Brothers brought together by differences


Takejiro Inagaki was a nihonga (Japanese style) painter who later turned to crafting gold and lacquer wares. These artistic skills were shared by two of his sons, whose bodies of work are the subject of “The Inagaki Brothers: Chusei and Toshijiro” at The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto.

Chusei (1897-1922), the elder, died early, succumbing to an intestinal disorder at age 25, just as his paintings were attracting critical acclaim. Toshijiro (1902-1963), who took to yuzen-technique stencil printing, produced a fully mature body of work that resulted in his designation as a Living National Treasure in 1962.

It was Toshijiro’s dream that the brothers’ work be exhibited together. He felt Chusei’s curtailed oeuvre would not show poorly alongside his own work. And indeed it does not, though to Toshijiro’s detriment. Toshijiro emerges as a traditional conservative, while Chusei’s challenges to the stylistic precedents and authority of nihonga prove more interesting.

Toshijiro graduated from the Kyoto City School of Fine Arts and Crafts’ department of design in 1922. However, it was not until the 1950s, during which time he was also appointed as professor of dyeing at the Kyoto City School of Fine Arts and Crafts (in 1958), that he created his more elegant work. His deep attachment to Kyoto led him to collect dyeing materials from surrounding woodlands and to depict local scenery, festivals and classic tales of Japanese literature.

From the late ’40s, he transferred the stylized stencil qualities of his fabric designs to woodblock printing. Early works such as “Peony Folding Screen” (1943) depict the beauties of nature and later he took up the long-held tradition of depicting famous scenic spots (meisho-e). These add an almost cliched element to his work, exacerbated by what appear to be designs for promotional posters such as “See Kyoto” (date unknown), in which he attempts to capture the timeless elegance of the city with a kimono-clad woman standing before a reflection of the famed Golden Temple. Toshijiro did not, however, entirely abandon contemporaneity, as seen in “Night Town” (1955-56), which captures the spectacle of neon signage.

Chusei achieved his first inklings of notoriety when he exhibited “Cat” (c.1919) in the second Kokuga Sosaku Kai exhibition while still a student at the Kyoto Municipal Fine Arts College. The Kokuga exhibition was established in 1918 by former alumni of the Kyoto Municipal Fine Arts College and was born out of the mistrust, factionalism and favoritism perceived among the jury of the prestigious national Bunten (Ministry of Education exhibition). The 1919 exhibition received savage criticism. The Western-style painter Tetsugoro Yorozu (1885-1927) criticized the works for emphasizing a debased femininity, childish naturalism and obsessive attention to detail.

The critic/painter Hakutei Ishii (1882-1958) could not tell whether Chusei’s “Cat” represented a Western or Japanese style of painting, reflecting a view that if nihonga, using traditional pigments, was to be painted in styles approximating Western art, one should just as well paint in oils. Others thought nihonga should lean toward decoration and not realistic depiction, even though Kokuga members veered toward heightened, almost microscopic, depiction.

Chusei’s realism, however, was often imbued with a psychological uneasiness. He also augmented this with the stylistic underpinnings of Chinese Southern Song (12th-13th centuries) bird-and-flower painting, most prominent in “Waterside in Winter” (1922).

By the 1920s, the controversial nude had become a frequent subject of Kokuga artists such as Chusei and Tadaoto Kainosho, one of the few pre-World War II painters who was openly homosexual. Their take, however, was to abandon the idealized tradition of bijinga (beautiful women pictures) and present an unidealized, even deranged, femininity.

Several sketches from the exhibition, including Chusei’s “Nude” (1921), show a penchant for the very full figure, and works such as “Courtesan” (1921) treated a usually revered form of beauty harshly with heavy facial shadows, blackened teeth (usually the sign of a married woman) and dissonant color contrasts. The shift may well be tied to the decadence that was inherent in the Taisho Era (1912-26), which followed decades of material and mechanical acquisition of the Meiji Era (1868-1912).

In sum, Toshijiro seemed content to have fulfilled the expectations tradition required, while Chusei was the iconoclast.

“The Inagaki Brothers: Chusei & Toshijiro” at The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, runs till June 27; free admission; open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. (till 7 p.m. on Fri.), closed Mon. For more information, visit