- Japanese: 日本画 (Nihonga)
Nihonga (lit. "Japan pictures" or "Japanese painting") is a term applied broadly to Japanese paintings of the Meiji period and onwards which employ traditional media and techniques. Also called "neo-traditional" painting, the term Nihonga, along with the movement or genre itself, emerged around the 1880s as a reaction against the prominence of yôga (Western-style oil painting) and the decline of traditional modes of painting. The style has been described as "modernist," and combines elements of the style and techniques of Rinpa, Kanô school, Tosa school, ukiyo-e, literati painting, and other traditional painting schools with elements of Western technique and style including perspective, shading and modeling, attention to light sources and shadow, the absence of outline, and a degree of realism or naturalism, in compositions which most often feature traditional subjects or themes. Works are done not in oils, acrylics, pencil, charcoal, or other Western media, but in ink and colors on paper or silk, on hanging scrolls, handscrolls, folding screens, or other traditional formats. Gold and silver foil, mica, and other such materials employed by Rinpa, Kanô, and ukiyo-e artists are also sometimes used.
In all of this, Nihonga bears similarities with shin hanga, which might truly be described as the prints equivalent to what Nihonga is in the realm of painting. Shin hanga employed elements of ukiyo-e style and process, combining these with shadows, perspective, a degree of realism, and other elements of Western art, to depict scenes of traditional Japan, especially for Western audiences.
Galleries in Japan, artists' groups, and painters themselves continue to apply the term Nihonga to works produced today, and indeed Nihonga painters today continue to be commissioned to create works for traditional contexts. For example, the temples of Kennin-ji and Kenchô-ji employed painter Koizumi Junsaku to create dragon paintings for their ceilings in 2000-2002. The period from roughly the 1880s to 1930s, however, can be discussed as the real core period of the development of Nihonga, with the question of what constitutes Nihonga in the post-war period becoming much more contested and debatable, as many artists begin to experiment and to deviate further from either traditional themes and subjects or traditional media and techniques.
Nihonga emerged out of a reaction against movements to fully embrace Western painting styles and techniques as part of the surge towards modernity, discarding traditional Japanese painting as non-modern, as backwards and as being "of the past." It was developed also, in part, out of a desire to establish a "national" form of painting.
It is important to note, however, that a great many artists produced works in both the Nihonga and yôga modes, studying in one first before switching to the other, or dabbling simultaneously in both. This was a time when the art world was highly politicized, with rivalries between Tokyo and Kyoto, and between various factions within both Nihonga and yôga; art historian Ellen Conant has argued that the efforts of Fenollosa and Okakura polarized unnecessarily, an influence that lasted at least until 1907, when Okakura served as a judge at the first Ministry of Education Juried Exhibition. Yet, at the same time, many artists still had their feet in both Nihonga and yôga circles, or practiced one before switching to the other.
It is also important to note that it was certainly not the case that schools of traditional painting had died out or stopped entirely at this time, or that Kanô, Rinpa, Tosa, ukiyo-e, and literati painters had put down their brushes to pick up Western-style brushes for oils. Despite the rapid and dramatic changes the country had seen since the opening of ports to the West in 1854, and the Meiji Restoration in 1868, all of these schools, and others, continued, many of them as vibrant as ever, showing little or no discontinuities or shocks from the developments of these decades. Kanô and literati artists, and others with strongly artistically conservative foundations, especially those based in and around Kyoto, and those with strong connections to the kind of patrons, such as temples, which demanded traditional style artworks, were shielded to some extent from the rapid changes going on in Tokyo, and in less traditional sectors of society. Many of these artists also found work through commissions from the government, or in working at museums, including on conservation efforts.
Ukiyo-e represents the other side of the scale. A fundamentally popular, that is, commoner, art, subject to the market, to popular demand, and to current/contemporary trends and fads throughout its history, ukiyo-e of the Bakumatsu and Meiji periods reflected the changes seen in society. Yokohama-e featured foreigners, their ships, buildings, and fashions, while the work of Kobayashi Kiyochika and others depicted a changing, modernizing, Westernizing Tokyo, complete with gas lamps, horse carriages, rickshaws, and the like; Kiyochika and other artists also depicted battles and wars overseas and at home, depicting scenes from the 1874 Taiwan Expedition, Satsuma Rebellion, Sino-Japanese War, and Russo-Japanese War in a more realistic and detailed style which some scholars have described as the sign of clear decline in the art form.
Though growing out of a fusion or synthesis of a number of painting traditions each of which were centuries old, the seeds for the Nihonga movement can be said to have been sown by the emergence of that which it railed against.
A group called the Ryûchikai, or "Dragon Pond Society," had been formed in 1878 by Kuki Ryûichi and a number of other officials involved in Japan's participation in international expositions to promote the production of the type of works highly valued by Westerners - that is, oil paintings, in certain styles, and of certain subjects - so as to enhance Japan's prestige and acceptance as a "modern" nation-state and equal member of the international community. This was compounded by government interest in Western artistic techniques as a means of capturing the world realistically, something with profound practical utility in a variety of fields, including engineering and documentary purposes.
By 1888, however, the painter Matsuoka Hisashi, returning to Japan after studying for eight years in Rome, remarked that where the Japan he had left was one fanatical about Western civilization, the one he returned to was characterized by arguments to preserve a national essence - arguments that formed a strong opposition against total Westernization, and which were perhaps so strong that yôga painters might even, at times, be accused of being traitors to the nation.
Credit for encouraging this shift is usually given chiefly to Ernest Fenollosa, who had come to Japan in 1878, along with his former student Okakura Kakuzô, though surely such a change involved a complex set of actors and influences beyond the actions of Fenollosa and Okakura alone.
The two founded the Kangakai ("Painting Appreciation Society") in 1884 after presenting a highly critical speech to the Ryûchikai two years earlier. The pair, along with a number of artists and others who constituted this Society, worked to combat the shift to Western modes of art, and to promote an appreciation of the beauty of the traditional arts, and the value of Japan maintaining or creating its own distinctive national tradition of painting, rather than simply emulating that of the West.
Fenollosa did not regard ukiyo-e or certain other styles particularly highly, but was strongly interested in Buddhist art and in Kanô school painting, and worked with Kanô Hôgai to create a new national form of Japanese painting, which would incorporate Western techniques such as shading and modeling of forms, light and shadow, and linear perspective, and would focus on inherently Japanese themes which might appeal throughout the country. He focused especially on Buddhist imagery, believing this to be something which was innately Japanese and meaningful throughout Japan. Hôgai's "Kannon as Merciful Mother" (1883) and "Fudô Myôô" (1887) are two examples of this style envisioned and championed by Fenollosa.
Fenollosa and Okakura founded the Tokyo Bijutsu Gakkô (Tokyo School of Fine Arts) in 1889, the first art school in Japan dedicated to teaching traditional painting styles and methods. This represented a dramatic change from the traditional studio system of art education, in which artists studied closely and intensively under a single master, and in which schools or styles were strictly separate. Traditionally one might study under a particular Kanô artist in his personal atelier, becoming inserted into his lineage of teachers and disciples, and being dismissed from his tutelage if one began to practice under a master of, for example, ukiyo-e or the Tosa school. Here, elements of all of these schools of painting - in ink and mineral pigments on paper or silk - were combined into a single new "school" or style of painting, called Nihonga, and classes more closely resembled the Western mode of art education; students studied under a number of different teachers, and learned more directly and more quickly (rather than merely learning by observation, only progressing to copying, and then much later to producing one's own original compositions after lengthy periods). Many of the most prominent Tokyo Nihonga painters of the time, including Kanô Hôgai, Hashimoto Gahô, and Yokoyama Taikan, taught at the school at one time or another.
Fenollosa left Japan for the United States in 1890, and Okakura took over as director of the school for a number of years. However, he soon came to face opposition from certain factions within the school, and from the Ministry of Education, and was forced to resign in 1898, forming the Nihon Bijutsu-in (Japan Art Institute) along with a number of artists (painting teachers) who followed him in resigning.
Most of the most prominent Nihonga artists traveled, studied, and showed abroad. To name just a few examples, Kanô Hôgai's "Kannon as Merciful Mother" was shown at the Paris Salon in 1883, and Yokoyama Taikan and Hishida Shunsô traveled to India in 1903 and to Europe and the US afterward, while Shimomura Kanzan studied in England, funded by the Ministry of Education.
Based on the Western model of the Salon, or juried exhibition, the Bunten, or Ministry of Education Exhibition, was established in 1907. This and other exhibitions, many created as alternatives to the Bunten, as many artists saw themselves excluded due to political rivalries and officials' tastes, ran annually or semi-annually, becoming the chief venues for national art. Artists throughout the country strove to be seen at the Bunten, or other national shows, and more local shows declined. The Bunten was initially divided into sections for Nihonga, yôga, and sculpture, with separate judges (and display galleries) for each section. Many scholars identify this as having impeded creative development and cross-interactions between traditional and Western styles and techniques, and as having polarized the art world unnecessarily, forcing artists (and individual works) to be seen as either Nihonga or yôga, one side or the other.
Some famous paintings of this period include the hanging scroll landscape "White Clouds, Red Leaves" (1890) by Hashimoto Gahô and "Fallen Leaves" (1909) by Hishida Shunsô, a pair of two-panel folding screens (byôbu), both of which display traditional themes in traditional formats in traditional media, with a combination of new, Western techniques and stylistic elements with those taken from the Kanô, Rinpa, and other schools. Yokoyama Taikan's "Floating Lights" (1909), a hanging scroll painting in mineral pigments on silk, employs traditional bijinga conventions to depict a scene in India, featuring Indian women in Indian garments (albeit with very pale faces and Japanese-looking features).
Taikan also at this time, significantly, built upon a mode or style developed by Hishida Shunsô known as môrôtai (murky, or muddy, style), in which outline is dispensed with entirely; many of the works for which Taikan is most famous dispense with form entirely, not to depict purely abstractions, but employing fields of color, blending into one another (or fading into the unpainted background) to depict waves, mist, clouds, or the like.
The decline of calligraphy over the course of the Meiji period had a considerable impact upon Nihonga as well, as poetry and literary sensibilities began to become distanced from the visual arts, and painters came to include fewer, or briefer, inscriptions on their paintings. The centuries-old tradition of inscribing one's paintings with lengthy poetry or prose, producing a sort of back-and-forth relationship between text and image, gave way to an art form dominated exclusively by the image.
The Second Generation: 1910s-1930s
The term Nihonga, meaning "Japanese painting," came into regular usage within the art community from around 1883, being used especially in order to contrast works in traditional media with yôga, that is, works in Western media, especially oils. The first appearance of the term in a dictionary was in 1914, in the Bijutsu jiten ("Encyclopedia of Art") compiled by Ishii Hakutei, Kuroda Hôshin, and Yûki Somei.
After Okakura's death in 1913, Taikan, Shimomura Kanzan, and a number of other artists took over as the leaders of the movement in Tokyo. With Gahô and Shunsô also having died by this time, Taikan lost influence, and was expelled from the jury of the Bunten in 1914. Revitalizing the Nihon Bijutsu-in, he and his fellows then organized, alternative annual juried exhibitions known as the Inten.
The Bunten, as it continued, brought visibility and popularity to Nihonga; by the 10th annual exhibition in 1916, the Bunten saw nearly 250,000 attendees, and many sales, not only to some small select group of collectors, but more widely and more popularly. However, the exhibitions (renamed Teiten, or "Imperial Exhibitions" in 1919), remained highly political, and conservative, rejecting works that were too progressive, experimental, or creative, as well as those by artists outside of the circles of the judges; many judges gave preference to their own students. While the Teiten did continue to serve an important role in maintaining a degree of visibility for, and popular interest in, Nihonga, by serving as the national exhibition, pretending to be open to all and to represent all factions while actually being highly political and biased, the Teiten, like the Bunten before it, actually exacerbated factional rivalries, such as those between the Tokyo School of Fine Arts, the Japan Art Institute, and the Japan Art Association (Nihon Bijutsu Kyôkai).
Yasuda Yukihiko, along with Imamura Shikô and a number of others, meanwhile, founded a group known as the Kôjikai sometime in the first decade of the 1900s, which, along with the Nihon Bijutsu-in, with which there was little or no rivalry, served as the focus of the movement for a time. Maeda Seison and Kobayashi Kokei, who joined this society in 1907 and 1901, respectively, represent two other particularly prominent members of this second generation of Nihonga painters.
Nihonga paintings of this period, as of the previous period, vary widely in their subjects, and to a great extent in their style as well. While one of Imamura Shikô's more famous works depicts scenes in the tropics (based on a trip to India in 1914) on a handscroll in a lighter palette and a style resembling literati painting more closely than anything else, works such as "Amidadô" (1915) by Kobayashi Kokei and "Yoritomo in a Cave" (1929) by Maeda Seison employed bold colors to depict historical scenes and sites.
This period saw a great boom of interest among the painters (and more widely) in historical fashions, ancient treasures, and the like. Many artists traveling in the West, or in Kyoto and Nara, studied great treasures of the past, including profoundly famous and art historically significant Chinese works, and Japanese works which had been inaccessible either because of their location overseas, or secreted away in temples, shrines, or other private collections. One example of a famous work studied and copied by Nihonga artists at this time is the so-called "Admonitions Scroll" attributed to Gu Kaizhi (c. 344 - c. 406), acquired by the British Museum in 1903, which Kobayashi Kokei and Maeda Seison studied and copied on a trip to London in 1922. Kawabata Ryûshi, meanwhile, sometime around 1913-14, visited the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where a great many treasures of Japanese art collected by Fenollosa and Okakura, including the Kamakura period handscroll painting of "The Siege of the Sanjô Palace", were now held. Works such as Maeda Seison's "Yoritomo in a Cave" and "Falling Flowers" (1904) by Kikuchi Keigetsu reveal extensive familiarity with the details of armor and other military accouterments of the time of the Genpei War (1180s).
In this way, Nihonga represented for both artists and viewers a rediscovery of many elements of Japanese artistic and cultural history. Artists not only experimented with themes already popularly familiar, but also, revealing extensive research and/or intimate familiarity with historical material culture, unveiled new works making once again visible themes or subjects that had perhaps been forgotten. Some painters, when they depicted Heian court ladies, displayed their knowledge and understanding of the correct combinations of colors of layers of the court robes. Imamura Shikô expanded upon the classic "Eight Views of Ômi" motif by actually travelling to Lake Biwa and sketching scenes from life, something no ukiyo-e or ink landscape artist would have done; Masuda Gyokujô painted bijinga depictions of Kasamori Osen, the teashop girl made famous by Suzuki Harunobu in the late 1760s.
While many artists continued to depict fully traditional (read: pre-Meiji) scenes, the 1920s saw a significant increase in the production of works depicting contemporary, modern life, and of portraits painted from life. Dômoto Inshô's "Hill" (1924) and Ikeda Yôson's "Snow in Osaka" (1928) are particularly well-known examples of this.
The Home Ministry (Naimushô) ordered the retitling and reorganization of art magazines in 1941; publications about Nihonga came to have titles like Kokuga ("National Painting") and Kokumin bijutsu ("Citizens' Art"), while yôga publications had names like Shin bijutsu ("New Art"). Nihonga continued to be considered the "national" art form.
Though Yokoyama Taikan, Hishida Shunsô, Yasuda Yukihiko, and Imamura Shiko, among others, spent time in Kyoto and Nara, teaching, painting, and studying ancient and historical treasures, Kyoto had vibrant and active neo-traditional movements of its own, more directly linked to the continuation, or transformation, of lineages of painters in a variety of traditions, especially those trained in the Maruyama and Shijô schools, which had been leading the way in incorporating aspects of Western techniques and modes, including naturalism, sketches from life, and the modeling of volume, since the mid-18th century.
All in all, Kyoto saw far less cultural & social disruption in the 1850s-1870s than did Tokyo. As a result, the line between Nihonga and what came before is more blurred as it applies to Kyoto painters, many of whom are included among ukiyo-e artists (e.g. Kawanabe Kyôsai) or literati painters (e.g. Tomioka Tessai) in accounts of Edo period art, and also sometimes described as Nihonga artists. Similarly, literati painting in and around Kyoto is considered in some accounts to have continued straight into the 20th century; an exhibition entitled "Literati Modern" organized by the Honolulu Academy of the Arts included a great many artists who are commonly labeled as Nihonga artists.
Surprisingly, despite the historical separations between schools of traditional arts (i.e. the inability to study under multiple masters from different schools at once), Kyoto also saw far less factionalism in Nihonga than Tokyo. In fact, Tokyo artists often sought collaborations and support from Kyoto artists rather than seeking to collaborate with their rivals in other Tokyo-based groups. (Yôga in Kyoto, on the other hand, was quite factionalized.)
A leading figure in the emergence of Nihonga in Kyoto was Takeuchi Seihô, who studied under Maruyama-Shijô painter Kôno Bairei and who is perhaps best known for his "Moon Over Venice" (1904), which is done, of course, entirely in traditional materials and format (ink on paper hanging scroll), but in rather Western styles, the work resembling to a great extent depictions of the same site by the English painter J.M.W. Turner.
Uemura Shôen, the first woman to receive the Order of Cultural Merit, and a student of Seihô's, was hardly the only prominent woman Nihonga artist active in Kyoto at this time; though very few, if any, women artists are cited as being prominent in Tokyo Nihonga, Kyoto-based women Nihonga painters were fairly numerous and prominent. Nevertheless, Shôen has been described as "Japan's most notable female painter of the pre-World War II period," and is known (as are most female Nihonga artists) primarily for her bijinga.
While many Nihonga artists in both Kyoto and Tokyo painted bijinga which depicted women in traditional clothing and settings, happy, demure, or more or less emotionless, many, such as Kajiwara Hisako and Kakiuchi Seiyô were particularly innovative in depicting women in Western clothes and modern scenes, and showing emotions such as exhaustion, worry, and pensiveness. Many other Nihonga artists similarly portrayed aspects of modern life in their paintings as well; though the movement is defined by its use of traditional media and techniques and/or traditional themes and subjects, it is not strictly limited to the latter.
While the Bunten (later, Teiten), Inten, and other major juried exhibitions were centered on Tokyo, the Shinko bijutsuhin ten ("Exhibition of New and Old Art"), first organized by the Kyoto Art Association (Kyoto Bijutsu Kyôkai) in 1888, played a major role in Kyoto. By displaying historical treasures alongside newer works in traditional modes, the exhibitions sought to highlight and celebrate continuation while at the same time promoting development and progress. Works of calligraphy were included and treated more or less as a true continuation of the traditional art form, but new works of painting were not labeled by the names of any of the traditional schools (e.g. Kanô, Shijô, Tosa), signifying the shift that had already taken place in the Kyoto art world.
Wartime Nihonga (1930s-1945)
The extent to which one artist or another supported the militarism of the 1930s-early 40s remains hotly debated, as can be said equally for writers and countless other members of society. Beginning in the late 1930s, art exhibitions were limited almost exclusively to those organized by the government and showing patriotic works. Many prominent Nihonga artists continued to produce works during this time, shifting to patriotic themes such as depictions of Mt. Fuji, yet, for many of them it is argued that to one extent or another they were opposed to the war and the militaristic direction the country had taken, but produced these sorts of works in order to make a living, and to avoid attracting attention as detractors. It is of course natural that artists would, after the war, claim they never supported it to begin with, for fear of being ostracized or seen in a bad light in the reversed political climate of the post-war; and it is of course natural for scholars, art critics, and the like to want to believe that their favorite pre-war artists could not be implicated in the ultranationalism and militarism of the wartime period.
Thus, the debate continues, and without letters or other documentary evidence, we may never be able to know the extent to which this artist or that artist supported the government's propaganda machine enthusiastically and willingly. However, without passing judgment upon them for it, it is known that Uemura Shôen contributed monetarily to the war effort, and that Yokoyama Taikan headed the Japan Art Patriotic Society, and was employed directly by the government to produce paintings with nationalistic themes, including especially images of Mt. Fuji.
Many artists also at this time produced images of scenes in China, Manchuria, and elsewhere, which can be analysed and interpreted as contributing to (or emerging from) a colonialistic and imperialistic discourse.
Post-War Nihonga (1945 to present)
In the years immediately after the end of World War II, artists sought to put the ultra-nationalism and propagandistic implications of the previous decade or so behind them, and to return to what Nihonga had been in the pre-war. Kawabata Ryûshi made a number of trips within Japan, including retracing the famous journey recounted in Matsuo Bashô's collection of haiku "Ôku no Hosomichi", and painting scenes of historical or cultural importance, such as the Yômeimon of Nikkô Tôshôgû and Ama-no-Hashidate, recalling pre-war works such as Kobayashi Kokei's 1916 painting of the Byôdôin, entitled "Amida-dô", mentioned above.
The government-organized Teiten exhibitions, which had their start as the Bunten and which were suspended due to the threat of air raids, were restarted and reorganized as the Nitten, or "Japan Exhibition," and shows such as the Inten continued as well.
But while the general art-buying / exhibition-going populace was still fairly conservative in its tastes compared to Western audiences who had long ago fallen in love with Cubism, Fauvism, Surrealism, and the like, there began to emerge a feeling of a disconnect among younger artists, who wished to create works more connected to their own experiences and to the Japan they knew. Many felt that the pre-war modes to which many older artists were now returning were too closely tied to the same ideological trends which led to militarism in the first place, were too disconnected from the realities of contemporary life, and were simply too conservative and not forward-looking enough.
The 1960s thus saw a profound shift in Nihonga, as abstraction began to have a much more powerful impact upon the more prominent Nihonga artists. Though many local artists and hobbyists continued to produce ink paintings as they always had, many of those more actively engaged in the national and international art world, such as Dômoto Inshô, now began to produce abstract works largely indistinguishable from those created by their Western counterparts (and Japanese counterparts working in Western media) except in media.
Though many in Japan continue to produce works in traditional media, and/or on traditional themes, calling themselves Nihonga artists, and being shown in shows which bill them and their work as such, very few if any are prominent in the national or international art world. While art associations continue to rent out spaces in Kyoto and elsewhere to show their works, curated exhibitions of Nihonga at major art museums in Japan and overseas focus primarily on pre-war artworks.
The 1990s to 2000s has seen the rise of what might be termed "neo-Nihonga," as many artists have turned once again to seeking to depict distinctively Japanese themes and subjects in their work, emphasizing or exploring Japanese identity and celebrating Japanese artistic traditions. Though these artists, including Yamaguchi Akira, Tenmyouya Hisashi, and Yamamoto Tarô, tend to work more in oils, digital editing, and other non-traditional media, their works heavily incorporate traditional styles, and references to specific famous historical works, combining these with references to contemporary commercial culture by way of social commentary, or simply fun juxtapositions and explorations of contemporary Japanese identity.
- Conant, Ellen (ed.). Nihonga: Transcending the Past. The Saint Louis Art Museum, 1995.
- Mason, Penelope. History of Japanese Art. Second Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005. pp363-370.
- Morioka, Michiyo and Paul Berry. Modern Masters of Kyoto. Seattle Art Museum, 2000.
- Takahashi Tomoko. "Interview. Webmagazine i-sys (アイシス). 14 January 2005. (Translation by User:LordAmeth available here.)
- Conant. p14.
- Lane, Richard. Images from the Floating World. Old Saybrook, CT: Konecky & Konecky, 1978. pp193ff.
- John Clark, Modernities of Japanese Art, Brill (2013), 83.
- Though credited with an extremely influential role in the promotion of the appreciation of Japanese artistic traditions at this time, Fenollosa and Okakura were not the only ones, nor the first ones, to advocate such positions. Italian engraver Edoardo Chiossone had suggested to the Meiji government a few years prior to Fenollosa's arrival in Japan that the government ought to perform surveys of historical sites, ancient monuments, and artistic treasures.
- Initially the school did not teach literati painting, but this, as well as Western modes of painting would later be added to the curriculum.
- Morioka and Berry, Modern Masters of Kyoto, 18.
- Szostak, John. "Kikuchi Keigetsu 菊池契月 "Falling Flowers" 落花, 1904." Nihonga Research (blog). 28 September 2010.
- Berry, Paul and Michiyo Morioka (eds.) Literati Modern: Bunjinga from Late Edo to Twentieth-Century Japan. Honolulu: Honolulu Academy of Arts, 2008.
- Mason. p369.