Art

Nihonga didn’t ignore the West

by Matthew Larking

Special To The Japan Times

From the early 1880s, painting in Japan became bisected. Yōga was used to categorize works in oils that were inspired by European painting movements and nihonga became the umbrella term for a whole array of earlier Japanese painting traditions that were later modernized.

The division caused varying amounts of dissatisfaction as painters were pigeon-holed, and though the categories seemed clear, the historical pictorial record is much messier. Many of the major late 19th- and early 20th-century painters worked in both genres, or borrowed freely from the other side.

Such was the case of Seiho Takeuchi (1864-1942), the leading modern Kyoto nihonga painter who is the focus of the current exhibition at the Himeji City Museum of Art.

Early on, Seiho, as he was known, was an ostensible synthesizer. Trained in the Kyoto Shijo school lineage, he gained notoriety in 1892 when he exhibited the no longer extant “Cat and Kittens,” for which he combined three types of brushwork — that of the Shijo school for the flowers, the Maruyama school for the cats’ fur and the Kano school for the rocks. The work was criticized described as a nue, a folkloric monster composed of various animal parts and mentioned in the “Heike Monogatari.” Like the mythical monster, Seiho’s painting appeared not as a distinctively new amalgam, but as bits and pieces.

Later, Seiho’s correspondence with Iida Shinshichi — the fourth-generation proprietor of Takashimaya department store for which Seiho was a textile designer and advisor — indicate how the artist would get other painters to copy pictures from European art journals, which he would then combine with Japanese painting techniques and practices, fusing them together.

In 1900, Seiho ventured to see the Paris Exposition, visiting museums, art schools and painters. He collected art books and postcards and sketched lions at a zoo in Dresden, Germany. When he exhibited these lion paintings in Japan on his return, audiences were stunned by their heightened realism. The careful observation of and sketching from nature he had encountered in his Shijo school training, Seiho felt, was complemented by contemporary Western painting practices, and so it revealed ways he could innovate nihonga.

And one of these was to use oil paints, if only for a brief period. How many he did is unclear, though there are two in this exhibition — the best of which, “Suez Landscape” (1901), has not been publicly exhibited in 113 years. Painted after returning from Europe, Seiho based the composition on the image on a postcard from his collection, though he erased the pyramids that originally formed the scenery’s backdrop. For the other oil painting on display, Seiho teamed up with nihonga painter Shunkyo Yamamoto, who painted a rose to which Seiho added a butterfly.

Having strayed as far into Western painting territory as he did, it is perhaps not surprising that the remainder of Seiho’s career was mostly a gradual pendulum swing back in the opposite direction.

“Takeuchi Seiho” at the Himeji City Museum of Art runs till March 29; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥1,100. Closed Mon. www.city.himeji.lg.jp/art/index.html