An all too-common sophomoric slight to artists is: “A child could have done that.” Seiki Kuroda (1866-1924), the most significant Western-style painter in Japan’s early modern history, however, shows that even some young adults can not accomplish what takes years to hone.

Kuroda’s “Self-portrait” (1885), created before he reached his 20s and on display at the Museum of Kyoto’s latest exhibition, is in fact weak, and his other drawings and compositions in the following few years — from copies and plaster casts — do not indicate the future heights and rewards he would eventually attain. For this, the exhibition is brilliant — it shows the way his talent emerged, the skills he slowly acquired, the directions taken up or abandoned and the stylistic eclecticism Kuroda is not often widely known for, even today.

Kuroda was an aristocrat, who learned French and went to Paris in 1884 to study law at the behest of his father. Three years of that was enough, however, and he started studying painting with Raphael Colin. Before he returned to Japan in 1893, his work was academic, conventional and the compositions uninspired. He drew nudes in classical poses, painted like an amateur and even though he came back to Japan with a trove of paintings displaying new international trends that he became enormously famous for, his oeuvre was consistently uneven in quality. His “Field” (1889) and “Girl Holding a Sheep” (1899) are the epitome of Sunday-art exhibition subjects.

Then, in 1890, Kuroda started to develop bold brushwork as seen in “Cityscape of Paris” and his compositional ability skyrocketed in the loose brushwork of “Woman Knitting” (1890). By then he had become an established figure and in 1896 he headed the Western Art Department at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts.

Controversy had preceded this, however, with “Choso,” a nude that in many ways was the pinnacle of French painting and the forte of his teacher but was taboo in Japan. He was censured but refused to give in and his three panels of 1899, “Sentiment,” “Impression,” and “Wisdom,” now stand as testament to the triumphs of modern Western Japanese art and the supremacy of the naked female body.

It was, however, “Lakeside” (1897) with the somber, pensive beauty attired in kimono, holding a fan and set before a lake with the verdigris of the distant hills, that has come to distinguish his career. His much more disparate work, characterized by such bold, expressionist brushwork and color as in “A Nap” (1894), would make Van Gogh blush.

That he continued to work almost into impasto abstraction as in the garden weeds in “Storm” (1919) or the almost chaotic “Roses” (1923) are aspects of his career that deserve much more attention than has been given to date.

“Kuroda Seiki: Ninety Years On — A Great Master of Japanese Modern Western-style Painting” at The Museum of Kyoto runs till July 21; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri. till 7:30 p.m.). ¥1,200. Closed Mon. www.bunpaku.or.jp/exhi_special.htm

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