The 18th century was an exciting time for Japan. After unification in 1603, a remarkable spirit of innovation pervaded as urban centers grew and the arts flourished.
The creativity came despite a policy of sakoku that the ruling Tokugawa shogunate enacted in 1633 to close Japan off from the world (it lasted until 1866). However, sakoku resulted in the paradoxical effect of nurturing a deep fascination for everything foreign among the country’s educated class.
It was in this environment that Maruyama Okyo (1733-95) was born.
The artist grew up in Kyoto, a city immersed in Japanese culture but whose populace drew inspiration from overseas. His interests would end up extending to studies in medicine, human anatomy, physics and botany, and he incorporated the things he learned from Dutch and Chinese texts into his art. Okyo combined Japanese painting techniques with Western perspective, which resulted in a unique approach to his craft.
In commemoration of its 75th anniversary, Tokyo’s Nezu Museum is holding a special exhibition titled “Opening Up New Terrain in Japanese Painting,” which celebrates Okyo as both an artist and an innovator.
His exposure to Western knowledge began as a teenager while he was working in a toy shop in central Kyoto. There he created megane-e, perspective pictures for special viewing lenses and stereoscopes. As an apprentice under the Kano school artist Ishida Yutei (1721-86), he mastered painting techniques, including brushwork, perspective and shading, and painting theory.
In his later works, he incorporated many features from Japanese art, such as leaving large areas of his compositions unpainted and using preliminary drawings to prepare those compositions. Okyo drew from other traditions as well, most prominent among them was the practice of sketching from nature employed in Chinese pharmacology.
The exhibition’s main gallery is occupied by Okyo’s masterworks, which were produced while the artist was at his peak. His renown earned him commissions from wealthy merchants, Buddhist temples and court nobles, and this allowed him to create large-scale works such as a pair of six-panel folding screens titled “Wisteria” and “Bamboo in Wind and Rain,” which both date from 1776. Other majestic pieces in this room include “Pine trees in the Snow” (1786) and the hanging scroll “Peacocks and Peonies” (1776).
Okyo’s artistic innovations in this period enabled him to make an abrupt break from Japan’s stylistic traditions. Drawing from techniques he likely observed in Chinese pharmacological sketches and Dutch anatomical studies, Okyo’s aim was to delineate the subjects of his art with proper proportions and realistic details. As a result, his standing peacock in “Peacocks and Peonies” appears so real that its voluminous neck looks as if it is twisting and turning, the iridescent blue and green layers of its plumage meticulously defined.
In “Wisteria” we find a reimagination of a floral motif that has been popular in Japanese art since the Heian Period (794-1185). In Okyo’s depiction of the wisteria’s vines, he varies the speed and pressure of his brush strokes, creating light and dark tonality to give the lines dimensionality. The artist pioneered this technique, known as tsuketate. He also took great pains to delineate the finest details of the blossoms, using tiny dots of pale mauve, white and dark purple to replicate the beautiful floral clusters.
“Bamboo in Wind and Rain” contrasts the visual effect of bamboo in rain — in which we see leaves laden with precipitation, elongated and hanging downward — with a depiction of bamboo in the wind, in which the leaves are being pushed and spread by forceful gusts. This piece is prized for its composition techniques and for detailed brushwork that conveys the characteristics of the bamboo under both weather conditions. To achieve this, Okyo masterfully combines Kano school techniques of ink tonality and brushwork with artful composition and realist elements derived from his naturalistic sketches.
The second floor gallery of the exhibition is devoted to a set of three hand scrolls titled “Seven Fortunes and Seven Misfortunes”(1768), which Okyo completed mid-career at the age of 36. The scrolls take as their subject the Buddhist theme of heaven and hell, which through its graphic depiction is intended to shock the viewer. Okyo’s real innovation here lies in his reinvention of this genre, departing from the traditional depictions of demons and deities that are characteristic of religious paintings and instead introducing contemporary 18th-century motifs of natural and man-made disasters with depictions of prosperous aristocrats. Inspired by Dutch anatomy and Chinese physiognomy, the artist creates accurate depictions of the scroll’s human figures.
Okyo’s ability to combine techniques led him to discover his own forms of expression as an artist. His advances in shading and tonality in the use of realistic detail, and in composition and perspective provided an innovative step toward modernism in the Japanese arts.
“Maruyama Okyo: Opening up New Terrain in Japanese Painting” at the Nezu Museum runs until Dec. 18 (10 a.m.-5 p.m., admittance till 4:30 p.m.). Admission is ¥1,300 for adults, ¥1,000 for students. For more details, visit www.nezu-muse.or.jp/en.