Nihonga: Distinctly Japanese Modern Art

“Modern” Japan dates from the Meiji Restoration of 1868.  During the reign of the Emperor Meiji (1868-1912), Japan modernized and Westernized.  This transformation included not only Japan’s political, economic, and education systems, but also various aspects of fine arts.  With respect to the latter, many feared that Japan’s cultural identity might be lost in the process, but instead a broadening has occurred, resulting in new, yet still distinctly Japanese, art forms.  “Nihonga” (literally “Japanese painting”) is one such result.

IMG_6721One of the best places in Tokyo to learn about Nihonga and view some of its greatest examples is the Yamatane Museum of Art in Hiroo. The Yamatane Museum of Art specializes in Nihonga, with regularly-changed exhibitions focused around a particular artist or a particular season.

The current exhibition (through February 25, 2018),  entitled “The Elite of the Tokyo Art World”, features the works of Yokoyama Taikan (1868-1958), regarded by many to be the greatest of Japan’s Nihonga artists. Productive for most of his adult life, Taikan (Japanese artists are commonly referred to by their given name, rather than their family name) was both prolific and influential. The Yamatane Museum of Art owns 40 Taikan works and all of them are included in this exhibition.

So, what is it that makes Nihonga so distinctive? Although the art form incorporates some Western techniques previously unknown (or little used) in Japan, such as perspective and shading to create dimension, it is probably the materials and method of production that are most different from Western art forms. Nihonga doesn’t use paint, per se. Rather, it uses natural materials such as finely ground minerals, gems, or shells, suspended in an animal-based glue.

Because this medium can be runny, the painting is done on a flat surface, rather than an easel, usually on the floor. Further, rather than painting on canvas, the support is usual silk or paper. All of these natural materials are relatively light-sensitive, so usually can only be displayed for brief periods (a couple of months) at a time and then are packed away in temperature and light-controlled storage to “rest”.

IMG_6724Additionally, in principle photography is not allowed in the museum (at least to some degree to avoid the risk of damaging the pieces by inadvertent flash photography).

In a nod to our 21st century lifestyle, for visitors who need to share their visit on social media, there are pictures on the lobby floor that can be photographed for this purpose.

As visitors enter the exhibit, the first painting they see is one selected as representative of the entire exhibit. In the case of “The Elite of the Tokyo Art World”, that painting is one of Taikan’s famous depictions of Mt. Fuji:  his 1937 work “Mt. Fuji, the Sacred Mountain”.

Taikan loved to paint Mt. Fuji, perhaps because in spite of being a static, inaminate object, it is ever-changing, lending itself to multiple depictions. Taikan is known to have produced at least 2,000 Nihonga of Mt. Fuji. Indeed the Japanese say “Taikan to ieba, Fuji” (One cannot speak of Taikan without speaking of Fuji).

The first section of the exhibition depicts the history and evolution of Nihonga, featuring the work of a number of early Nihonga artists, including many who taught Taikan at the Tokyo Bijutsu Gakko (Tokyo School of Art), which later became the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. These works show how the early Nihonga artists experimented with light and shadow as they developed the genre.

Notwithstanding the museum’s prohibition on photography, for each exhibit, one item, always clearly marked, is allowed to be photographed.  In this exhibit, it is Taikan’s 1916 screen entitled “Sakuemon’s House”. The vivid greens are produced by finely-ground malachite, but perhaps even more interesting is the yellow-y background, which was produced by applying gold leaf to the reverse side of the silk on which this scene is painted. This technique was pioneered, and frequently used by, Taikan. Several of his works in this exhibition, painted on both silk and paper, feature this technique.

Another example of the use of malachite for pigment is seen in many of the pine trees painted by Taikan, which are so dark that at first glance one might assume are black. On closer examination, one sees that they are a very dark green, produce by grinding and then burning the malachite.

The more one looks at Nihonga, the more one realizes that the materials used are expensive and often painstaking to produce. One begins to wonder how Taikan was able to be so prolific.

While Taikan was particularly known for his paintings of Mt. Fuji (and five are featured in this exhibition), the exhibition’s star attraction–at least on the day I visited–seems to be his paintings of cherry blossoms. Interesting, Taikan preferred to paint mountain cherries, trees which bloom late enough in the season that there are already leaves on the tree when the blossoms appear.

Be on the lookout also for “Divine Spirit: Mt. Fuji”. There is an interesting story as to how this painting came into the Yamatane collection. Apparently Yamazaki Taneji, a successful banker and patron of Taikan, really loved this painting and tried several times to purchase it from Taikan, who also loved it and was unwilling to part with it. Finally Taikan said that he would sell the painting to Yamazaki, whose nickname was Yamatane (a mash-up of his family and given names), on condition that Yamazaki create an art museum and exhibit the work from time to time. Yamazaki undertook to do so, and thus was born the Yamatane Museum of Art , although the museum did not actually open until 1966, eight years after Taikan’s death.

IMG_6720The final wall of the main exhibition features Nihonga by artists who were strongly influenced by Taikan’s work.

Don’t miss the small exhibition room nestled behind the gift shop.  Here you will always find a few hidden treasures, this time including Higashiyama Kaii’s 1968 “End of the Year”, a peaceful depiction of snow falling on Kyoto rooftops. It is said that Nobel laureate Kawabata Yasunari urged Higashiyama to “paint Kyoto now, before it disappears”. The deep blue color in this painting, produced using azurite, was so frequently used by Higashiyama that it is often referred to in art circles as “Higashiyama Blue”.

The Yamatane Museum of Art is also the home of Cafe Tsubaki, a coffee shop in the lobby that specializes in wagashi (Japanese sweets).  Particularly fun and interesting here are the sweets specially designed to match selected works in the current exhibition, allowing you to feast your eyes and then also reward your taste buds.

Not only does the menu show the work of art being copied in the wagashi sweet, but the display panels in the exhibition also feature a small flower mark to highlight to visitors than there is a sweet in Cafe Tsubaki inspired by the particular work.

After the current exhibition closes on February 25, the museum will be closed for a couple of weeks to prepare its next exhibition, “Sakura 2018”, which will open March 10, 2018.  Mark your calendars, so you don’t miss it!

Address:  3-12-36 Hiroo, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
Hours:  Tuesday through Sunday, 10 am to 5 pm
Access:  10 minute walk from Ebisu Station
Admission:  Adults – JPY1,000; Students – JPY800; Jr. High students and younger – free.  Group discounts available. Repeat visitors to an exhibition can enter for the group discount price by showing the ticket from their previous visit.

Special thanks to the kind staff of the Yamatane Museum of Art and Alice Gordenker for their thorough explanations and kind support.

© 2018 and Vicki L. Beyer
We’re thrilled if you share this; if you want to re-use in any other way, please request permission.

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