On light, wind — and good sake

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

Tokyo Station Gallery is one of the more interesting art venues in the city. Occupying part of the renovated Tokyo Station Building, it combines daring modern design with the building’s early 20th-century, red-brick charm.

This also makes it a rather suitable venue for “Hakubakai to Kofukai: Aspects of Japanese Oil Painting,” an exhibition that looks at the 100-year history of an art association that was once avant-garde, but is now endearingly traditionalist.

It is hard to tell the story of the Kofukai group, founded in 1912, without including that of a preceding, more informal Hakubakai, named after a brand of unrefined sake popular among artists. The same personalities can be found in both.

The two key figures were Seiki Kuroda and Keiichiro Kume, who met in Paris in 1886 and then studied under the French painter Raphael Collin and boarded together. The close bonds they formed became the basis of the later art associations and their dedication to a fresh, naturalistic style based in realism. This was signaled in the name of the second association, as the name Kofukai literally meant “Light and Wind Club.”

Given the importance of the pair to the groups and to the rise of Western-style painting in Japan, I had hoped to see more of their work. Alas, the show includes only two Kurodas and one Kume, none of which really convey just why these two artists had such an influence.

The selection of the material for the show seems to reflect the democratic nature of such art associations. Rather than a “hierarchy” of works that tell a compelling story or that reflect the heights produced by the group, we instead get one or two works of varying quality from a wide range of artists, most of whom are relatively obscure.

There are two exceptions. Kokki Miyake has four lucid landscapes on show, and there are several decorative print works by Hisui Sugiuru. But here the exception seems to be a recognition that their works are rather on the small side.

It is also noticeable that, even though the Kofukai is an ongoing concern, there are no works by any living painter. One suspects that this is because it would have activated too many jealousies and led to many disputes.

This means that what you are faced with is a succession of largely unconnected individual works, some of which you will take to, while others will leave you cold.

Paintings, including Sakujiro Okubo’s “Cradle” (1921), with its Renoiresque strokes and dappled sunlight, and Toyosaku Saito’s “Stream in the Evening Glow” (1913), with its vibrant shadows alive with purples are greens, show that the movement was influenced by other artistic currents besides Realism, such as Impressionism and Post-Impressionism.

While a Western wind blows through the landscapes, Japanese elements seem to creep back in through the portraits of women, such as Takeji Fujishima’s “Utsutsu” (1913), a tender, intimate work that evokes bijinga (pictures of beautiful women) woodblock prints.

“Hakubakai to Kofukai: Aspects of Japanese Oil Painting” at Tokyo Station Gallery runs till May 6; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.). ¥900. Closed Mon.