Art

The Osakan artists who bucked the system

by Matthew Larking

Contributing Writer

“Do You Know Osaka Painting Circles?” (“Gozonji Desu-ka? Osaka Gadan”) at the Shokado Garden Art Museum questions whether visitors know of Osaka’s early modern painters. This is not disingenuous. Early modern Japanese art history has long focused on the Edo (Tokyo)/Kyoto polarity, sidelining other artistic centers. The show seeks to retrieve the cultural contribution made by Japan’s “third” city, usually known for commerce and industry.

Approximately 40 works by 20 painters and a few others by printmakers are drawn from a private collection. The primary historical emphasis is on Osaka-born artists who worked in the city in the mid-to-late Edo Period (1603-1868). There are a number of engaging tensions apparent, not least of which is: What constitutes an “Osaka artist,” or an Osakan style?

Osakan aesthetics have conventionally emphasized regional traits like humor, boisterousness, ebullient Naniwa (present-day Osaka) emotion, or aesthetics of omoroi (fun, or associated qualities of interestingness). What is observed in the exhibition works, however, is Osaka as a cultural intersection for a number of farther flung traditions.

Prominent are Ueda Kocho (1788-1850) and Nishiyama Hoen (1804-67), the Osaka representatives of the Kyoto-based Shijo school that emphasized both a Western art-inspired heightened realism and Chinese-derived literati foci. Nishiyama painted ducks on a pond, withstanding the seasonal transition from autumn to winter, and the conventional Chinese-derived theme of “Dragon and Tiger,” the mythical beast in the rain and the tiger being windblown. Another Osaka painter, though born in Akita Prefecture, who worked in the Kyoto Shijo school style, was Nagayama Koin (1765-1849). He painted “Camels,” possibly sketched from life, when they were brought to Japan by the Dutch in 1821.

Literati-based aesthetics, originating in China and indigenized in Japan from the late 17th century, also formed a core component of Osaka’s period-painting practices. Suminoe Buzen (1734-1806) is represented by a Chinese-style Ming Dynasty-inspired landscape, while Mori Shuho (1738-1823) depicted scholar-recluses brewing sencha tea on a cliff top in “Moon Viewing.” Oka Yugaku (1762-1833) turned his painting of the Chinese “Orchid Pavilion Gathering” theme into something more preparatory — instead of the poets drinking wine and composing verse, the figures seem to be waiting for the event to get underway.

The Rinpa school painter Nakamura Hochu (active circa 1790-1819) is often held to represent Osakan aesthetics for developing a “stickiness” in painting — thickly constructed motifs, rounded forms and seemingly gummy or glutinous textures. While born in Kyoto and honing some of his skills over three years in Edo, he developed a Naniwa Rinpa that diverged from how the style was practiced in Kyoto or Edo. In “Chrysanthemums,” for example, he used abbreviated circles and dots to represent the auspicious flowers. These look rather more like balls of skewered dango dumpling sweets.

What largely distinguishes Osaka artists or Osaka art circles other than geography remains open to question. Undeniably, however, while the city had home-grown artists of significance, it also hosted major painters and trends from the capital, former capital and elsewhere through the constant flow of cultural interchanges from Kishu (Wakayama Prefecture), Bicchu (western Okayama Prefecture), and Sanuki (Kagawa Prefecture). Much like its cultural rivals of Kyoto and Edo, Osaka painting circles, too, were characterized by cultural and aesthetic peripateticism.

“Gozonji Desu-ka? Osaka Gadan” at the Shokado Garden Art Museum runs until July 7; ¥400. For more information, visit www.yawata-bunka.jp/syokado.

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