Shoko Uemura (1902-2001) was born to Shoen Uemura, the most revered and financially successful female painter of the early modern period, who arguably did more to popularize the bijinga genre (pictures of beautiful women) than any other. Artistically, however, his mother is said to have taught him nothing. As a child, he took a liking to insects, flowers and birds — and using his mothers lipsticks, he drew bird crests. The long-held reverence for East Asian flower-and-bird painting preoccupied him for the rest of his life, and the current show at the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, spans his entire career.

It is oxymoronic, but Uemura was a conservative radical. He entered the Kyoto Municipal School of Painting to learn nihonga (Japanese-style painting) in 1921, and in the same year won an award at the Teiten, a prestigious national exhibition that succeeded the government sponsored Bunten, which was based on the French salons of the time.

He finished his painting education in 1930 and became a teacher at his alma mater from 1936. As was customary for artists, he entered the private school of an older painter, Nishiyama Suisho, and studied under his elder who helped nurture his career. After becoming a postwar judge in the newly named Nitten (previously the Bunten and Teiten), it was not long before he quit his position in 1947 after losing confidence in the establishment because of the factional and fractious judging environment in which pictures were vetted, and consequently careers made or destroyed.