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Friday, Feb. 6, 2009

Western Japan's eclectic master

A popular success, nihonga painter Takeuchi Seiho set fashions beyond the art world

Special to The Japan Times

A matter of temperament was said to distinguish the two major regional centers of nihonga (Japanese-style painting), Tokyo and Kyoto, at the turn of the 20th century. Tokyo painters imbued their works with "brain" by way of complex content, while Kyoto artists held firm to their "brush" in a looser style and with lighter subjects. Each city searched for its own paradigm in which to develop the modern genre (before the Meiji Restoration, there was no category of painting in Japan titled nihonga), and the titular heads became Takeuchi Seiho (1864-1942) of the West and Yokoyama Taikan (1868-1958) of the East.

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Chameleon: Takeuchi Seiho's "Posing for the First Time," (1913) KYOTO MUNICIPAL MUSEUM OF ART

The western Japan style arose from a veneration for Matsumura Goshun (1752-1811), who opposed the sharp realism embraced by fellow Kyoto painter Maruyama Okyo (1733-95) with the blurry, Chinese-inspired Literati painting of his teacher, Yosa Buson (1716-83). The style that Maruyama established waned following his death, while Matsumura's wet and atmospheric idiom became the meaningful one for modern artists of the Shijo School.

Takeuchi was the principal inheritor of these traditions, and an exhibition at the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art, "The Studio of Painter Takeuchi Seiho," showing till March 29, explores his artistic process, from outdoor sketches and preparatory drawings to completed compositions.

Takeuchi's beginnings were modest. The son of a restaurateur, he began study at age 14 with a very minor Shijo artist and neighbor, Tsuchida Eirin. At 17, as a pupil of the established Shijo painter Kono Bairei, he was named the Shijo atelier's "Chief of Crafts," and became further adept in the techniques of the Shijo School, as can be seen in early drawings such as "Sketches of Birds" (1880-81). Kono rewarded his student with the artist name Seiho, meaning "a place where a phoenix lives."

When the painter went to Europe in 1900 under the guise of a half-year investigation into the state of painting, Takeuchi did two remarkable things: He ignored emergent modern art, studying instead Romantics such as Turner and Corot; and yet visited every zoo in Europe, as the vacation allowed him to sketch lions and tigers from life (the establishment of zoos in Japan only really began in the early 20th century).

On his return to Kyoto in 1901, Takeuchi's realistic depictions — more Western realism than the abstracted representations by Okyo — of animals and Western landscapes stunned the public, leading to instant fame. Such works established Takeuchi as an animal painter, and to the cast of exotic beasts he added more homely ones that he kept at hand such as rabbits and game fowl. Takeuchi became so adept in the genre it was said he could relate the individual personality of an animal, even its distinctive smell.

By 1907, however, he had distanced himself from Western influences, returning to a more restrained Japanese style, seen in the ethereal revelry of goddesses in flight in "Heavenly Maidens" (1910).

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"Tranquillity" (c. 1935), and "Rain" (1911; below)
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Takeuchi's art and influence as a judge in government exhibitions was not just revered; it set fashions. "Posing for the First Time" (1913) was exhibited in the 7th Bunten (Ministry of Education Exhibition) where it quickly gained notoriety for its suggestion of nakedness, the nude making infrequent appearance in nihonga. The kimono design that the sheepish model hides behind was subsequently worked up by the well-known department store Takashimaya in a brocade obi and named Seiho Kasuri — all the rage for the winter of 1914.

The final 20 years of Takeuchi's artistic career were nurtured by two trips to China in the early 1920s. There he developed a genre that gave prominence to figures in landscape settings, as in the fruit vendor at market in his "Beijing Sketchbook" (1921), and further development of pared down landscapes in ink such as "Village by the Water" (1934).

While to contemporary eyes, these paintings may appear conservative, and the animal paintings cutesy, it was Seiho's style and tutelage that drove western Japan's nihonga genre through to World War II. His blend of hard realism, abbreviation, diverse styles and cultural sources — Japan, Europe and China — evidence the eclecticism that characterized nihonga in its formative years, and even now.

"Masterpieces from the Permanent Collection: The Studio of Painter Takeuchi Seiho" shows till March 29 at Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art; admission ¥200; open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. (closed Mon.). For more information, visit www.city.kyoto.jp/bunshi/kmma/en/index.html

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