Art

The painterly prayers of Higashiyama

by Matthew Larking

Contributing Writer

“Higashiyama Kaii Retrospective (1908-1999)” at The Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, actually only presents half of Higashiyama’s life. It’s a truncated career survey focusing on the mid-to later-life masterpieces of “painting as a form of prayer” by the artist known as “the people’s landscape painter.”

The popular image of Higashiyama today has its origins in the successful reception of his landscape “Afterglow” (1947), when it showed at the prestigious national Nitten exhibition. Another work, “Road” (1950), is among the most recognized and revered paintings produced in postwar Japan. The exhibition calls these “quintessentially Japanese landscapes,” but such works were also examples of Higashiyama’s conservative dialogue with European and American abstraction. Distinctive geographical signs were deliberately omitted by the painter, his compositions geometricized and the palette simplified.

Higashiyama was among a number of contemporary painters westernizing nihonga (Japanese painting) at that time. They made large-scale works, put pictures in frames instead of mountings and aped the impasto of oil painting. This was part of what mid-20th-century nihonga painters thought would make their work appear “international,” a buzzword of the era.

Thereafter, Higashiyama made pendulum swings between subject matter, going from representing foreign landscapes to depicting Japanese ones, sometimes cliched. He integrated Edo Period (1603-1868) Rinpa-school painting conventions into “Garden with Pine Trees” (1956) and then was urged by the novelist Yasunari Kawabata (1926-72) to depict the historical cityscape of Kyoto, which was being threatened by the postwar drive to modernize. Before this, he went to Scandinavia in 1962 to recall the stillness of northern Europe he had encountered as an art history student in Germany from 1933 to 1935. His Scandinavia-inspired paintings, including “White Twilight,” (1963), were usually unpeopled and desolate landscapes with a touch of the cinematography of Ingmar Bergman.

Once back in Japan, he was commissioned by the Imperial Household to produce the mural “Bamboo Grove in Moonlight” (1967). Then followed 17 paintings and 36 sketches comprising “Four Seasons in Kyoto” (exhibited in 1968), depicting raked gravel, snow on Kitayama cedars, autumn leaves on moss and other scenes of nature. He subsequently departed for Germany and Austria to paint townscapes and buildings that had been untouched by war, for example “Window” (1971), before returning to Asian landscapes for what is considered the pinnacle of his career: a 10-year mural project for the Mieido Hall, Toshodaiji temple in Nara, from 1971.

The solitary white horse, as can be seen in the exhibition’s “Morning at the Waterside” (1972), is a feature that frequently made an appearance in Higashiyama’s paintings concurrent to his Toshodaiji work and is said to be a manifestation of the artist’s prayers. This fantasy world of prayer, peace and reflection (represented in the mirror-like lake surfaces of his compositions), cemented Higashiyama’s postwar peaceable image.

What is not on view at this exhibition are examples of Higashiyama’s early works, effectively omitting 20 years of his painting career. Such pieces are now rarely publicly shown, or only exhibited sporadically when related to his postwar painting. But Higashiyama was producing and exhibiting for much of this time.

The omission is usually explained away by the distressing facts of his life at that time: deaths of his immediate family members and being drafted late, in July 1945, into the Pacific War. The fuller picture of this incredibly popular postwar painter, however, awaits a full explanation from a probing curatorial mind.

“Higashiyama Kaii Retrospective 1908-1999” at The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, runs until Oct. 8; ¥1,500. For more information, visit www.momak.go.jp/English