In his 1808 book, “Chronicle of Audacity and Timidity” (“Tandai Shoshinroku”), scholar and poet Ueda Akinari satirized, “When Okyo came on the scene, sketching from life (shasei) became popular, and all the paintings in Kyoto began being done by the same method!”

The realist impulse abetted by Okyo’s shasei is the focus of “Legendary Kyoto Painting From Maruyama Okyo to the Modern Era” at The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto. While the exhibition’s opening section, “It All Began With Okyo,” indicates Okyo (1733-95) initiated a form of modernism in Kyoto painting, the works on show expose a more nuanced legacy.

The 18th-century zeitgeist for realism in Japanese painting followed three major multicultural stimuli: Shen Nanpin’s (c. 1682-1760) Chinese bird and flower painting introduced during his time in Nagasaki; Western prints and book illustrations imported to Japan; and locally developing interest in recording flora and fauna in a categorical, scientific manner.

But “Legendary Kyoto Painting” begins later, at the height of Okyo’s career, with the fusuma panel paintings he and his students completed at Hyogo Prefecture’s Daijoji temple, “Pine Trees and Peacocks” (1795) and “Guo Ziyi and Children” (1788) pre-eminent among them. “Realism” here means less lifelike and more like giving his tree forms heavy, textured brushstrokes, his bird feathers decorative detail and his overly round-faced and exotic children playful curiosity. The “realism” card is frequently overemphasized. For Okyo and his followers it was an important preparatory step, as seen in “Sketches Handscrolls (Scroll 1)” (1771-72), but realism obtained via life drawing was almost never simply an end to the painting process.

Nevertheless, life drawing as a basis for realism was perpetuated by generations of painters following Okyo, as in Mori Tetsuzan’s “True Views of a Domain Road” (late Edo Period, 1603-1868) and Nomura Bunkyo’s “Eight Scenic Views of Omi” (1899). It was subsequently incorporated into the modern art curriculum for Japanese painting in Kyoto.

But shasei by itself was also only one technique for picture making. The more significant artistic model for modern Kyoto painting was provided by Okyo’s colleague and disciple, Matsumura Goshun (1752-1811), as in “Collecting Medicinal Herbs in the Mountains” (late Edo Period).

Goshun emulated the Chinese nanga (Southern school) painting of his teacher, Yosa Buson (1716-84). When Buson passed away, Goshun sought out Okyo, who accepted him more as an equal than a student. While Goshun synthesized some of Okyo’s pictorial subjects, his ensuing Shijo school of painters emphasized only an occasional realism mediated by the pictorial practices derived from indigenized Chinese literati painting.

The perpetuation of Okyo’s pictorial style was only really continued by his direct descendants via the Maruyama school. It is worth comparing the near identical “Peacocks and Peonies” (late Edo Period) by Maruyama Ozui with Okyo’s 1771 painting of the same title. Ozui’s painting was not of course based on drawing from life, but copied from his forebear’s composition. Okyo’s sketches could also become, then, simply copybook models for his successors, somewhat devaluing the master’s “drawn from life” achievements.

“Legendary Kyoto Painting From Maruyama Okyo to the Modern Era” at The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, runs through Dec. 15; ¥1,500. For more information, visit www.momak.go.jp.

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