A figure outside the nihonga box

Insho Domoto's 'Japanese-style' painting draws from all parts of the the art world


“Depicting the Human Form: From Natural Sight and Sentiment to Modeling” at the Insho-Domoto Museum of Fine Arts, Kyoto, jumps around. It is evidence of the constantly searching temperament of the nihonga (Japanese-style painting) painter Insho Domoto (1891-1975), who refused to acquiesce to the sometimes conservative stipulations of one of Japan’s circumscribed art styles.

The work on show is mostly that which is bracketed between the things Domoto gained fame for in the 1920s (his conventional themes of nature, historical subjects and religious works).

Known for stylistic eclecticism, which some found an arrogant display of skill, Domoto believed diversity to be the elevating aspect of his art. His controversial shift to pure abstraction in the mid-1950s, which gained him admiration in Europe, is another bracket within which this exhibition examines how he represented the human form. Domoto depicted the human figure, in particular, in multiple ways for divergent aims in distinct traditions.

The exhibition begins with a series of paintings from 1922, “Kouta Songs for Twelve Months,” which depict only the hands and faces of women, their bodies lost within kimono. They continue the tradition of bijin-ga (depictions of beautiful women) that was a staple of ukiyo-e without much of a contemporary spin. These are generic, willowy beauties with white powdered faces and elaborate kimono and hair ornamentation. “Oharame” (“Flower and Wood Seller,” 1930) pursues a similar line but depicts the rural figure of a girl at work, a theme that became popular in the early 20th century as Japan modernized and sought refuge in idealized depictions of declining traditional roles. These are romanticized portrayals of human forms that were part of the Japanese past but had little to do with Domoto’s present.

Stylistic fusions of East and West, however, were present early on. In “My Father” (1924), Domoto’s father, a sake merchant who passed away when Domoto was 20, is dressed in a vibrant fine kimono, a stole draped around his neck and holding a raised parasol as he posed before a Western-style veranda — very much the man about town. The background is Japanese, with a landscaped garden and storehouse, while the Western foreground of a geometric-pattern tiled floor and a clock with Roman numerals suggest cultural diversity.

Other highly personal paintings include “Sadako’s Face” (1948) of Domoto’s younger sister, whose body is subtly shaded and modeled, given a fuller form than those of his earlier idealized figures that are buried within kimono. The same is true of “Portrait of Yoshie in her young days” (1950), an image of his niece. The heightened realism seems associated with Domoto’s proximity and familiarity with the subject, where family members close at hand or held in the mind, as in the portrait of his father, come in for fuller representation.

Historical figures and the generic types from Japanese art history are dealt with more flatly — in a few deft lines, often with little other treatment. Figures that go without a proper name, such as “Woman in Nude Laying on Her Back” (1952), receive further figurative diminishment, often the form of the body veering toward abstraction.

Domoto’s post-World War II images depicting the lives and societal turbulences of contemporary women display an influence of Cubism, and they stunned spectators. “A Family” (1949) foregrounds the divergent values of three generations of women who stand around a table. The older woman on the left wears a peasant-like headscarf and fingers green peppers placed on the table to emphasize her agricultural bond, conservatism and values of the past. The younger woman across from her is in Western clothing and fondling a set of playing cards. It suggests that recourse to tradition is the steady hand to play, and that following contemporary Japanese society and its Westernization is a gamble. The three young girls standing between East and West may be seen to represent the anxieties of the emergent generation.

“Eight Hours” (1951) takes Cubist representational practices further with its blocks of contrasting colors and its fusion of varied viewpoints. The title, the number of hours of a conventional workday, is a reference to the new working woman. A more curious interpretation of Cubist premises is found in the earlier “Two Women Sitting on a Sofa” (1949). Here we see less the hierarchical compositions and planarity of Cubism than the dissolution of foreground and background, such that the arms and legs of one woman are visible through the other, around whom they circle. Essentially the two bodies cohabit the same, impossible, physical space, and Domoto creates uncertain spatial relations that swing between their coming into being and their dissolution.

Domoto’s oeuvre resists categorization. He tried nearly everything. His desire to depict figures, however, was largely exhausted in his final period of activity, during which he sought spiritual forms in carefully modeled abstraction.

“Depicting the Human Form: From Natural Sight and Sentiment to Modeling” at Insho-Domoto Museum of Fine Arts runs till May 29 (some of the works will be rotated during the exhibition); admission ¥500; open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Mon. For more information, visit www2.ocn.ne.jp/~domoto/index-e.htm