Ike no Taiga: The ‘true view’ travel painter

by Matthew Larking

Contributing Writer

“The Genius of Ike no Taiga: Carefree Traveler, Legendary Painter,” at Kyoto National Museum, is magisterial. Edo Period (1603-1868) Kyoto teemed with big name painters, but Taiga (1723-1776) was superlative.

Taiga began the practice of calligraphy when a child, and was pseudo-certified in 1729 as a “supernaturally gifted child” by Kodo Gencho, the 12th abbot of Manpuku-ji Temple. By his 40s, he had matured into a painter of reputation. The first edition of Kyoto’s 18th-century equivalent of “Who’s Who,” the 1768 “Heian Jinbutsu Shi,” listed Taiga’s name in two of its six categories, esteemed calligraphers and painters, with the other four enumerating famed living scholars, seal-engravers, physiognomists and geomancers.

Born to a lower-ranking samurai official of Kyoto’s silver mint, Taiga became part of the second generation of Japan’s nanga artists, a term referring to the so-called southern school of painting derived from earlier Chinese literati practices. His early calligraphy was often in archaic and clerical Chinese scripts and, by age 15, Taiga had his own artisan shop in Kyoto selling fans he decorated with Chinese motifs and themes drawn from imported painting manuals. In addition to the financial contribution offered for his fan painting, those recognizing Taiga’s abilities supported him through a network of patronage. These included Yanagisawa Kien, a painter, calligrapher and chief advisor to the Yamato Koriyama domain.

Early on, it was difficult for Taiga to access quality Chinese paintings for artistic sustenance and study, though his late-career “Five Hundred Arhats” (18th century) is directly related to his having seen the theme in Wang Zhenpeng’s scroll. The most famous of the manuals that he was inspired by, and is on display at the exhibition, is the “Painting Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden” (1679), which acted for Taiga and others as a source of imagery, painting theory, technical instruction and practical advice.

Among Taiga’s numerous contributions to Japanese art are his realistic topographical scenes called “true view pictures,” which were a revolution in the representation of the Japanese landscape, likely influenced by Western copperplate engravings. “True View of Mount Asama” (18th century), which portrays an elevated panoramic view of Mount Asama with Mount Fuji glimpsed in the distance, was based on scenery Taiga observed in situ and sketched in 1760. The light blue wash at the top led to Taiga being at one time attributed with depicting the first blue sky in Japanese painting.

Taiga could not see firsthand the revered Chinese views that he depicted, such as his “Red Cliff on Lake Dongting” (1771), but the Japanese equivalent, Shiga Prefecture’s Lake Biwa became a model for observing and sketching for such paintings.

A point of contention is that the exhibition’s scope does not include any well-known works that exist overseas, with all pieces having been sourced from local collections. But it has been 85 years since the last comparable Taiga retrospective in Japan, and this opportunity beckons an encounter with an extraordinary artist’s oeuvre that includes three National Treasures, 13 Important Cultural Properties, and a smattering of paintings by Gyokuran (Taiga’s wife), close friends and contemporaries.

“The Genius of Ike no Taiga: Carefree Traveler, Legendary Painter” at Kyoto National Museum runs until May 20; ¥1,500. For more information, visit www.kyohaku.go.jp