Looking back as Japan advanced

Kansetsu Hashimoto followed the Chinese Literati as others became Westernized


As a young student of realistic nihonga (Japanese-style painting), Kansetsu Hashimoto worked under the eminent teacher Seiho Takeuchi (1864-1942), a painter best known for his depictions of animals. But Hashimoto, distancing himself from the master and his subject material, later said that he “didn’t gain anything from being in Seiho’s school,” and the two remained in conflict and competition throughout their careers.

At least one of Hashimoto’s own animal paintings must have had monumental significance for him, though. His wife, Yone, died in 1932 and the work “Gen’en (Dark Gibbons)” (1933) is believed to be the artistic outpouring of his loss. In Chinese poetry, the gibbon is venerated for its mournful cry — a cry that Hashimoto might offer now from beyond the grave considering the late 20th century reception of his artistic legacy. Since World War II, the image of the Kobe-born artist has been that of an animal painter from the Shijo School of nihonga that Seiho taught.

Hashimoto (1883-1945) died as the war in Japan climaxed, and so no memorial exhibition that an artist of his stature would typically receive took place. Thus his entire body of work remains to this day floundering in comparisons to the animal subjects of Seiho. Unfortunately, the present exhibition of Hashimoto’s works at the Shohaku Art Museum (running till Feb. 1) — however fascinating for the opportunity to review several famous works — falls short on providing a full context. Instead, the show is beefed up by 10 or so nihonga works by Shoen Uemura (1875-1949); her son, Shoko; and his son, Atsushi (from the museum’s collection), in order to give what is a far too general background, connected, as it is, only by the tenuous fact that Shoen Uemura and Hashimoto temporarily shared the same teacher in Seiho.

Hashimoto was regarded as a bad boy of the art world. Though he was born into a time of social tumult as Japan shifted its cultural reference point from China to the West, a move that was given frank support by Westerners such as Tokyo Imperial University professor Ernest Fenollosa did in his influential 1882 address at the Dragon Pond Society, where he rejected Chinese Literati painting (nanga) — Hashimoto was still promoting traditional virtues. “Nanga is Expressionism,” he rallied, “it is a symbolic beauty born from the space between dream and reality.”

His upbringing was significant. Hashimoto was the son of a Confucian scholar, and his grandmother used to sing him Chinese poems as “if they were lullabies.” At first he was tutored in painting within his familial circle, but began formal instruction with the minor Shijo School artist Koko Kataoka in 1895. He briefly considered attaching himself to Gaho Hashimoto (1835-1908), but on seeing the artist’s works in Tokyo concluded that he would loathe to be doing comparable “cleaned-up” painting. Instead, in 1903, he began his studies with Seiho, an artist long considered one of the top two nihonga painters at the turn of the century (with Taikan Yokoyama). But Hashimoto criticized Seiho’s work as “clumsy” and severed their teacher/ student relation a few years later.

Hashimoto began visiting China regularly from 1913, making the trip nearly 40 times by some counts, and set about establishing himself as an individual talent who had immersed himself in the Chinese literati lifestyle, which treasured poetry, painting and calligraphy.

Chinese artists reciprocated the exchange. Kansetsu possessed a collection of more than 50 artist seals by the Shanghai painter Qian Shoutie, an occasional guest at Hashimoto’s extravagant Kyoto villa, before the Chinese was imprisoned on charges of espionage in the ’30s and extradited.

Chinese cultural references were Hashimoto’s predominant themes, and are represented by works such as “Kinko-kiri-zu” (1925), where the Daoist immortal Kinko rides the back of a giant carp in order to keep a meeting with a disciple or Literati subjects such as “High Mountains, Small Moon” (1916), where a scholar-hermit reclines on a rock, taking in the waterfall and isolated scenery around him.

Such work brought Hashimoto tremendous financial and institutional success. Though in the first Bunten (Ministry of Education Exhibition) of 1907, his submission had been rejected, the following year his work was selected. Then, in 1912, when the Bunten nihonga division was split in two — conservative and progressive — Hashimoto entered a work in each and gained a prize in both.

Conspicuously absent from the show are the artist’s war paintings, begun when he was conscripted to record the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, and then again in his enthusiastic support for Japan’s militarism from the ’30s. A work in the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art depicts a raging Bodhisattva hovering in the sky, surrounded by a bright-red sun as modern infantry scramble below. Hashimoto also was a judge in the “Sacred War Art” exhibitions of 1939 and 1944.

Like the cleaned-up paintings of Gaho that Hashimoto thought artificial, the current exhibition gives a polished version of the artist without the messy parts and complexities. In a sense, Kansetsu Hashimoto still awaits his memorial show.

“Kansetsu Hashimoto” shows till Feb. 1 at the Shohaku Art Museum, Nara; the museum is a three-min. bus ride from Gakuenmae Station on the Kintetsu Nara Line; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (closed Mon.). For more information, call (0742) 41-6666 or visit www.kintetsu.jp/shohaku/