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CLP 79: 1995 “Nanga Artists Within Nihonga,” Nihonga Symposium, St. Louis Art Museum

Nihonga/Bunjinga talk, St. Louis, Nov. 2-3, 1995


It will be obvious to everyone who has seen exhib. that Jap. ptg. of century after Meiji Restoration cannot be neatly divided into schools & currents, even to degree that earlier Jap. ptg can. School divisions always problematic, although valid & useful; become more so when country suddenly opened to so much from outside at the same time that it is going in so many dif. directions internally.

Category assigned to me, Nanga or Bunjinga (and one of many things I'm not going to attempt in this talk is to distinguish between them) has less "shape," coherence, than, for instance, Shijô-ha (Prof. Sasaki's subject) or Rimpa (Prof. Guth's) or even Ukiyo-e, in same period. When we say these names, something comes into mind's eye. But say Nanga-Bunjinga, and images of Taiga & Buson, Gyokudô and Chikuden, are projected onto our mental screens. Then look at ptgs by artists I'm going to talk about: except for Tessai, and perhaps late Kagaku, not a lot of immediate resemblance. Of course, the divisions are in some part arbitrary; but I'm certainly not criticizing the categorization, espec. as I end up with group of artists & ptgs that on the whole I like, and enjoy talking about.

One thing everybody will agree on: just as dealing with western-style ptg in Meiji-Taishô period immediately raises issue of Japan-and-Europe cultural interactions, so does talking about Nanga raise issue of Japan-and-China. But I assume that that's what I was brought here to do. Nakamura Tanio, in list of school definitions in modern Jap. ptg, defines Bunjinga as: "Ptgs by scholars of Chinese and Japanese literary classics, usually in a Chinese style."[1] Again, this raises all kinds of questions, which I don't want to stop and consider now. Standard accounts of earlier Nanga (including my own old one) stress origins in Chinese painting for their styles; and session topic, "Traditional Sources of Nihonga," would suggest that I am expected to do that for my artists. But as you'll see, that's not what I mean to do. Cultural interaction goes both ways.

Nakamura writes, to quote him again: "Though not accepted by the academic schools, bunjinga was in fashion throughout the Meiji era." And he goes on to say, after a brief characterization of earlier Nanga and mentions of Taiga and Buson, "Though no less popular among art connoisseurs, the literati [i.e. bunjinga] art in the Meiji era, excluded from the fires in which Japanese painting was undergoing a rebirth, appeared to have become stagnant and to have lost its creativity. The advent of Tomioka Tessai in Kyoto, therefore, created a sensation in the art world of Tokyo." This is a good summary of the situation; we have to think of artists who somehow followed the Nanga tradition in the late 19th and early 20th cent. as on the one hand inheriting a movement or mode of ptg that for a half-century or so had been in decline, and on the other hand as open to the scorn of powerful people promoting other directions, such as Fenollosa, who wrote of Bunjinga as "scarcely more than an awkward joke." And we should see their art as produced under these conditions.

S,S. (Photos of Tessai). Since Tessai is older by some decades than any of the others (born in 1836), it's more or less unavoidable that I begin with him. Have to resist temptation to use most of my time for him: I've been deeply involved w. Tessai since my Fulbright year in Kyoto, 1954-55, when I originated U.S. exhibition, helped later with others, most recently one in China; I've written & lectured about him. That's all the more reason for not spending much time on him here. I want only to make a few comments that fit into my theme today.

S --. (Noro Kaiseki, 1836.) One major strength of Tessai was in his avoidance of "pure southern school" approach--that is, ptg that followed orthodox Chinese criteria of good brushwork, pure LS as subject, playing down narrative & anecdotal elements, etc. The faithfulness to Ch. models that was possible for some artists in late period of Nanga, 2nd quarter of 19c and beyond, is part of what brings about its decline. Tessai follows the good examples of Hyakusen and Buson & others in refusing to be constrained by this doctrine; he copies and imitates Ch ptgs of all kinds that came his way, w. kind of sinophile voraciousness.

[1]Nakamura Tanio, Contemporary Japanese-Style Painting, Tokyo and New York, 1967, p. 76.

S,S. (Tessai 1923, "Three Old Buddhas in Shrine", Lo P'ing Vimalakirti.) Many of his sources have been identified, either in particular Ch. ptgs or as types. But to do so doesn't account for much of greatness of Tessai, as it doesn't for Buson. Both profoundly original masters.

S --. Tessai develops mode of painting that combines disciplined fine-line drawing, partly learned from Chinese models, with bold, wet strokes of rich ink that lay out a spatial structure, opening hollows within which figural and narrative elements can be set. (Only one of his compositional types; of course.) Can be used for powerful compositions such as this "Listening to the Rain at a Window by Bamboo," ca. 1920? Tessai's air of spontaneity and semi-controlled splashiness can divert us from recognizing the extraordinary technical mastery that underlies it, keeps it from falling into real sloppiness.

S --. One of paintings in exhibition is this late work, "Founders of Religions Crossing the Sea," 1921--superlative example of this combination of passages of heavy, wetly-applied ink with

-- S. highly controlled dry-brush linear drawing, charged with kind of electric energy. No real precedent for this in Japan, or for that matter in China; beyond reach of Tessai's contemporaries or more recent Chinese masters. Who among them could approach it? Fu Pao-shih? We'll come to him in a bit.

S,S. Many other works of this kind from Tessai's late period, incl. plum ptg in exhib; 1921 ptg of herbalist Sun Tzu-mao.

S,S. Tessai deeply learned in Chinese literature; had special fondness for Su Tung-p'o (born on same day of year.) One of his ptgs based on Su Shih's "Red Cliff" Odes in exhib.

S --. In ptg of 1920, Tessai depicts visit of Su Tung-p'o to monk Fo-yin. Another example of his compositional type in which figural elements in fine inkline set in recessed spaces between broad strokes of deep-black ink.

-- S. And here is ptg, undated but probably from 1940s, by Fu Pao-shih. I make this comparison, not to put down Fu Pao-shih (excellent & original ptr) but to introduce a big point I want to make today: that in 19th & 20th cent., artistic interchange bet. China & Japan a real interchange, by no means one-way; adoptions by Chinese artists from Japanese ptg frequent and important, perhaps more so than other way. Unexplored, almost taboo subject, because of reluctance of Chinese to acknowledge any intrusions on their famous sense of self-sufficiency. Ways in which Nihonga served as sources for Chinese artists big topic for future investigation, when people are willing to risk offending sensitivities of Chinese and talk about it.

S,S. This kind of composition often used by Fu Pao-shih; comes, fairly obviously, from Tessai. Obvious, but no one points it out, least of all Fu Pao-shih himself. (Li K'o-jan, another who was prob. affected, did praise Tessai in essay for cat. of 1988 Tessai exhib. in China, saying that Chinese artists had long known and admired him.)

S,S. This Tessai-esque composition, with fine-line figures in a dense-ink setting, used effectively by Fu, in ptgs that are as original as any in recent times--such cross-cultural derivations entirely healthy, enriching the receiving tradition. Only unhealthy aspect of it is the reluctance of artists or scholars to acknowledge it.

-- S. Tessai himself takes what he wants from all over, in the way good artists do--in this fan in exhib., 1918 ptg of demon-queller Chung K'uei & sister, borrowings are obviously from popular ptg in China as well as Japan (Otsu-e)--probably with some minor nod to west--he must have had some inkling of what was going on in Europe, enjoyed being kind of Japanese fauve. Rich, multi-leveled, boisterous painting, to which ident. of sources largely irrelevant.

S --. Beside these, works by most other artists of time may seem a bit tame. This is by Yokoyama Taikan (1868-1958), painted in1911, autumn scene with traveler titled "Mountain Road." I met the old artist in Tokyo in 1954, when I went there as Fulbright student; drank lots of sake with him, talked. When he discovered I was student of Chinese painting, wanted to discuss art theory of Ku K'ai-chih. By that time, like his contemp. Ch'i Pai-shih in China, had become kind of cultural monument, with his really creative period far in past. (Not so for Tessai, who did greatest work in his eighties.) Taikan belonged to a different, even an opposing faction, being a member of the Tokyo School of Art founded by Okakura in 1889, learning painting from Hashimoto Gahô, and later joining Okakura in founding the Nihon Bijutsu-in or Japanese Academy. Taikan is another who painted subjects from Chinese literature and legend in his early period--the poets Ch'ü Yüan and T'ao Yüan-ming, the Butcher Ting--but he wasn't sinologically learned to the degree that Tessai was; his use of old Chinese subjects was more like the French Academy masters' uses of classical Greek and Roman themes, aimed largely at giving a certain weight and authority to the pictures.

S,S. His "Wheel of Life" from 1923, long handscroll painting that was hailed in its time as a masterwork, but which from more critical viewpoint might be seen as misusing the handscroll form by offering less of interesting visual material per running foot than handscrolls traditionally had offered. As a Tessai fan, I would characterize Taikan as an artist of far less attainment but much more pretention.

S --. (detail). His landscapes sometimes credited with having the richness and resonances of Sung landscapes; I would see them rather as end-products of long process, in which Sesshû also implicated, by which the profundity and meaning, deeply evocative capacity of Sung landscape is progressively drained away, replaced by simplified forms and a dilute spirituality.

-- S. Passage from great Hsia Kuei handscroll. Unfair comparison, perhaps--no recent artist could stand up to Sung academy masters. But brings out, I think, the thinness of Taikan's painting, both formally and expressively. Hard to see it as embodiment of profound religious-philosophical concepts.

-- S. Painting in exhibition, done in 1928, "Spring Dawn Over the Sacred Mountain of Chichibu," done for shrine there, later presented to imperial family. This is Taikan at his best, imparting suitably mystic quality to landscape of specific, hallowed place (in this respect following trad. of Nachi Waterfall etc.) Exemplifies strengths and beauty of Japanese ink-painting trad. as separate from Chinese; quality hard to define but central to appreciating Nihonga; will touch on it later. I'm refraining from showing typical works of Taikan's late period, which consist in too large part of endlessly repetitive pictures of Mt. Fuji.

S.S. Hashimoto Kansetsu (1883-1945) is well known to Chinese painting specialists for his serious engagement with our subject (he had a fine collection, much of it still kept by his family, and wrote an early book on Shih-t'ao), and to Kyoto residents and visitors for his wonderful Hakusa Sansô villa up near the Ginkakuji, open to the public, presenting delights (such as the folksy stone arhats, brought from China and planted on a hillock among tall bamboo) that testify to the combination of highly refined Japanese and sinophile tastes that distinguished the man and his works.

S,S. His early travels in China supply the subject matter of many of his paintings, such as the1914 pair of screens "Land of the South," which embody vividly his response to the riverboat culture of the Chiang-nan region. Paintings such as this also display his high level of technical mastery and visual imagination, in my view quite beyond Taikan. He is classified, properly I think, as more a follower of Takeuchi Seihô and the Shijô School than of any Chinese tradition; he probably shouldn't be included among Nanga masters.

S,S. His 1923 sketch of scene at West Lake at Hangchou, in exhib., along with a slide made there recently. It's possible, of course, for an artist to be passionately devoted to Chinese culture, Chinese scenery, and Chinese painting and still be an essentially Japanese artist, and I would see Kansetsu that way.

S,S. 1939 "Autumn Field" (weasel) and 1941 "Summer Night" (white fox.) His pictures of birds and animals, close in style to Seihô's, are superlative expressions of a Japanese poetic sensibility.

S --. That this style and repertory of subjects were exported to China by the Ling-nan or Canton School artists, Kao Chien-fu and the others, who learned them during their periods of study in Japan, was clearly established by Ralph Croizier in his 1988 book on that school; another example of reversal, so common in late period, of trad. relationship of China and Japan in art. (Paralleled, of course, in literature and other areas of culture where is relatively well established and accepted; not yet so in art. Has to be eventually.)

S,S. With lots of time, I would try to show that Kansetsu's paintings depend less on direct adoptions from Chinese painting than on earlier Japanese masters who worked partly in Chinese-derived styles, such as Tôhaku; I would use such a sequence as this: Mu-ch'i to Tôhaku to

-- S. Kansetsu, and talk about how the finest Japanese ink-monochrome painting of the later centuries develops into a medium quite independent of China, in fact unmatched among Chinese artists of the late period, who mostly limit themselves to other, drier varieties of brushwork and fail to pursue fully the glories of a medium originated by their predecessors.

S --. The Kansetsu painting of a monkey in the exhibition, painted around 1940, represents another kind of domestication in that the animal itself is a thoroughly Japanese beast, with its ancestors native to the islands both zoologically and stylistically--works by Sosen and Seihô and others lie behind the image.

-- S. Somewhere behind all of them, of course, lies Sung painting. (One attrib. to Mao Sung: story.)

S,S. Another case of Chinese adoptions from Japanese painting, and an amusing one, is the late Chang Ta-ch'ien's borrowings from Japanese pictorial sources in producing some of his forgeries of early painting. Chang, who studied in Kyoto in (fill in), took a composition from one of Hashimoto Kansetsu's series of illustrations to the Ch'ang-heng ko, Po Chü-i's poem about Emperor Hsüan-tsung and Yang Kuei-fei, to fabricate a purportedly T'ang-period handscroll which he ascribed to Chang Hsüan. If challenged, he would simply have claimed that Kansetsu had taken it from the T'ang work.

S,S. These are fusuma ptgs in exhib. done around 1940 for Buddhist temple by Kosugi Hôan (1881-1964). He is an artist little known outside Japan; I'm glad to have a chance to talk about him. I came to admire him first at an exhibition of his paintings at the Idemitsu Museum in Tokyo, which has a fine collection of them, since he was a friend of the old Idemitsu. But they haven't published a volume of reproductions of his paintings, nor, so far as I know, is there any such collection available. This has hindered me from following up a line of investigation I've meant to do for years, which I'll speak of in a moment.

S,S. Kosugi Hôan is another who traveled a number of times to China. He had studied in his teens with a western-style oil painter, did illustrations for a magazine edited by the writer Kunikida Doppo, and in 1903, when he was 23, had a job as pictorial reporter in the Russo-Japanese war. (Someone of a different persuasion could present these artists as instruments of Japanese imperialism; that isn't my game.) His Kônan gasatsu, an album of sketches from a trip that he made in 1939 around the Chiang-nan region of China on the invitation of a Japanese railway company, was exhibited in 1947 and published in 1960. It includes affectionate sketches of well-known places such as the Hsi-leng Yin-she, the seal-carving society on the West Lake at Hangchou, but also scenes of the effects of war, such as his drawing of the bombed Commercial Press building in Shanghai. One can read in the pictures some sense of the ambivalent feelings of sinophile Japanese artists and intellectuals about what was happening in China.

S,S. His subjects are drawn from both Chinese and Japanese literature and history; this is the poet Bashô on his travels. Hôan has a special way of using brush, ink, and paper, in which the fibrous surface of the paper, the light touch of the brush, and relatively wet applications of pale colors and ink for a controlled suffusion, produce a distinctive softness in the forms and an atmospheric quality in the picture as a whole. If this looks familiar, it should. The group of us who went around the Idemitsu Museum exhibition (it included, I remember, Mary Ann and Howard Rogers, among others) all had the same immediate, rather surprised response: besides admiring the paintings for their poetic nuances and compositional originality and subtleties of brushwork, we all had a deep sense of deja vu, and went around saying: Fu Pao-shih! Fu Pao-shih! But of course Kosugi Hôan was doing it earlier; in fact, it would appear (this needs more investigation to confirm, but I believe it's true) that he was teaching at the Imperial Academy of Art in Tokyo in 1935 when Fu Pao-shih went there to study.

S --. This slide is made from an Idemitsu Museum postcard--the only reproduction of a Kosugi Hôan painting in their collection that one can buy. The painting represents the Taoist philosopher Chuang-tzu, and Hôan has copied a passage from his writing in the upper left. I show this to visiting Chinese scholars, who glance at it and say, "Oh, Fu Pao-shih," and I reply: "No, it's by Fu Pao-shih's Japanese teacher." This turns them off immediately.

-- S. Fu Pao-shih's figure style, with the distinctively long, mournful faces and fine line drawing, his way of depicting rocks, tree foliage, etc. with broad or scumbled brushstrokes for a soft, atmospheric effect, compositional types, all correspond; and nothing in earlier Chinese painting can supply real sources for these. (Don't have right slides to demonstrate this; but clearly true.) Lacking time to follow up this discovery, I've offered it to a number of specialists in modern Chinese painting, both Japanese and Chinese, as well as to Fu's daughter Fu Yiling, who lives in Tokyo and says she is studying her father's life and works. And I offer it freely to anyone in the audience who wants to pursue it, as no one has so far.

S,S. I will pass quickly over Hyakusui, Usen, and Keisen, since they seem not to fit easily into my theme of Japan and China nor, as a whole, into any definable aftermath of Nanga. One's first impression in looking over the paintings of Hirafuku Hyakusui (this is his "Windswept Seashore" of 1926), that he takes more from Rimpa sources than from anything Chinese, and therefore belongs more in Christine Guth's section,

S,S. is confirmed by his 1914 screens of "Turkeys" in the exhibition, which use the tarashikomi technique in a Sôtatsu-like way, while the portrayal of the birds otherwise recalls Seihô.

S --. His Kôgen or "Highland" of 1931, also in exhib., perhaps echoes Tôhaku's pine screens, but not much; German drawings? Kaspar David Friedrich? He's an artist of considerable interest, and I would like to see more of him.

S,S. Ogawa Usen (1868-1938) is best known for his sardonic, sometimes sinister pictures of kappa, a creature of Japanese folklore that has a special place in the hearts of sophisticated, urban Japanese. His ptgs of them can sometimes look like Waldpurgisnacht visions, as in these works from 1921 and 1923.

S,S. His "Imps in the Field" of 1929, in the exhibition, of course calls up Jakuchû's "Vegetable Nirvana," as well as the many popular scroll-paintings in which insects or mice or other creatures make up processions that parody the pompous daimyô progresses or wedding processions of the human world. These belong in Tsuji Sensei's book on humor in Japanese art.

S,S. Nanga painting, and especially Ikeno Taiga, also lie behind some of his work, notably the landscape "From Time Immemorial," painted in 1930, or the "Fox Procession" of the same year in the exhibition,

-- S. in which the pointillist rendering of the foreground recalls Taiga's characteristic touch. The foxes may remind us of the ones in the Chôjû giga scrolls. In any case, his sources appear to be all firmly within the Japanese painting tradition.

S,S. The same would appear to be true of the work of Tomita Keisen (1879-1936), for whose style, as seen in this handscroll in the exhibition representing the Uji River, painted in 1915, Ikeno Taiga is obviously an important source. But after having made this unenlightening observation, I must confess that I have no way to talk about his paintings.

S,S. A quite different direction, which charges the scene with a kind of mystery, or even mystical quality (which I noted in one Taikan painting, and will note again in late works of Kagaku), is represented by the other Keisen painting in the exhibition, the "Gion Yazakura" (viewing cherry blossoms at night at the Gion shrine) of 1921, and in the landscape screen at left, and in some others of his works. And still others follow different stylistic directions, leaving the foreign art historian, with his urge to make order, admiring but nonplussed. Kawakita and other Japanese scholars put artists such as Hyakusui, Usen, and Keisen into movements or groupings that represent break-aways from the mainline Nihon Bijutsu-in movement headed by Okakura.


-- S. I want finally to turn to the other recent Japanese master whom I myself most admire, along with Tessai: Murakami Kagaku (1888-1939.) I once had plans for a Kagaku exhibition to follow up the very successful Tessai one, but abandoned them when I found out the difficulty of locating and borrowing his works.

Kagaku, born in Osaka, studied art in Kyoto at the School of Arts and Crafts, and later the Art College; he learned the Shijô style, with Takeuchi Seihô as one of his teachers. In 1918 he and Tsuchida Bakusen and others formed a society of their own, the Kokuga Sosaku Kyôkai (Nat'l Ptg Creation Society), as Kawakita puts it "for the purpose of breaking away from the old Shijô School and creating more modern versions of traditional Japanese styles.". Around 1920 he contracted tuberculosis, and later asthma; from 1923 he lived in seclusion in Ashiya, realizing that he didn't have much time left in his life, painting fervently but not prolifically. He admired William Blake's mysticism, and believed that through the religious art of early Japan he could realize what Blake called "vision in a sublime degree." He wrote quite a lot about painting; I'm ashamed to say that I haven't read his writings and can't speak of them.

S,S. Many of his works are religious figure paintings; they include quite a few, his least appealing in my eyes, that represent sweet-faced Bodhisattvas with a kind of Tagorish spirituality laid on thick. Stronger than those are pictures such as these two, a Fudô Myô-ô that adheres fairly closely to old models, and an Arhat in the style used by artists working for the Ch'an Buddhist sect in Sung-Yüan China. To re-create centuries-old manners of painting with such fidelity and sure aesthetic taste is no mean achievement--it is like, perhaps, Rosanjin in ceramics. But it is not these that define Kagaku's stature as an artist.

S,S. The Arhat painting in the exhibition, dating from 1939; and a late Sung painting to represent the original type. I have tried on several earlier occasions to define what qualities allow Japanese suiboku or ink painting of the late period--say from Tôhaku through Miyamoto Niten, Sôtatsu, Gyokudô, etc., down to our Nihonga masters--to become somewhat independent of any Chinese sources. The best formulation I could arrive at--and still not entirely adequate--is to say that in Japanese suiboku, highly refined modulations or variations in ink tonality and brushstrokes shapes and types within the forms that constitute the image are less determined by representational or descriptive concerns, more by considerations that are aesthetic, formal, what is commonly called (somewhat demeaningly) "decorative," meaning sheer visual beauty attained for its own sake. That's certainly true of this, altho this is only one aspect of ptg.

S,S. True also of the peony painting in the exhibition. While Kakagu doubtless has in mind Sung-Yuan paintings such as the one at left, ascribed to Mu-ch'i (different flower, but no matter)--

S --. the sensibility behind the painting, the handling of ink values and shapes, has more in common with Sôtatsu; decidedly Japanese. Addition of green color also in line with Japanese taste, not Chinese.

S,S. Greatness of Kagaku, I believe, lies primarily in his landscape paintings. One on right, titled "February," ptd in 1911 as his graduation picture, exhibited with big success; "Season of Rice Planting" in exhib. is from following year, similarly rep. his early style. Nothing very distinctive in these; only upper part of "February" foreshadows later work. From his retirement into seclusion in Ashiya in 1923, however, he begins to paint landscapes of a new kind. By 1925, date of "Mountains" on left, he had narrowed his vision to pictures of hills around Ashiya and Kobe, and was working in fairly flat, dispersed configurations of curling brushstrokes, in a manner that would have pleased van Gogh.

-- S. This is from 1931. For someone familiar with Kagaku who drives through these hills, going, say, from mts. around Takarazuka (where I stayed many times at Kiyoshi Kôjin Temple) to Rokkô-zan, the Arima Onsen, or the Harihan (most elegant of ryôkan), the wooded hills, espec. on misty day, can suddenly look exactly like Kagaku paintings. As for the style, insofar as there are sources for it they are nowhere in Chinese painting, I think, but

S --. in Japanese Nanga, and especially Uragami Gyokudô, as in this small painting in Asian Art Mus. of S.F. Vibrant, visually absorbing interweavings of curling brushstrokes draw gaze of viewer into depths. Very different in effect, but alike in expressive method.

S.S. A series of small paintings from 1939, the year of his death, including one in the exhibition, "Pine Trees on a Rocky Mountain," which, like one on left sets foreground pines agst. BG hills without really separating them in depth, are the culmination of Kagaku's search for a sublime vision in the mystic mode of William Blake. When we use a word like "mystic" we mean, among other things, that the work transcends conventional understanding, arises out of state of mind and hand that can't be reconstructed and understood even to degree we can for other ptgs. In this case, they are the mind and hand of someone who is dying, and possessed by a visionary fervor that he wants to capture in ptg while he still lives.

S --. One with autumn foliage, same year. These are for me among most deeply moving works in 20th cent. art. With more time, I would try to build around them an argument about how the best Japanese ink painting of the later centuries leaves behind not only derivations from China but also anything that could possibly be called decorative, in pursuit of different goals, among which is this kind of mystic intensity. But my time is more than up, and I must leave my argument only in sketch form, with the hope that you will fill it in for yourselves as you spend more time with the exhibition.

Latest Work

  • Conclusion Conclusion
    VI Conclusion It is time to draw back and look, if not at the whole Hyakusen, at as much of him as we have managed to illuminate in this study. Dark areas remain, and doubtless many distortions, but...
    Read More...

Latest Blog Posts

  • Bedridden Blog
    Bedridden Blog   I am now pretty much confined to bed, and have to recognize this as my future.  It is difficult even to get me out of bed, as happened this morning when they needed to...
    Read More...