A place for women

The 20th century saw female artists prosper in Osaka

by Matthew Larking

Seian Shima’s “Untitled” (1918), in “Women Artists in Osaka” at the Osaka City Museum of Modern Art till Dec. 7, is a remarkable work. A self-portrait — uncommon in Japanese painting generally — it conforms to no ideal form of beauty, unlike images done in the bijinga (beautiful woman pictures) genre. Then there is the mystery of the imaginary blue nevus around the right eye.

Such birthmarks were held to fade with the passing of years, and are associated with the newborn — the unformed. This is a painting in progress, as is the artist’s development, and as is reflected in the unfinished picture of grass and leaves within the picture. Shima had not yet achieved real maturity, not surprising for a painter whose work was selected for the 1912 Bunten (Ministry of Education Exhibition) when she was only 19. By 1920, though, Shima (1892-1970) accepted an arranged marriage and the desire to paint such provocative work ceased, as did her imprint on art history.

Osaka art and artists have not figured prominently in modern Japanese histories, and were passed over altogether in the influential books of the Japanese art canon by Meiji Era scholar Tenshin Okakura (1862-1913). Art historian Nobuo Nakatani believes that Osaka art circles’ fondness for Chinese inspired art was at odds with the 20th-century drive to Westernization. He also thinks that the collapse of Osaka’s economy following the destruction of the city in World War II caused collectors to stop buying Osaka paintings.

The city, however, was briefly part of a triumvirate with the conventional artistic center pairing of Tokyo and Kyoto when, in the 1912 Bunten exhibition, it was noticed that among the female painters there were “three ‘en’s’ of three cities”: Seien Shima of Osaka, Shoen Uemura (1875-1949) of Kyoto and Shoen Ikeda (1886-1917) of Tokyo. Buttressed by the general flourishing of women artists in the 18th and 19th centuries, the elder Uemura had paved the way for female bijinga painters, establishing her reputation between 1890 and 1910.

Shima’s success was held up as a model to be emulated by young and wealthy women of Osaka and lent tacit support by the Meiji government’s concept of ryosai kenbo (good wife, wise mother). Nihonga (Japanese painting) and not Western oil painting, which was associated with masculinity, was promoted as contributing to the “grace and nobility of a girl’s upper-class family” and encouraging their hearts to be “naturally pure and beautiful.” With the increasingly democratic impulses in Taisho Era (1912-26) society, upper-class pursuits trickled down to the well-off middle classes, and by 1916 there were a reported 600 female artists in Osaka alone — the majority making circumscribed bijinga that portrayed women’s domesticity.

Teaching girls from well-to-do families how to paint was good business. Chigusa Kitani spent two years in Seattle as a girl studying oil painting before studying under Shoen Ikeda in Tokyo and then the male bijinga painter Tsunetomi Kitano (1880-1947) in Osaka. After debuting at the 1915 Bunten, she married and established Yachigusakai, a private art school for women. It was preferable for daughters to be sent to study with such female teachers, as Uemura’s example instructively proves. In 1902, the unmarried painter had created a scandal by giving birth to a son believed to be fathered by her teacher, Shonen Suzuki (1849-1918).

The sheer number of women artists ultimately occasioned a backlash. The famed literati painter Shohin Noguchi (1847-1917), the first woman to be appointed Artist for the Imperial Household, complained in 1914 that painting was merely “the fashionable thing to do.” Uemura followed suit in 1920, criticizing young women painters for blindly following the bijinga genre as if it were the only one that could accommodate women.

Uemura’s conservative beauties, however, were the prewar standard. It would take a postwar society to break the mold altogether.

This took place with Gutai, a Japanese contender for the first art group to stage “happenings.” Established in the Osaka-Kobe region in 1954, Gutai, included 13 women among its 59 members. Of these, Atsuko Tanaka (1932-2005) was the only one to participate in the group’s performances. Tanaka became revered for much more distinctive personal work, such as her infamous “Electric Dress” (1956), a costume of wires and colored light bulbs that when donned by the artist resembled a Christmas tree. Her abstract paintings, such as “66B” (1966), make a strong case for the artist being less reliant on Gutai affiliation — which she left in ’65 — for her status and more of an independent figure in her own right.

“Women Artists in Osaka: 20th Century Art from Japanese-style Bijinga Paintings to the Postwar Avant-Garde” is showing till Dec. 7 at the Osaka City Museum of Modern Art, Shinsaibashi Temporary Exhibition Space (on Oct. 29 exhibited works will be rotated); admission ¥500; open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. (closed Wed.). For more information call (06) 6615-0654 or visit