Making Modern Japanese-Style Painting: Kano Hogai and the Search for Images

Making Modern Japanese-Style Painting: Kano Hogai and the Search for Images

by Chelsea Foxwell

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Making Modern Japanese-Style Painting: Kano Hogai and the Search for Images by Chelsea Foxwell

The Western discovery of Japanese paintings at nineteenth-century world’s fairs and export shops catapulted Japanese art to new levels of international popularity. With that popularity, however, came criticism, as Western writers began to lament a perceived end to pure Japanese art and a rise in westernized cultural hybrids. The Japanese response: nihonga, a traditional style of painting that reframed existing techniques to distinguish them from Western artistic conventions. Making Modern Japanese-Style Painting explores the visual characteristics and social functions of nihonga and traces its relationship to the past, its viewers, and emerging notions of the modern Japanese state.

Chelsea Foxwell sheds light on interlinked trends in Japanese nationalist discourse, government art policy, American and European commentary on Japanese art, and the demands of export. The seminal artist Kano Hogai (1828–88) is one telling example: originally a painter for the shogun, his art eventually evolved into novel, eerie images meant to satisfy both Japanese and Western audiences. Rather than simply absorbing Western approaches, nihonga as practiced by Hogai and others broke with pre-Meiji painting even as it worked to neutralize the rupture.

By arguing that fundamental changes to audience expectations led to the emergence of nihonga—a traditional interpretation of Japanese art for a contemporary, international market—Making Modern Japanese-Style Painting offers a fresh look at an important aspect of Japan’s development into a modern nation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226195971
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 07/20/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 296
File size: 49 MB
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About the Author

Chelsea Foxwell is assistant professor of art history at the University of Chicago.

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Making Modern Japanese-Style Painting

Kano Hogai and the Search for Images

By Chelsea Foxwell

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-19597-1


Exhibitions and the Making of Modern Japanese Painting

Nearly all pictures are nowadays painted with a view to possible exhibition. Fancy Giotto, Angelico, Bellini, and Giorgione, closely crammed into long galleries, numbered 3785 and so forth. ... The discordant hubbub of modern Picture Exhibitions is ... the divorce of art from the highest religious, social, intellectual movement of the age which is the root of decadence in art.

— FREDERIC HARRISON, "A Few Words about Picture Exhibitions," 1888

Each person should have their own religion; for artists [bijutsuka], it is the religion of fine art [bijutsu shu]. Why should we need anything else?

— OKAKURA KAKUZO, "Kano Hogai," 1889

In 1855 the young Frederic Leighton (1830–1896) submitted a colossal painting for exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. Cimabue's Celebrated Madonna Is Carried in Procession through the Streets of Florence (1853–1855) was acquired by Queen Victoria at Albert's urging; following the purchase, she allowed the public to admire it at subsequent exhibition venues (fig 1.1). The critic and poet Frances Turner Palgrave (1824–1897) saw it on view in the town of Conwy (Conway) in North Wales:

That charming work, every one remembers, shows how the great Madonna picture, by the old Tuscan artist Cimabue, was carried in state and triumph six hundred years ago through Florence to the church where it still hangs; and how the delight of the people in its beauty gave the name of "Joyful" ... to the street through which it passed. Here was a curious analogy. Cimabue's youthful masterpiece six centuries ago delighted Florence: Leighton's was today the pride of Conway. An analogy there was, but, I felt, a difference also: — the modern spectator came to enjoy, where the mediaeval crowd came to reverence.

Palgrave's 1888 essay "The Decline of Art" was symptomatic of the late nineteenth century as an age of exhibitions and also, inevitably, of exhibition fatigue. The painting did more than reference the history of art; it visualized a certain ideal of civic engagement with painting and thus played a part in inciting Palgrave's antimodernist lament. The depicted scene, taken from Vasari's Lives of the Artists (1550, 1568), represents no ordinary religious procession but rather a special celebratory march from Cimabue's workshop to the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, where the painting was to be installed. As such, the procession "elevate[d] and honour[ed] and perpetuate[d] the glory of the artist and of Art." In Palgrave's view, the painting literally connected pictorial production to devotion, balancing reverence for the image as a fabricated object and as a representation of the divine. The title of Leighton's painting, Cimabue's Celebrated Madonna Is Carried in Procession ..., underscores this syntactic linkage: art is returned to the sacred via the community, reconnecting us with the lost ideality of an earlier time in which life and art, religious reverence and aesthetic appreciation, were seen as one.

By contrast, the modern age of exhibitions represented decontextualization and, with it, the loss of the stable meaning that results from being able to locate the work at the center of a specific nexus: artist, audience, context, and codes of viewing. As Gregg Horowitz writes in his analysis of modern art's crisis of extinction:

With the breakdown of the academic and aristocratic control of artistic creation and reception [at the cusp of the modern period], art lost its straightforward connections to its traditional social bases. A gap opened between the practice of art and its functions, and so between the work of art and its meaning. With the eruption of this instability at the heart of artistic practice, art for the first time floated free of contexts in which its meaning could be normatively determined and thereby became unable to sustain proper standards of judgment. The loss of social mooring is the background both of the birth of artistic modernism and of the emerging problem of the judgment of taste (judgments of beauty that cannot be grounded in given social norms).

This parable of exhibition and decontextualization is too simple to account for the full complexity of the age of exhibitions or of visual art's modernity, but it does highlight the longing for stability and authority that accompanied the spread of exhibitions in the industrialized West and the Western interest in Japanese art.

Meanwhile, exhibitions were also affecting artistic production in the non-Western world, including Japan. By 1889 Japanese viewers had become accustomed to the idea that had horrified French and British critics such as Frederic Harrison (1831–1923), namely, that paintings, sculpture, or craft objects might be made specifically for exhibition. At a time when Western artists and critics were reflecting on the differences between the pious images of old and the brazen exhibition art of the present, Okakura Kakuzo was happy to propose that art was the only religion that a modern person might need — a statement made even more striking by the fact that the Japanese terms for art and religion were each less than two decades old at the time.This situation played out poorly for Japanese artists on the world stage: even as some Western commentators bemoaned exhibitions, they essentially reserved the benefits of exhibition culture for the West while treating Japanese art as a foil to modernization.

This chapter proposes that both the positive and negative associations of exhibitionary culture in the nineteenth century shaped modern Japanese-style painting. Further, if we are careful to credit developments from the latter half of the shogunal era, or Edo period (1600–1868), exhibitions can also serve as a model for renarrating the history of painting across the Edo to Meiji divide. Historians have tended to adopt one of two approaches to the origins of modern Japanese art. The first locates it in the emergence of modern, Western terms and institutions such as bijutsu (art or fine art). The second focuses on aspects of modern artistic consciousness manifested in individual artworks and bearing affinities with cross-culturally identified traits of modernity. Drawing on both perspectives, I propose a more integrated view of what changed and what stayed the same across the Restoration. New developments were enabled by painting's diffusion beyond the elite, by the growing freedom of some painters from the expectations of individual patrons and workshop heads, and by the increasing complexity of the economy, where goods and ideas circulated with less regard for divisions of region and social status.

The Meiji era famously saw the coinage of bijutsu as a translation of the English, French, and German words for art or fine art, creating a new metalanguage for painting and signaling ways in which Japanese objects could be accommodated to Western categories. This milestone, along with the establishment of words for exhibition (hakurankai) and museum (hakubutsukan), has been taken to signal a new phase in the social consciousness of painting. But what was it about these terms that represented such a fundamental change? For at least a century prior to the rise of the international exhibition in mid-nineteenth-century England and France, Japanese city-dwellers had enjoyed a robust culture of urban exhibitions and spectacles. But where exhibitions and spectacles in Edo Japan had been organized by individual entities with the permission of the government or under the protective authority of shrines and temples, the new events were comprehensive, internationally conscious, and usually sponsored by national or local governments. When shogunal emissaries first visited London's 1862 International Exhibition, they described the event as a hakurankai because it afforded a "vast overview [hakuran] of products from each country. "Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835–1901) popularized the term in his 1866 Conditions in the West (Seiyo jijo), noting a space where "useful apparati, antiquities, and unusual things are gathered and shown to all the people of the world. "Within a decade, Meiji officials were hosting their own domestic hakurankai: vast, government-organized fairs featuring halls for machinery, agriculture, horticulture, art, and the like (fig. 1.2).

When we shift our attention away from the framework for art to the objects themselves, however, it has long been clear that mid- to late Edo images, made prior to the rise of bijutsu per se, exhibit lively elements of painterly modernity, whether through critical engagement with the world, playful manipulation of the artist's identity, historical self-consciousness, or the acknowledgement of image-making means and apparati. Without these innovative late Edo objects and artists, Meiji- and Taisho-era Japanese painting would not look the way that it does, nor would artists and viewers have responded so naturally to the Western-style art institutions introduced by the Meiji government. When thinking about art in the early to mid-Meiji period, it is crucial to keep both perspectives in mind: there were serious changes and continuities, and moreover, the new terminological and institutional metalanguage for art and exhibitions worked to reframe or repackage existing objects, experiences, and discourses of daily life.

The first part of this chapter provides an overview of painting production and reception in late Edo Japan, while the latter part examines the exhibition as a figurative tool to aid in conceptualizing art across the Edo-Meiji divide. While aspects of modern Japanese painting and spectatorship predated the Restoration, hakurankai staged and visualized the notion of a divide between premodern and modern art. Accompanied by the conviction that art-making is an end — even a religion — in itself and that the exhibition hall is a reasonable endpoint for the object, the exhibition in Meiji Japan helped to convey the notion that old art was securely embedded in (and subordinate to) aims such as religion, pageantry, or ornamentation, while the modern object had become detached from these contexts, for better or for worse.

The Diversity of Painting Schools in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

As the literary critic Fujioka Sakutaro (1870–1910) observed in his History of Recent Painting (Kinsei kaiga shi, 1903), the mid- to late Edo period featured a veritable "contest of schools" (shoha kakusui), a period of unprecedented density and diversity of painting production. If the early to mid-Edo period had been characterized by the rise and consolidation of Kano hegemony through the iemoto (house) system, the late Edo period was notable for the proliferation of independent artists and small workshops, a trend that began in Kyoto during the time of Maruyama Okyo (1733–1795) and Ike no Taiga (1723–1776) and continued throughout Japan during the first two and a half decades of Meiji. Many of these artists established studios to be carried on by disciples who would succeed to the family name, but in comparison with artists of samurai status who served shogunal and daimyo houses (such as the Kano, Sumiyoshi, or Unkoku), the newer schools were less beholden to a single inherited set of "house manners" or styles. This stylistic freedom came at a price: unable to depend on fixed, hereditary incomes from daimyo or shogunal patronage, the new independent painters were reliant on the market. Working in urban centers or as itinerants, they attracted patrons through reputation, networking, and the reproductive woodblock print medium. As a result, they were increasingly reliant on novelty and topicality, looking to painting models that lay outside the standard Kano or yamato-e canons in order to captivate patrons. For example, Okyo, whose patrons ranged from a tonsured member of the nobility to a scion of the Mitsui merchant house, derived his new style in part from the study of naturalistic Chinese painting. Later, in Eastern Japan, Tani Buncho (1763–1841) and his pupils achieved success that relied on daimyo and samurai patronage but was not beholden to it. As Fujioka notes, these painters "were popular among high and low alike," a fact that helped their students succeed in the Meiji era.

The increased purchasing power of those outside the shogunal elite fueled painting's growing diversity in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Okakura Kakuzo later emphasized that in late Edo-period Kyoto, where wealthy merchants, "scholars and free-thinkers," temples, and the aristocracy were the dominant patrons, "artists who disdained the Kano yoke could venture to indulge in wilful deviations from tradition ... [and] the rich middle classes could permit themselves to admire their originality." The results, he notes with some Tokyo-centric envy, made Kyoto artists "the leading creative spirits in [nineteenth-century] pictorial art." Such economic and social developments gave rise to a system of artistic production that functioned more like Bourdieu's nineteenth-century French cultural field, in which producers and consumers, rather than relying on a single hereditary workshop retained for the exclusive use of a certain elite, confronted what he calls a "universe of options."

There were intimate connections between the diversification of the art market and the growth of a public sphere for the discussion and evaluation of paintings. As Jürgen Habermas has argued, public opinion on art (that is, cultural products) mattered when it was assumed that all evaluators "could avail themselves via the market of the objects that were subject to discussion." In other words, "the same process that converted culture into a commodity (and in this fashion constituted it as a culture that could become an object of discussion to begin with) established the public as in principle inclusive. "Painters in the service of the shogunate and daimyo, by contrast, had a more conservative stylistic mandate and would have been discouraged from sharing their works with outside viewers; their paintings, like the affairs of the ruling elites and their families, were considered private matters.

This connection between the diversification of the art market and the growth of a public sphere for viewing, evaluating, and purchasing painting in the eighteenth century onward is foretold in the fame of Hanabusa Itcho (1652–1724) and his successors. As Miriam Wattles notes, Itcho's eleven-year exile during the reign of Tsunayoshi greatly enhanced his public persona. The talented painter's unspecified crime kept his name afloat; these rumors, juxtaposed with the fact that "some of his [painted and poetic] works ... were subtly undermining of the social order" helped to create a "brand" that was pinned to the erotic Asazuma Boat motif and proliferated through painting, print, and word of mouth. Subtle resistance to authority, combined with the commercialized, print-based trade in information, helped to constitute a semipublic sphere where artists like Itcho could attain renown apart from the existing, polarized categories of the elite Kano school and the elicit floating world.

While the beginning of a commercialized public sphere for painting was thus already present in the eighteenth century, two further nineteenth-century developments help to explain painting in the years up to and directly after the Meiji Restoration: increasing heterogeneity and the growth of the artistic endeavor as a self-directed project.

Heterogeneity and the Merging of Schools

In the Edo period, profession was supposed to be hereditary, with proprietary knowledge and skills passed down to one's heirs as "secret transmissions" (hiden). Painters tended to train with one school or master at a time, receiving a character from the master's name to mark the completion of the training and to cement the bonds of painterly succession. From the late eighteenth century into the nineteenth century, however, an increasing number of painters began to train across different schools before establishing their own houses. While Kyoto had been the cultural center for centuries, by the late eighteenth century Edo had blossomed into a rival hub where lucrative patronage by daimyo, wealthy merchants, and groups of lesson-seeking samurai and townspeople attracted exceptional persons from across the regime. The stylistic eclecticism of many late Edo and early Meiji painters was the natural result of having studied under more than one master. Diversity increased as artists befriended each other or sought out new credentials as a means of distinguishing themselves in the marketplace, a challenge that high-ranking Kano, Tosa, Unkoku, and Sumiyoshi painters rarely faced.


Excerpted from Making Modern Japanese-Style Painting by Chelsea Foxwell. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Notes to the Reader
Introduction: Nihonga and the Historical Inscription of the Modern

1 Exhibitions and the Making of Modern Japanese Painting
2 In Search of Images
3 The Painter and His Audiences
4 Decadence and the Emergence of Nihonga Style
5 Naturalizing the Double Reading
6 Transmission and the Historicity of Nihonga


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