The depths of traditional Japanese painting


While China’s long-running contribution to Japanese art is usually acknowledged, it is often assumed that Western models only started to have a significant impact in the Meiji period. Part of the reason for this is the sharp reaction to Western artistic influence that occurred in the late 19th century, which effectively split the art world in Japan into the competing camps of yoga (Western-style art) and nihonga (Japanese-style art).

While the former appears as a whole-hearted embrace of Western artistic innovation, the other seems like a stubborn, purist clinging to timeless traditions, driving home the point that the two forms were artistic chalk and cheese. However, what is often forgotten in this simplistic dichotomy is that the Japanese art of the Edo Period (1603-1868) already contained a considerable amount of Western artistic DNA.

Perhaps the best-known example is the famous ukiyo-e (woodblock print) artist Katsushika Hokusai. The Edo-Tokyo Museum’s 2007 exhibition “Siebold & Hokusai and his Tradition” did much to highlight Hokusai’s use of Western artistic devices, such as perspective and vanishing point, and presented evidence that pointed to a Dutch connection. Now, “Maruyama Okyo: Revealing Painting’s Depths” at the Mitsui Memorial Museum adds to the catalog of evidence of pre-Meiji Western influence on Japanese art, with an attractive show focusing on the art of the famed 18th-century painter.

The exhibition makes its main point early on with a selection of megane-e (glasses paintings). These were paintings that were designed to be viewed through special apparatuses — either a stereoscope with two almost identical images, or an optique, a viewing device with a lens and mirror that was often used for larger images. Both devices, which were the Edo-Period equivalent of today’s 3-D TVs, served to heighten the illusion of depth.

The works at this exhibition seem designed for the optique rather than the stereoscope. They were painted by Okyo after the toy shop where he worked painting faces on dolls started selling imported European optiques and needed additional viewing material. As the images required an understanding — or at least an effective handling — of Western perspective and shading, Okyo, early in his career, effectively had a crash course in Western art.

The images produced, such as “Toshiya Archery at Sanjusangendo Temple” and “Ishiyamadera Temple” (both 1760s), have an open, airy, rather technical feel. The details are accurate and precise, and the color spread evenly, thinly and widely; both points that would help the artworks function well with the viewing apparatus, but which, in the confines of an art museum, make them seem rather pallid and dull.

After his success in creating megane-e, Okyo decided to further his studies as an artist. This brought him under the influence of the Kano school, which then dominated the Japanese art world. Through Kano school painters such as Ishida Yutei, Okyo came into contact with the Chinese-influenced mainstream of Japanese art and his work became a blend of Oriental and Occidental art.

The exhibition’s focus is on his larger screen paintings, including several impressive examples. “Cranes and Pine Trees” (1770), a pair of four-fold screens, and “Dragons and Clouds” (1773), a pair of six-fold screens, seem more like attempts to keep his head down and follow the prevailing artistic codes than a true example of his East-West fusion. But growing success allowed him to paint more as he wished. Compared with these rather muted earlier pieces, later works, such as “Plum Tree in the Snow” (1785), seem brimming with confidence. The sharp contrast between the white snow on the tree and the black, gnarled and twisted twigs, boughs and branches that support it is offset by the gray tones of the misty background, which gives this painting some of the stereoscopic depth of his earliest works but with much more artistic impact.

Also noticeable is his use of empty space, which allows the active elements in the painting to unfold without being crowded by superfluous decoration. This helps give the piece harmony and tonality without reducing its artistic power.

Equally skillful is “Pine Trees in the Snow” (undated), an official National Treasure belonging to the Mitsui, a painting that is normally displayed as part of the museum’s New Year festivities. In contrast to “Plum Tree in the Snow,” which benefits from stepping back, this pair of six-fold screens is best seen close up. Okyo’s incredible control of the length of the brushstrokes depicting the pine needles creates the impressive illusion of clusters of pine needles covered in snow. He also uses gold powder to both suggest the snow-blinding glare of reflected sunlight as well as the texture of fresh snow.

The strange thing about this exhibition is that you occasionally feel that you are not only in the presence of an accomplished painter of Oriental art, but that of an Old Dutch Master as well.

“Maruyama Okyo: Revealing Painting’s Depths” at The Mitsui Memorial Museum until Nov. 28; admission ¥1,000; open 10 a.m.- 5 p.m., closed Mon. For more information, visit