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Friday, Feb. 13, 2009

An abandoned history of Chinese influence

Painters in Edo Period Osaka modeled themselves on the Chinese literati artists, finding fellowship in their shared interests


Special to The Japan Times

Edo Period (1603-1868) paintings from Osaka have been relatively neglected in comparison with paintings from Tokyo and Kyoto. A canonical list of works and a historical framework were written up in Tokyo in the 1890s in a series of influential lectures by scholar Okakura Tenshin, setting the directions of subsequent scholarship. Osaka received scarce consideration, and it was not until the 1981 exhibition "Osaka Painting Schools in the Edo Period" at the Osaka Municipal Museum of Art that interest returned. Now, a new show, "The World of Bunjinga in Early Modern Osaka" at the Ashiya City Museum of Art and History till Feb. 22, takes another look, focusing on bunjinga — Japanese paintings done in the style of Chinese literati from the Song dynasty.

News photo
Eastern inflections: Imamiya Taishitsu's "Floating Wine Cups"(1832) and Zen priest Kakutei's "Yellow Birds in a Willow"(undated; below) ASHIYA CITY MUSEUM OF ART
News photo

Kansai University art historian Nobuo Nakatani offers reasons for the inattention. When Osaka's economy collapsed during World War II, collectors stopped buying Osaka paintings and haven't returned to them since then (Nakatani has pointed out that these pieces can now be acquired at prices equivalent to "a salaryman's pocket money"). Another, earlier reason was the distinctly Chinese orientation of artists in the city — a backward-looking position — when Japan was about to modernize and its Meiji (1868-1912) government was creating slogans such as "Out of Asia, Into Europe."

China figures prominently in the coterie of artists and intellectuals who orbited the influential painter and naturalist Kimura Kenkado (1736-1802), whose work is on show in the exhibition. Born Kimura Sonsai, he became known as Kenkado, from the Japanese name of the school he later founded: Hall of the Concurrent Reed. Due to his fragile health as a youth, Kenkado was encouraged to pursue a scholarly life by his father. At age 5 or 6, he took an interest in art, and later studied with the Kano School painter Ooka Shunboku (1680- 1763), before learning flower and bird painting with the Obaku Zen priest Kakutei (whose "Yellow Birds in a Willow" is in the exhibition). This was the colorful and decorative Ming dynasty (1368-1644) style of Shen Nanpin, who visited Nagasaki from 1731-33 and established a following among locals.

Other literati, such as Kyoto-based Nakabayashi Chikuto, took a dim view of mixing the craftsmanlike skill of Nanpin's botanical accuracy with the cherished, expressive possibilities of true literati painting; still, such a style percolated unreservedly in Osaka works.

At age 15, Kenkado visited Ikeno Taiga, considered Japan's premier literati painter, and became his pupil and then patron. To become part of the bunjinga world, however, it was not enough to study painting and scholarship alone, or join a school. As a Chinese import that took root in 18th century Japan, literati painting escaped art's boundaries and came to represent a whole lifestyle that was imbued with poetic sentiments and gentlemanly ideals.

Kenkado's membership in the Konton (Elegant Confusion Society) is instructive. There, members would gather, sometimes in Chinese dress, to enjoy steeped tea and savor Chinese verse, art treasures and the Confucian classics — in short, to become erudite and cultivated, and to share a common interest in the culture of China, though one very much internalized, lacking as they did the actual desire to travel there.

Their fellowship is obvious in their joint contributions to a single work, such as "Views from High Atop a Mountain" by Kenkado, Totoki Baigai, and Okada Beisanjin and his son Hanko. As well, the often modest size of paintings suggests that they were to be exchanged and enjoyed among friends.

Such a sense of fellowship can also be discerned in the benefaction of Maruyama Sessai, Daimyo of Nagashima from 1776-1801, who came to the aid of Kenkado when he was forced to forfeit the fortune he had amassed as a sake merchant due to a breach of the production code. Inviting Kenkado to Nagashima for two years, Maruyama helped him revive his former wealth, a kindness extended due to the Chinese ideals they held in common — ones that dissolved the class barriers that could conventionally have kept the two remote.

The more pure Sinicization in Osaka paintings was in contrast to early literati painters such as Ikeno Taiga and Yosa Buson, who blended Chinese and Japanese painting idioms. This refinement of Chinese styles was brought about by the increasing availability of Ming and Qing period paintings in late 18th-century Japan.

Okada Hanko developed a rich and conservative aesthetic based on his study of Qing dynasty (1644-1912) painting. Though Hanko in his own lifetime was the more celebrated than his father, in the 20th century Beisanjin has garnered more acclaim for bold and gestural landscapes such as "Literati Studio"(undated). But, as is often the case, the present values the past for different things, and even imposes on it meanings it may not actually have possessed. Up to now, Osaka painting circles have not only been overlooked in the formation of a Japanese canon of art, they have suffered a decline in patronage as Japan moved its aesthetic orientation away from China. Perhaps it is time for a new look at the genre.

"The World of Bunjinga in Early Modern Osaka" is showing till Feb. 22 at the Ashiya City Museum of Art and History; open 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. (closed Mon.); For more information, visit www.ashiya-web.or.jp/museum/

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