Landscape after Mi Fu

Fukuda Kodojin – Landscapes

Fukuda Kodojin (1865-1944) was among a handful of scholar-artists who continued the tradition of literati painting (nanga) after 1900. Kodojin’s painting style is characterised by bizarre mountain forms rendered in vivid colour or monochromatic ink that often include a solitary scholar enjoying the expansive beauty of nature.

In addition to painting, Kodojin was also an accomplished poet and calligrapher with deep knowledge of Chinese literature. In the late 1920s, a group of prominent admirers that included the then-prime minister of Japan, members of parliament, industrialists, scholars, and educators created a society to honour Kodojin and his poetry and paintings. Following his death, the artist slipped into obscurity; today he is better appreciated outside his native Japan

Extensive Research

Over the last 15 years, Dr Andreas Marks, Mary Griggs Burke Curator of Japanese and Korean Art and Director of the Clark Center for Japanese Art at Mia, has conducted extensive research into the life and work of Fukuda Kodojin, including visits to his descendants in Japan – the research saw the discovery of 800 paintings and calligraphies and over 1,000 poems. The outcome is recorded in a book, published by Tuttle, which accompanies the exhibition. More than 50 paintings in the exhibition highlight Kodojin’s versatility, from simple abstraction to highly detailed landscapes. In recent decades, his unique and unconventional style has intrigued audiences in the US and Europe.

In his introduction to the artist, Dr Marks writes in the catalogue that ‘in recent decades, art historians in the West have made attempts to re-evaluate the understanding of when the tradition of literati or scholar-poet painter (nanga or bunjinga) ended in Japan. It was initially held that this tradition disappeared with the end of the Edo period (1603-1868) and the beginning of the Meiji era in 1868, and that Tomioka Tessai (1837-1924), an artist who worked into the 1920s, was acknowledged as the last Japanese nanga artist. But there were several others after Tessai who kept this art form alive. Irie Shikai (1862-after 1938) and Fukuda Kodojin (1865-1944) both had ‘fan clubs’ of influential admirers from elite society. Komuro Suiun (1874-1945), founder of the Nanga Appreciation Society (Nanga Kanshokai) in 1932, was honoured with the title of Imperial Household Artist in 1944. Shirakura Jiho (1898-1970) and Yano Tetsuzan (1894-1975) were driving forces in the continuation of the nanga style following the Asia-Pacific War (1941-45)’.

Fukuda Kodojin Calligraphy

Fukuda Kodojin’s calligraphy ranges from simple oblong poetry sheets (tanzaku), with a verse of just a few characters and roughly one-third the size of a sheet of paper that could be produced in a moment’s time, to large more involved hanging scrolls with up to seven lines of text comprising more than one hundred characters.

Equally, his paintings consist of compositions that range from a modest hut and trees rendered with the minimum of brushstrokes and a brief inscription to painstakingly detailed polychrome landscapes that would have taken several weeks to complete. The considerable number of the artist’s simple, and often staid, works that are today circulating in the art market have tainted his image in Japan as a painter in an already competitive field given the countless talented artists in the country’s long art history. These ‘minor’ works should not be underestimated, however, as they targeted less affluent patrons whose priority was his poetry and who viewed his accompanying paintings as secondary. Kodojin and his fellow artists would have clearly understood the different levels of their art practice and set the prices for their work accordingly.

The second earliest painting by the artist in the exhibition is Blue-Green Landscape from September 1901. Blue-Green Landscape is a formative work in Fukuda Kodojin’s oeuvre for two reasons: its size and palette. Although in height it is only slightly taller than his average landscapes after this time, it is approximately double in width, making it the largest of Kodojin’s documented hanging scrolls. This work is particular noteworthy because it figures so early in his painting career. Given the absence of other such monumentally sized works, we might assume that this painting posed a technical challenge to Kodojin and that he decided against working in this scale in the future. Moreover, this is the earliest known example of Kodojin’s use of a blue-green colour palette for a landscape.

Fukuda Kodojin – Later Landcapes

Dr Marks goes on to discuss later landscapes of the artist represented in the exhibition, explaining that the six paintings comprising Album of What Exists (1907) are all ink landscapes that offer a range of scenic views and how to render them. Included, for the first time, is a Mi Fu-style mountain range that he would frequently revisit throughout the remainder of his career. Three of the six landscapes picture a lone scholar – the recluse who abandoned his ranks to retire into the mountains—a popular concept in Chinese painting that Kodojin appropriated. Mi Fu is acknowledged as one of the four greatest calligraphers of the Song dynasty (960–1279). No definitely authenticated works by Mi Fu exist, however, but his distinctive style of rendering mountains without outlines through the use of wet dots of ink (so-called ‘Mi dots’) had become popular during the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). Kodojin discovered his own affection for these misty scenes

Kodoojin can perhaps be seen as a more ambivalent figure than any of his 20th-century peers due to his extraordinary prolificacy as both poet and painter. Except for the three publications released during Kodojin’s lifetime that illustrate his paintings, Poems and Paintings by Kodojin (Kodojin shiga, 1919), Withered Trees and an Abundance of Spring (Koboku yoshun, 1927), and Rock Slivers and Lonely Clouds (Koun henseki, 1929), he left no lists or records of his paintings. This first retrospective of his work rectifies this gap.

Until 31 July, 2023, Minneapolis Institute of Art, artsmia.org