Yokoyama Taikan: Driven by loyalty

by Matthew Larking

Contributing Writer

Yokoyama Taikan (1868-1958) is inarguably the definitive artist in creating pictorial and organizational frameworks inaugurating and furthering modern nihonga (Japanese painting). “The 150th Anniversary of His Birth: Yokoyama Taikan” at The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, examines those achievements in a career retrospective of 92 works.

Taikan’s early mentor at the Tokyo Fine Arts School (now Tokyo University of the Arts) was the legendary Japanese scholar, Okakura Kakuzo (1863-1913). From 1896, Taikan also taught design at his alma mater until internal frictions in 1898 led to the denunciation and resignation of Okakura as president. Some artists, including painter Shunso Hishida and Taikan, decamped with Okakura to form the rival group The Japan Art Institute.

To capture the tumultuous event, Taikan’s “The Legendary Chinese Poet Qu Yuan” (1898) pictured a powerful and emotionally posed poet of the Chinese Warring States Period (ca. 476–221 BC) in an image of fury and resentment. He was a surrogate for Okakura. Such conceptual approaches to subject matter characterized the early output of painters at The Japan Art Institute.

Taikan subsequently abandoned the cherished distinct outlining style of Asian painting for gradated effects that could stunningly capture rain, mist and bodies of water, as can be seen in “The Ganges” (1906). This mōrōtai, or hazy style, was critically disparaged for its affinities with Western impressionism, and the exhibition reveals how Taikan went on to adopt unconventional materials, including Western pigments for the green leaves of his “A Crane Set Free” (1912-13) and unusual subject matter, such as Halley’s Comet, also in 1912.

When Hishida passed away in 1911 and then Okakura in 1913, Taikan was left without sworn friends or a monumental mentor. In 1914, he set about restoring The Japan Art Institute, which had fallen into decline. He brought in new, young artists, including Misei Kosugi (1881-1964) and Usen Ogawa, (1869-1938) who frequently combined Western and Chinese approaches to augment modern Japanese painting.

Most major Japanese artists were embroiled in supporting Japan’s militarism, to varying degrees, but Taikan was evidently enthusiastic. In 1930, he was the representative for an exhibition of Japanese art held in Rome, showing then Prime Minister Mussolini around on opening day. When the Hitler Youth visited Japan in 1938, Taikan welcomed the delegation with a banquet lecture. The proceeds (¥500,000) of his specially produced “Ten Sea Scenes” and “Ten Mountain Scenes” (1940) also went to buoy the Imperial Japanese army and navy. Mount Fuji was then a lofty, divine nationalist symbol and picturing the Nanyo (South Seas) recalled the front lines in Japan’s Pacific expansion. Taikan acknowledged serving his country with his paintbrush, though this situation tends to be glossed over quickly in contemporary discussions because of its prickly nature.

Among Taikan’s final paintings on show is an image of loneliness and loyalty: “A Forlorn Wind Blows Over the Cold Yi River” (1955). Here, the pictorial Chinese protagonist, Jin Ke, is not pictured because he has departed to assassinate King Zheng of the Qin State. Instead, his solitary dog awaits his return on a riverbank, signifying the broken bond that will not, in the end, be healed. Interpretatively, the faithful companion was Taikan, alone and astray in his early master’s absence.

“The 150th Anniversary of his Birth: Yokoyama Taikan” at The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto runs until July 22; ¥1,500. For more information, visit www.momak.go.jp/English.