Kyoto painting schools pushed nihonga to the limit


Special To The Japan Times

Japan, as elsewhere, has never had a singular art world but a plurality of formations. This is as true of pre-modern art as it is for Modernism and contemporary art — think of Takashi Murakami, his “factory” Kaikai Kiki and Geisai the art fair he founded. Individuals could, as now, constitute worlds unto themselves and the disciples orbited the patriarch to varying degrees of oblivion.

“A Close Look at Kyoto’s Painting Studios” at the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art is concerned with Kyoto gadan (modern nihonga [Japanese painting] circles), an appellation coined in 1911 at a lecture by the principal of the Kyoto Municipal Special School of Painting, Matataro Matsumoto, on the occasion of the first graduation ceremony. While nihonga was organized by the national exhibitions represented by the Japan Art Academy’s Bunten that became the postwar Japan Arts Exhibition (Nitten) and educational institutions primarily in Tokyo and Kyoto, further subdivisions were apparent in the private teaching ateliers (juku) of individual artists who oversaw and directed the cultural production of their students until well after World War II.

The ateliers, like the national exhibitions and modern art schools, had their own feudalistic hierarchies and these were powerful agents shaping the directions of Kyoto nihonga through to the end of WWII. That model, if not entirely bankrupt, had its authority diminished in the flood of internationalism, the questioning of tradition, and the flourishing of “contemporary art.”

While this exhibition is concerned with the development of nihonga from its coinage in the early 1880s, it is primarily concerned with the relationships between teachers and students in the studios. These include Seiho Takeuchi’s “Chikujokai,” Shunkyo Yamamoto’s “Sanaekai,” Goun Nishimura’s “Shinchosha,” Suisho Nishiyama’s “Seikosha,” Insho Domoto’s “Tokyusha” and several others. The shear number of organizations here immediately suggests the plurality of nihonga, the ways it was taught, perpetuated and redeployed.

Takeuchi’s (1864-1942) “Bamboo Cane Society,” for example, was arguably the most important private school for early modern nihonga in Kyoto. It was the direct rival of Tokyo painting circles that were said to have “brains” through the uptake of conceptual subjects in contradistinction to Kyoto’s “brush” with its emphasis on technique.

Takeuchi was acknowledged as a courteous tutor who encouraged his students to be creative, as he himself was. He sought out the potentials of the painting idiom, absorbing the writings of the English critic and Socialist John Ruskin, the lessons of European painters such as Turner and Corot, and amalgamated these with the tradition of Maruyama-Shijo painting which he had been trained in along with his admiration for individualist Chinese literati painting that had taken root in Japan since the late 17th century. He even made works in oil paint beyond the essentialist definition of nihonga as a product of mineral pigments and a binding agent (nikawa).

Two of his most senior pupils, Suisho Nishiyama (1879-1958) and Goun Nishimura (1877-1938), went on to establish their own schools for subsequent generations though arguably it was Nishimura who most faithfully followed in the style of his teacher. Nishiyama’s studio was the larger, however, and he inaugurated a teaching model encouraging individual proclivities of a kind which had not previously existed.

Insho Domoto (1891-1975) took lessons from Suisho Nishiyama, among others, and with evermore success in national exhibitions he established his own school in 1934, the “Eastern Hills Society.” Domoto was an artist who went from prewar temple painter to postwar lyric abstractionist. While other painters exhibiting at the conservative Nitten who initially toyed with abstraction were later compelled to reject it, Domoto was one of the few to pursue it until his death.

Domoto decried the isolation of the Japanese art world, comparing it to the sakoku (closed country) policy Japan endorsed in the Edo period (1603-1868). He sought artistic liberation but maintained in his atelier a trenchant hierarchy of himself at top, followed by his head pupil, Chosei Miwa (1901-1983), and then the lower rungs through which flowed strict instruction and rewards such as being sent to the prestigious national exhibitions. The art world strictures he so seemed to detest were replicated within his own studio.

Then again, those hierarchical relationships coursed throughout Domoto’s entire family, an art world unto itself. His two elder brothers were a theater critic and a nationally celebrated lacquer artist while his younger brother gave support to the painter and later became the head of the museum inaugurated by the artist to house his work. In addition, three of his five sisters married prominent Kyoto nihonga artists. Shumei Mori (1892-1951) was prominent in the atelier of Suisho Nishiyama while Sokyu Yamamoto (1893-1993) and Miwa were affiliated with Domoto’s atelier.

The art journalist Kizo Hashimoto once opined that Kyoto painting circles were too peaceful, reflecting cordial relations that had to be maintained over frictions and rivalries. The breach of such resulted in being ostracized, and this was the fate of the postwar Kyoto avant-garde of nihonga.

“Masterpieces from the Permanent Collection 2: A Close Look at Kyoto’s Painting Studios” at Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art runs till Nov. 25. For more information, visit