The importance of being Yokoyama

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

Big exhibitions of famous Japanese artists are usually held on important anniversaries of their birth or death. The Taikan Yokoyama exhibition now on at the Yokohama Museum of Art, however, breaks with this convention. Rather than marking the 150th, 100th or 50th anniversary of the birth or death of the artist in question, it instead marks that of an entirely different person, namely Tenshin Okakura, an important scholar and academic whose ideas were important in launching the nihonga (Japanese-style painting) movement of which Yokoyama was a part.

The Okakura connection also explains why the exhibition is being held in Yokohama, as this was his birthplace. Yokoyama, by contrast, was born in Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture, and enjoyed a major retrospective as recently as 2008 when the 50th anniversary of his death was commemorated at the National Art Center Tokyo.

This makes it look like the organizers are digging around for an excuse to stage another big Yokoyama exhibition, but who can blame them? He is one of the most important and popular artists in the nihonga canon, and any comprehensive show of his works is sure to be a popular draw.

But if the Okakura connection is an excuse, it’s a well developed one. The show, which is titled “The Life and Art of Yokoyama Taikan: His Mentor, Friends and Inspirations,” pivots on Yokoyama’s connection with Okakura, and also looks at other artists influenced by the same milieu. To give the show additional unity, the artworks selected are mainly from the Taisho Era (1912-26).

The first section of the exhibition is dominated by an impressive bronze bust of Okakura in his prime, created by the sculptor Hirakushi Denchu. The section focuses on Yokoyama’s time, both as student and, briefly, as a teacher, at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts. It was there that Yokoyama came under the sway of Okakura, who was president of the school, and his idea of nihonga — a distinctly Japanese style of art that was nevertheless imbued with a sense of modernity.

At a time when modernity, in the form of technology, fashion, and social and cultural concepts, was being imported wholesale into Japan, nihonga may seem paradoxical, but the essence of the genre always included a degree of ambivalence, resisting the onrush of Westernization by looking back, but also seeking surreptitious inspiration from the West.

This is seen particularly clearly in Yokoyama’s early style known as mokkotsu (boneless) painting, in which he painted without using outlines, creating works of great softness, such as his “Rape Blossoms” (1900). The style appeared like an Asian version of Impressionism, which was the way Yokoyama’s paintings were received overseas when displayed in New York, Washington, Paris, and London in 1904-05. Back in Japan, however, it was mocked as being morotai (blurry).

But even before this, Yokoyama was developing a pragmatic eclecticism, in which he used various styles and techniques at the same time, and sometimes in the same paintings.

In 1898, Okakura had been forced to resign from his position as president of the Tokyo School of Fine Arts after complaints of authoritarian management. Yokoyama responded by also resigning and painting “The Legendary Chinese Poet Qu Yuan” (1898), a work that mixed “boneless” elements with more conventional historical painting. For Yokoyama, Qu Yuan, an exiled Chinese poet of the 3rd century BC, symbolized Okakura — unjustly cast out.

Another factor that helped Yokoyama develop his art was his friendship with a diverse group of fellow artists, in particular Keisen Tomita, Shiko Imamura, Misei Kosugi, and Usen Ogawa, whose works are included in this exhibition.

Like any group of modern artists, they all had their particular styles, directions and histories, some of them even starting out as Western-style painters. But whereas the avant-gardism of Western painting tended toward a kind of narrow expressive individualism, individualism in nihonga tended to express itself in perfecting and maintaining various distinct styles that referenced traditional schools and methods. This effectively maintained greater diversity and stylistic amplitude.

As a particularly talented and receptive artist at the center of this web of influences, Yokoyama in his mature period developed an eclectic nihonga style that had great diversity, with highly decorative works alongside simple yet powerful monochrome ink paintings. Nothing highlights this better than a couple of important works painted in the same year and hung near each other.

“Passing Clouds” (1917) and “Autumn Hues” (1917) are both pairs of six-panel folding screens, but while the first set evokes a Zen-like subtlety, with its smoky black ink and subtle gradations, the second brings to mind the vividness and almost lurid excesses of the Rimpa school.

Because of the variety and amplitude in his oeuvre, an exhibition of Taikan Yokoyama’s paintings can often seem like the work of several different artists. Including several other artists in this show might obscure this wonderful fact.

“The Life and Art of Yokoyama Taikan: His Mentor, Friends and Inspirations” at the Yokohama Museum of Art runs till Nov. 24. Open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. ¥1,400. Closed Thu.