feb. 17; open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. (closed Mon.); admission ¥830. For more info call (075) 761-4111 or visit wwww.momak.go.jp