A persistent and lingering myth is that Yumeji Takehisa (1884-1934), who forwent conventional art training at a sanctioned institution and earned widespread popular appeal for all the things the arts were supposedly not, was unimportant to the fine arts.

Originally, he had wanted to be a poet, and in 1918 his poem “Yoimachigusa” was set to music and garnered widespread national popularity. Elsewhere, and as Yamano Hidetsugu, the curator of “Takehisa Yumeji in Memory,” puts it, Takehisa became the first to bring “art” into journalism. The slowly emerging historical picture of Takehisa, however, is that he was a model for the fine arts to emulate.

Takehisa was diverse in media and eclectic in style. He could go from designing book covers, serial newspaper illustrations, furoshiki (wrapping cloths) and postcards to patterned papers, the last of which have been adapted for the exhibition catalog to offer three cover designs. He painted willowy beauties in oils and the traditional mineral pigments of nihonga (Japanese-style painting), made a few attempts at Impressionism and lectured on nihonga in Berlin for five months at the art school of Bauhaus-related color theorist and educator/painter, Johannes Itten (1888-1967). The pictorial documents from these lectures were later donated by the Itten family to The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto.

Takehisa took on 10 students for his painting course, and his handwritten “The Concept of Japanese Painting” for it was translated into German. The Japanese consulate in Berlin thoughtfully sent a translator to assist Takehisa in his lectures, and in them he demonstrated the stylistic diversities of Japanese painting schools’ pictorial approaches in sumi ink.

Representations of the Edo Period (1603-1867) Shijo School, for example, depict a lake and mountain scenery in misty atmospheric washes. The same composition in the Nanga style (Chinese-oriented literati painting), has a strongly linear approach in scumbled, spiky brushstrokes. These turbulences in styles, and the highs and lows of art, are background essentials for “Takehisa Yumeji in Memory.”

The odds and ends on display come from the 1,000 works and reference materials purchased incrementally since 2006 by the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, for what is known as the Kawanishi Hide Collection. The collector, Kawanashi (1894-1965), was a relatively well-known printmaker of the sōsaku hanga (creative print) movement in the early to mid 20th century. As a teenager he was enamored of Takehisa, copying his works and collecting all that he could to paste into scrapbooks or hang on the wall. A third of all the works and materials he collected concern Takehisa.

Takehisa’s first exhibition was held in 1912 at the Kyoto City Library, and his effect on the art world was soon evident. In 1914, for example, a leading Kyoto nihonga painter, Shinso Okamoto (1894-1933), made reproductions of Takehisa’s works, three of which are on display in the 4F gallery. Takehisa’s work also influenced Kawanishi’s popular art-print style, and he was an inspiration for Shichiro Imatake (1907-2000), the in-house designer for the Daimaru and Takashimaya department stores, as he was for Yamana Ayao (1897-1980), who designed the camellia trademark symbol for skincare corporate giant Shiseido.

He was also important in the development of Japan’s first abstract designer, Koshiro Onchi (1891-1955), though what we see in the exhibition is Onchi’s later work “Iris” (1943). According to the diary of the Japanese Futurist painter Fumon Gyo (1896-1972), even Western-style painters, such as Seiji Togo (1897-1978), made reproductions of Takehisa’s works.

Where the attribution of influence starts coming undone is in the apparent significance of Takehisa for Japan’s avant-garde Futurism, Sanka and Mavo movements of the late 1910s and early ’20s.

Osamu Shibuya (1900-63), an artist involved in all three movements, claimed that “Spiritual art, that is to say avant-garde painting, in Japan derived from Yumeji’s paintings as the starting point.” Takehisa did indeed associate with the Russian Futurist painters David Burliuk (1882-1967), who stayed in Japan from 1920-22, and Viktor Palmov (1888-1929). He also saw the first exhibition of modern Russian paintings in Japan. However, Takehisa’s own work is much more lyrical and romantic. It never really gets close to anything like that of the rebellious Mavo constructivism that Tomoyoshi Murayama (1901-77) displays in “Shi” (1924), or the visual/verbal geometric abstraction of “Work” (1924) by the sometimes anarchist and later manga artist Michinao Takamizawa (1899-1989) — a piece also in the Kawanishi Collection.

While the artist and essayist Tari Moriguchi (1892-1984) wrote that “Takehisa did not make his name with his paintings,” it is painting that is the central focus of the present exhibition, with several of the works being exhibited for the first time. In fact, “(French) Woman with a Shawl” (1920s), a mineral-pigment work, exemplifies Takehisa’s penchant for depicting beautiful women, something he is predominantly known for, as well as his slightly quirky poetry. The inscription beside the woman reads: “More graceful than the empress in the old French chromolithograph.”

“Takehisa Yumeji in Memory” at The Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto runs till Dec. 25; admission ¥1,200; open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Mon. For more information, visit www.momak.go.jp.

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