Modern Japanese Art

An exhibition at Honolulu Museum of Art is shaped around a recent major gift from one of the museum’s benefactors, allowing them to explore a fascinating period in Japanese art, comprising paintings, ceramics and lacquerware produced between the 1870s and 1950s. The art can be seen as a response to the changes Japanese society underwent from a feudal to modern society.

The curator of Asian Art at the museum, Shawn Eichman, expanded on the theme, ‘The exhibition title “Transformation” describes the metamorphosis that Japanese art underwent as it responded to and helped actively shape dramatic social changes. Remarkably, modernisation inspired a renewed interest in Japan’s own artistic heritage to create a renaissance of traditional Japanese culture reimagined as an expression of modern national identity’. To reflect this, the show is divided into four themes to demonstrate the ways in which Japanese art was reinvented during this new modern period: Modernity and Nostalgia; Art Education; National Standards; and Continental Influence.

Edo Period

The tremendous social shifts experienced in the modern age, prior to the Meiji period (1868-1912), illustrate the gulf between the old Japan, which was cut off from the modern world in a state of near isolation, and what was happening in the West. During the Edo shogunate, trade and contact with the West was strictly monitored with a small number of foreigners being allowed to trade in Japan. However, this ended with the forcible opening-up of the country in 1853 and the fall of the shogunate and the restoration of the Meiji emperor. In the early years of this Meiji period, the new government aggressively pursued Westernisation, inviting foreign advisors to play a role in establishing key agencies and new training schools, including the Tokyo Fine Arts School where, initially, teaching of traditional art was not included in the curriculum.

Eichman writes, ‘Modernisation brought profound change to all aspects of Japanese society. The arts both reflected and actively shaped this change as Japanese artists responded to industrialisation. Ironically public education, initially intended to drive Western ideas, also increased awareness of Japanese history and classical literature, while museums gave the general populace hitherto unimagined access to Japan’s artistic heritage. These trends merged to create a renaissance of traditional Japanese culture, reimagined as an expression of modern national identity within an international world’.

The Modernisation of Japan

The section Modernity and Nostalgia looks at the physical changes in Japan. Western-style brick architecture rose alongside traditional wooden buildings. Railways spread across the landscape and electricity lines altered the skyline. These dramatic visual changes were reflected in the arts. Urban scenes of streets filled with crowds of people in Japanese and Western clothing became common. The young Meiji emperor and empress were also photographed in Western clothing. Landscapes were accented with modern elements such as automobiles.

However, as people realised what was being lost, many Japanese artists started to express a deep nostalgia for rural environments and traditional settings, with the rise of Nihonga (Japanese painting) style. In Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido by Otani Son’yu (1886-1939), the artist looks at the famous route as it appeared in 1922. During the Edo period (1615-1868), the Tokaido connected the political centre of Edo (modern Tokyo) with the imperial residence and cultural centre of Kyoto. It was the heart of trade, travel, and popular culture, but by the 20th century the route had become increasingly obsolete.

This image is dominated by a symbol of modernisation – the Nihonbashi bridge. The original 17th-century wood bridge was replaced with a Western-style stone arch bridge in 1911, shown here surrounded by modern high-rise buildings with electric lights. Upon leaving Tokyo many of the stations superficially maintain their rural appearance. However, close inspection reveals automobiles, trains and other signs of modernisation dotting the landscape. No expense was spared in the production of this luxury edition illustrating the Tokaido (which includes a total of eight scrolls), and its sale price was a staggering 500 yen, nearly the annual salary of a factory worker at the time.

Prior to the 19th century, there was no public education for the arts in Japan. Students entered the private studio of an established artist and became part of a demanding master-disciple relationship. Techniques were considered trade secrets. After 1868, the government’s priority was modernisation, and arts that had the potential to contribute to this received support. Foreign techniques, including drawing, oil painting and sculpture were especially valued. The first modern art school in Japan, the Technical Art School, was established in Tokyo in 1876, and professors were invited from Europe to teach.

The Nihonga Movement

With the establishment of the Nihonga movement, the related artists were greatly encouraged to become involved with organised painting exhibitions and this style of painting was eventually included in the curriculum of the newly founded art schools in Tokyo and Kyoto. The section Art Education and National Standards explores these evolving views on art from the establishment of public art schools to government-sponsored national art exhibitions.

These first changes came not from the government, but from the people. In 1878, a group of artists petitioned the Kyoto prefectural government for permission to establish a modern, public art school, the Kyoto Prefecture Painting School. Funds were raised privately from Kyoto merchants, and the school opened in 1880. The Kyoto Prefecture Painting School still exists today as the Kyoto City University of the Arts and is the oldest active public art school in Japan. Many of the artists featured in this exhibition were teachers and students at this school, which was a leading centre for the modernisation of Japanese-style art.

By the early 20th century, both Yoga, Western-style oil painting, and Nihonga, Japanese-style painting, were increasingly taught in schools across Japan. Since public education was open, artists could freely study both techniques, and several of the artists in this exhibition trained in Western oil painting and drawing before going on to become successful Japanese-style artists. Eichman explains in the catalogue, ‘After Japan’s borders opened, it became possible not only to travel to Europe, but also to Korea and China. Traditional Chinese themes that had long been part of the Japanese artistic canon took on a new significance’.

In this exhibition of modern Japanese art, a painting by Yamamoto Chikuseki (b 1881) exemplifies the Chinese influence. Unlike Western paintings, which were generally displayed in churches and public spaces or hung permanently on the walls of private homes, Japanese paintings, especially those in formats such as handscrolls and albums, were usually kept stored, and only brought out for social gatherings. These gatherings also resulted in paintings (as well as calligraphy and poetry) made especially for, and sometimes during, the occasion, as well as collaborative works. Later literati modelled their gatherings after groups of friends from history, among which one of the most famous was the circle surrounding the Chinese scholar-official-poet Bai Juyi (772-846), who would gather at his retreat on Fragrant Mountain (Xiangshan). Known as the ‘Nine Elders of Mount Xiang’, the group is shown here in nature, surrounded by auspicious symbols of longevity such as pine trees and lingzhi fungus.

First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895)

The history of modern Japanese art is generally presented from the perspective of European (and American) influence, with little mention made of interactions with continental Asia. Influences from the traditional neighbouring countries was complicated by war. The first Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 interrupted interactions between Japanese and Chinese artists, and Japan’s forcible colonisation of Korea in 1910 had an impact on the Korean peninsula that still shapes international politics today. Japan’s invasion of China in the build-up to World War II was similarly devastating.

A scroll by Suzuki Shonen (1849-1918) in the exhibition reflects the country’s experience. Dated 1902, it was made during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. The war marked an important turning point in world history. It was Japan’s first victory over a European country and established Japan as a major international military force. It also weakened the Tsarist government, which fell in 1917, and furthered Japan’s influence over Korea, which was forcibly annexed in 1910, leading to further expansion into Manchuria in 1931, and ultimately to Japan’s involvement in the war. Fighting centred around Port Arthur, which Russia leased from China as its key year-round port in the East.

From Sonen’s identification of the time of year as ‘calamus month’ (a traditional name for the fifth month), the victory being celebrated might be the Battle of Nanshan (25-26 May), a brutal land battle that was key to Japan’s siege surrounding the port. A crowd of men in mixed Western and Japanese dress – including military uniforms – run through the street spreading word of the victory. Shonen has cleverly repurposed his artist’s seals as the round lanterns they carry. Shonen’s father Hyakunen founded a major painting studio in Kyoto in the late Edo period (1615–1868); Shonen inherited both the studio and his father’s impressive reputation. One of Kyoto’s most influential artists, Shonen became a professor at the Kyoto Prefecture Painting School in 1881.

However, most textbook surveys of Japanese art history focus their presentation of the modern period on the European artists, who were invited to Japan to teach Western drawing and oil painting; the Japanese students who travelled to Europe; and examples of oil paintings and sculptures in Western modes that mark the ways in which Western art changed Japan – and to some extent – how Japan changed Western art. Eichman comments on this, ‘European influence undoubtedly brought about paradigmatic shifts in Japanese culture. However, it is only one piece of an intricate puzzle. Since the beginnings of Japanese history, the archipelago has always been part of a larger East Asian cultural complex that includes China and Korea. Japan traditionally understood its own culture as a dialogue between continental and native modes’.

Modernisation in Japan was complex, involving internal and external pressures. Artists responded to these turbulent times by finding their own unique way in recording these turbulent, challenging, but creative times.

Until 15 October, 2023, Honolulu Museum, Hawaii,