Modern Kyoto


In 1895, Kyoto was badly in need of public relations. Kyoto’s population was in decline, and traditional industries such as ceramics and textile manufacturing were in disarray. Since 794, the city had been the Imperial capital, until Edo was renamed Tokyo in 1868 and the seat of power transferred there. The Emperor had moved into the new capital the following year, leaving Kyoto’s Imperial palace empty.

The exhibition “Kyoto Studies: City of the Avant-Garde — Modernism in Kyoto 1895-1930” at the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, starts in 1895, when the city decided to present a new face to the modern world. Kyoto had just become the Japanese first city besides Tokyo to host a National Industrial Exposition, and the year coincided with the 1,100th anniversary of the founding of the former capital. In commemoration, the new Heian Shrine, designed by Ito Chuta (1868-1954), was dedicated to Emperor Kammu, who had moved the capital to Kyoto from Nara in the 8th century, and Emperor Komei, the last emperor to sit on the throne in Kyoto.

Takeuchi Seiho (1864-1943), then Kyoto’s leading contemporary nihonga (Japanese- style painting) artist, took the building as a subject in 1896, making it as fit for depiction as other sites seen in meisho-e (famous place pictures). The Hinode Shimbun newspaper had presented the shrine with the largest torii ever seen in Japan for the site’s purification ceremony. The gate was illuminated due to construction of a canal from Lake Biwa to Kyoto on which was built Japan’s first power station. The canal provided water for drinking and irrigation, and electricity for light and trams.

Modernizing Kyoto’s traditional craft industries was largely due to the efforts of chemist Gottfried Wagener (1831-92). The German arrived in Nagasaki in 1868 and set up a soap factory that soon failed. Undeterred, he started sharing with craftsmen his knowledge of new technologies in ceramics, glass-making, weaving and furniture-making.

Wagener’s experiments in ceramics in the 1880s resulted in Asahi ware, a white earthenware decorated in Japanese motifs. In 1878, he was invited to the Seimikyoku chemical research institute in Kyoto, where he built an experimental kiln and encouraged enterprising potters such as Kiyomizu Rokubei III (1820-83) to experiment with new techniques.

While the exhibition does a good job documenting the transition of Kyoto from an abandoned and disenchanted former Imperial capital to modern city, disconnections loom large. The central themes of the show are material progress and commitment to change, but the focus breaks down conspicuously in the sections on painting. While architectural drawings by Tamura Soryu (1846-1918) such as “Biwako Canal Designs (Shaft Engineering)” (1886) created a record of emerging construction techniques and styles, it is hard to see how developments in painting could have influenced progressive-minded politicians or engineers, except in that they captured dwindling customs, as in (1866-1924) “Maiko” (1893) by Kuroda Seiki.

Kuroda was in Kyoto in 1895 when he exhibited “Morning Toilette,” a work destroyed in World War II that was one of the first nude oil paintings shown in Japan. The naked body depicted caused a scandal, but Kuroda maintained that his position was a morally progressive one. Still, this is a very different sense of the avant-garde, one with little to say to the ideas at the time of material progress.

“Kyoto Studies: City of the Avant-Garde — Modernism in Kyoto” is at the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto till July 20; For more information, visit