Ryusei Kishida (1891-1929) remains a giant of modern yōga (Western-style Japanese painting), though his idea of “modernism” would mostly have been unrecognizable to his Western counterparts.

While his early painting dealt with Western precedents of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism from the late 19th century, he turned away from what he called the “temptations of Modernism” and sought a superlative realism he found in the art of the Northern European Renaissance (ca. 1325-1600). He subsequently invested this with grotesque elements and melded it with pre-modern Chinese painting.

Charting these turbulences in style is the focus of “The 120th Anniversary of the Birth of Kishida Ryusei” at the Osaka Municipal Museum of Art.

Ryusei was born into wealth, and after finishing junior high school he began painting studies while teaching at a Sunday School. In 1908, he joined Tokyo’s Hakuba-kai (White Horse Society) headed by the painter Kuroda Seiki. Kuroda had studied in France, and while he had followed an academic course of training, he brought back to Japan with him an attenuated Impressionism. A bright palette placed him as the innovator in art circles in contrast to the dark gravy hues of earlier Western painting inspired by the Parisian Barbizon school, taught in Japan since the late 1870s.

Kishida’s early work, from 1908-10, mostly follows in the idiom promoted by Kuroda’s Hakuba-kai. The year 1911, however, offered opportunities for a decisive stylistic break. In March he purchased a copy of the journal Shirakaba (White Birch), which introduced European painting trends, and was startled by the Impressionist works of Renoir. He subsequently came across reproductions of Van Gogh, Matisse, Gauguin and Cezanne that left him teary eyed. By 1912, Van Gogh was the real influence, and this can be seen in the brilliant fiery palette and rough application of paints in Kishida’s “Sunset” (1912). His work became so Van Gogh-like that his first Tokyo solo exhibition in 1912 proved unpopular because of the derivation.

After establishing the short-lived Fusain-kai (Charcoal Sketch Society) in 1912 to exhibit paintings inspired by Post-Impressionism, Kishida and other members garnered measures of notoriety as the society’s exhibition period coincided with that of the Bunten, a more conservative national Ministry of Education Exhibition. The Bunten pitted the Fusain-kai as an emerging youthful avant-garde, but some critics were quick to pounce, denouncing their works as copies of European Post-Impressionism and Expressionism — though the artists themselves had acknowledged as much.

Another period trend was an emphasis on the self-portrait, spurred by cultural self-absorption and the new significance of individuality. Kishida took up the genre with such enthusiasm that in 1913 alone he generated 13 self-portraits. He also took to painting portraits of those around him, resulting in his sobriquet “the head-hunter.”

Around 1914, however, he began to turn away from the painterly simplification of bright-colored forms in his portraits and still-lifes and pursued representation in greater detail, often in sepia tones with strong highlights that took, anachronistically, their stylistic cues from old masters such as Rembrandt, Van Eyck and Durer.

An excellent example of this can be seen in “Portrait of Masamitsu Kawabata” (1918), for which Kishida appears to have followed the example of Durer’s “Portrait of Michael Wolgemut” (1516). Part of the real interest of the painting, however, is that the inscription painted on the right-hand side is written in Japanese kanji, whereas before he had used romanized script. That kanji re-entered Japanese painting via Western-leaning styles, in contrast to the later Meiji Era (1868-1912) discouragement of it in Japanese-style painting, is all the more intriguing. This signaled Kishida’s gravitation toward pre-modern Chinese painting.

Perhaps Kishida’s most beloved works are his portraits of his daughter Reiko, which he began producing in 1918. While he first depicted her realistically, he soon began to Sinicize her appearance according to art-historical pictorial practices. Eventually, he fused her into a composite figure based on her similar appearance to depictions of the legendary Chinese Tang Dynasty (618-907) poet and recluse Hanshan. While several works amply show the gradual amalgamation of his daughter and the poet, arguably the most startling and somewhat grotesque one is the sumi-ink “Portrait of a Hanshan-like Reiko” (1922-23), a figure who bares her teeth in a disarming grin.

Kishida, who is said to have considered his oil-paint portraits as his most important works (though this is hard gauge given his subsequent development), was by this point into a firmly Chinese-inspired mode of painting. The exhibition labels these works as nihonga (Japanese-style painting), though it is really to the styles of literati painting of the Song and Yuan dynasties of China (960-1368) that credit is due.

By 1921, he had exchanged his own paintings for Chinese-painting manuals, and from 1922 he began collecting Chinese works of the bird-and-flower genre. The painting conventions he gleaned from these were put to use in both oils and in traditional mineral pigments.

After moving to Kyoto following the destruction of his Tokyo home in the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, Kishida is said to have turned out these Chinese-inspired works to support his excessive drinking and decadent theater-going night life. This, though, is difficult to accept given that the genesis of his artistic interests can be seen in works created many years beforehand. Kishida himself would go as far as idealizing his lifestyle as a Chinese scholar/recluse in the self-portrait “Togan Hermitage” (1928).

Modern painting in Japan became distinctively organized around the guiding genre definitions of Western-style painting and Japanese-style painting from the early 1880s. The roles Chinese painting played in the formation of Japanese modernism is a debt yet to be paid its full due.

“The 120th Anniversary of the Birth of Kishida Ryusei” at the Osaka Municipal Museum of Art runs till Nov. 23; admission ¥1,300; open 9:30 a.m. — 5 p.m., closed Mon. For more information, visit www.city.osaka.lg.jp/museum (Japanese only).

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