“Nihonga”: Rediscovering the Classic Japanese Painting Style

Culture Art

We spoke to Yamazaki Taeko, director of Tokyo’s leading museum of the genre of Japanese painting known as nihonga, about efforts to make this distinctive art form better known to modern audiences at home and abroad.

Yamazaki Taeko

Graduated from the economics department of Keiō University, and pursued her doctoral studies at the Tokyo University of the Arts. Has served as president of the Yamatane Art Foundation and director of the Yamatane Museum of Art since 2007. Has published a book-length study on the art of Hayami Gyoshū, among other publications.

Rising up from the darkness, a pillar of flame draws dancing moths to its light—this mysteriously captivating image is Enbu (Dancing in the Flames), one of the best-known works by Hayami Gyoshū (1894–1935), a nihonga painter active in the early decades of the twentieth century. Today, the painting is one of the highlights in the collection of the Yamatane Museum of Art in Hiroo, Tokyo, a unique museum specializing in the masterpieces of nihonga painting since the Meiji era (1868–1912), including 120 pieces created by Gyoshū before his early death at the age of 40. 

The museum’s first director was Yamazaki Taneji (1893–1983), founder of Yamatane Securities, which is now SMBC Nikkō Securities. Today, his granddaughter, Taeko is the director of the museum.

The Origins of the Museum’s Unique Collection

Japan is home to numerous museums that were built around the private collections of their founders, often prominent figures in industry, such as the Idemitsu Museum of Arts, Mitsui Memorial Museum, Nezu Museum, and Suntory Museum of Art. What makes the Yamatane Museum of Art distinctive?

“For a start, this is the first museum in Japan to specialize in nihonga paintings. Most of the collection is made up of works from the Meiji era and later. We have a little over 1,800 pieces—not a particularly large number as museum collections go, perhaps. But one of our strengths is that all the artists are represented by their best-known works.  My grandfather had a bitter experience early in his career as a collector, when he bought a painting supposedly by the Edo-period [1603–1868] painter Sakai Hōitsu only to find it was a fake. This experience scarred him a bit, I think, and put him off buying older paintings. He decided to concentrate on acquiring works by contemporary artists he could deal with on a personal basis. That way, he thought, there would be no doubt about what he was getting. ‘A painting depicts the artist’s humanity,’ he used to say. He developed a close personal relationship with many of the artists represented in the collection, including Yokoyama Taikan, Kawai Gyokudō, Uemura Shōen, Okumura Togyū, and Higashiyama Kaii.”

Hayami Gyoshū’s masterpiece Dancing in the Flames (Color on Silk, Yamatane Museum of Art, 1925. Important Cultural Property)
Hayami Gyoshū’s masterpiece Dancing in the Flames, 1925. (Color on silk, Yamatane Museum of Art. Important Cultural Property.)

These artists with close relationships with Taneji were eager to place their works in his hands, and this helped him build a collection of the finest works by many of the best contemporary creators. “My grandfather generally never asked artists to paint a work on a subject he had chosen. But there were exceptions to this rule. When he saw Kaii’s mural Asaake no ushio [Dawn Tide], commissioned for the new Imperial Palace that was completed in 1968, he asked the artist to create another similar work that could be put on display somewhere where everyone could see it. Kaii responded with Michikuru ushio [Rising Tide], a huge painting measuring 9 meters across and 2.1 in height. He commissioned other artists—Yasuda Yukihiko, Yamaguchi Hōshun, Uemura Shōkō, Sugiyama Yasushi, and Hashimoto Meiji—to paint works for him similar to those they had done for the new palace complex. These unique paintings are another of the characteristics of our collection.”

By the time Yamazaki Taneji started to get serious about developing his collection, Hayami Gyoshū had already died at the age of 40, making him one of the few artists represented in the collection with no direct interaction with the museum’s founder. It was the museum’s second director, Yamazaki Tomiji, who sold off property and securities held by the Yamazaki Art Foundation and used the proceeds to acquire the Ataka Collection, an important set of the artist’s works. This acquisition gained the museum its nickname, the “Gyoshū Museum.”

Formative Experiences Make You Stronger

“For my grandfather, art was an important part of daily life. He used to hang a seasonally changing selection of nihonga scrolls in the tokonoma alcove in the Japanese-style rooms of his house, and oil paintings in the Western-style rooms. I used to love sitting on his lap as a child and admiring the paintings in the tokonoma. When he said he would get me anything I wanted, I used to beg for art paper and spend my time drawing pictures.” 

Despite this early love of painting, Yamazaki says she never dreamed of becoming an artist herself. She studied international finance at university, planning to join Yamatane Securities one day. But this was still the era before equal employment opportunities legislation, and it was difficult for female graduates of four-year universities to find worthwhile positions in major companies. “I decided that I wanted to work with art, and started to study seriously. I got a place at the graduate school of the Tokyo University of the Arts.” During her studies, Yamazaki received what was to become a formative piece of advice from the late Hirayama Ikuo, a famous nihonga artist who taught at the university and later became its dean, who told her: “Since you’re studying at an arts university, you should take the opportunity to study the techniques and learn how to paint nihonga yourself. It will help you become a researcher and curator who understands artists better in the future.” Yamazaki started to study painting alongside her focus on art history. “One of my fondest memories is of the time I spent copying some of the murals at Hōryūji temple, being instructed by Professor Hirayama and his assistants. What I learned then about the techniques and materials used in nihonga painting have proved indispensable to me in the work I do today.”

Yamazaki suffered a serious fall in the year she finished graduate school, and her doctors warned her she might never regain the full use of her legs. While in hospital, she received a postcard from her mentor, Professor Hirayama. “A person’s life is like the growth rings on a tree: periods of hardship like this can prove formative experiences that will make you stronger. Stay strong!” She credits this encouragement will having helped her get through two years on crutches.

Rediscovering Japanese Culture

She took up her position as director of the museum in 2007. Two years later, the Yamatane Museum of Art, originally opened in Nihonbashi in 1966, moved to its present location in Hiroo. The understated design of the new building’s exterior helped it blend in perfectly with one of the quietest areas of the capital, and the café in the main lobby remains a popular place for people to relax to this day.

The museum is entirely accessible inside. Everything from the materials used in the walls and floors to the lighting is designed to show off the paintings in the best possible conditions. “Nihonga is a style of painting that uses all natural materials. The paintings are done on silk or washi paper using sumi ink, gofun (a white pigment made from pulverized seashells) and other natural mineral pigments. This means that the paintings are very delicate and easily damaged. The works are susceptible to damage under strong light, so we need to take care to maintain a level of lighting that will preserve the paintings in their best condition. By effectively combining multiple sources of light, we try to show the characteristics and colors of the paintings to their best effect.”

Yamazaki often wears a kimono in public settings.
Yamazaki often wears a kimono in public settings.

In recent years, the popularity of artists such as the Edo-period master Itō Jakuchū and Kawanabe Kyōsai, the virtuoso painter active in the mid-nineteenth century, has sparked something of a revival in interest in Japanese painting. Although most of the best nihonga painters remain little known by the public at large, Yamazaki says there are signs that things are starting to change.

“It used to be only exhibitions of Western art that drew the big crowds. But recently, there has been an explosion of interest in Japanese-style art—mostly thanks to new enthusiasm for artists like Jakuchū and Kyōsai. This has prompted some people to suggest that Japanese art is becoming more popular than Western art among many people today. It might be a sign of a shift in society—perhaps we’re moving from an age in which people were fascinated by the West, to one in which more people start to rediscover our own Japanese culture. Even so, we need to draw on all our resources to come up with ideas for exhibitions that will draw the interest of people from all ages and backgrounds and make them want to visit our museum not just once but time and again. In particular, young people are often not familiar with nihonga. They aren’t really exposed to it at school, and this is one reason why it has been difficult to get more young people interested. Nihonga can help to heighten our awareness of the changing seasons or the beauty of nature—I want people to think of it not as some remote or inaccessible form of refined art, but as something familiar and close to their own lives.”

The museum has tried various measures to spur young people to visit exhibitions. As well as obvious steps like creating attractive merchandise, organizing special events, and publicizing exhibitions on social media, the museum café has added new items to the menu linked to some of the artworks at each show: original wagashi confectionary based on motifs of flowers, fruits, or animals drawn from some of the artworks on display. “Even if people are originally drawn to the museum to try the special wagashi, that too can provide an opening. They might come for lunch or afternoon tea with a friend, and end up falling in love with the paintings they see as part of their visit . . .”

At recent exhibitions, the museum has sold merchandise and wagashi developed in collaboration with Meiji Tokyo Renka, a popular mobile game app and TV anime, in which figures like Yokoyama Taikan and Hishida Shunsō appear as Meiji-era heartthrobs. The tie-up has sparked a positive response among young people. One tweeted: “So great to see actual works by Taikan and Shunsō. Not something I would ever have seen normally. I’m really glad the collaboration with Meiji Tokyo Renka sparked my interest.”

Badges developed in collaboration with Meiji Tokyo Renka.
Badges developed in collaboration with Meiji Tokyo Renka.

Preserving Old Works and Encouraging New Creativity

Alongside these many-sided creative efforts to draw people to the museum’s exhibitions, more mundane efforts to protect the artworks in the collection are also an important part of Yamazaki’s work. Because of the way they are made using mineral pigments and natural paper, they are fragile and easily damaged. “In a sense, protecting the artworks and putting them on display are two mutually contradictory aspects of my job, and trying to balance the two can be extremely difficult. I always try to be forward-looking and positively engaged with putting the best possible environment in place and working to restore damaged works.”

The museum also puts considerable effort into discovering and developing young artists. The Yamatane Museum of Art Prize, which previously ran from 1971 to 1996, was restarted in 2016, while the Yamatane Museum of Art Nihonga Award or Seed prize, held for the second time in 2019, is open to anyone aged 45 or younger.

“We decided to widen the criteria on painting materials. Instead of insisting that artists had to use only traditional mineral pigments, we broadened the entry requirements to allow works that made some use of acrylics and oils. We received some fantastic entries that showed a wonderfully diverse range of creativity and expression. We hope to support young artists by holding the prize once every three years.”

Many submissions blended elements of tradition with a modern art sensibility. “It is certainly true,” Yamazaki admits, “that in some recent works it is difficult to draw a hard-and-fast line between nihonga and Western-style painting, at least on the surface. Many of the strongest submissions, while being built on the foundations of the traditions of nihonga, were quite modern in style and expression. Throughout art history, traditions have always been renewed and new forms of expression born to suit the new age. But I don’t think it’s the case that traditions are being lost. It might be better to say that a new style of nihonga is being created.”

Raising the International Profile of Nihonga

Besides supporting the young generation of painters who will carry nihonga into the future, Yamazaki also hopes that the paintings in the museum’s collection will be seen and enjoyed more by visitors from overseas.

“My hope is that more people from outside Japan will visit the museum and encounter the expressive power of nihonga through our collection. The beauty of the form comes from the natural materials used in the paintings: the mineral pigments, the paper, the silk. It is hard to capture what makes nihonga so special through printed reproductions. The paintings use an adhesive called nikawa to bind the pigments to the paper and silk. This imparts a slightly grainy, gritty texture to the image. I really hope more overseas visitors will come to the museum during their travels and take the opportunity to experience the unique qualities of nihonga with their own eyes.”

The museum has already held several exhibitions designed to offer an accessible point of entry for foreign visitors. In 2014, for example, the exhibition Kawaii in Japanese Art focused on the concept of “kawaii culture” then beginning to gain attention overseas, and used “kawaii” as a key term to introduce works that ranged from the Muromachi period (1333–1568) to modern times. The current exhibition Reading Nihonga through Color: Kaii’s Blue and Gensō’s Red focuses on the pigments used to produce nihonga. Many of the minerals used to create the pigments are also on display, in an attempt to interest visitors in the materials that make this style of painting unique.

Higashiyama Kaii, Toshi kuru (End of the Year), Color on Paper, Yamatane Museum of Art, 1968.
Higashiyama Kaii, Toshi kuru (End of the Year), 1968. (Color on paper. Yamatane Museum of Art.)

Okuda Gensō, Oirase: aki (Oirase Ravine: Autumn), Color on Paper, Yamatane Museum of Art, 1983.
Okuda Gensō, Oirase: Aki (Oirase Ravine: Autumn), 1983. (Color on paper, Yamatane Museum of Art.)

Yamazaki says the museum plans to concentrate more than ever on making information available to foreign visitors from overseas in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics in 2020. “We are not in one of the major tourist spots like Ueno or Asakusa, and at the moment we probably only get five or so overseas visitors a day. I hope that more visitors will take the time while they’re in Tokyo, not just to visit the places that everyone goes to, but to experience this distinctively Japanese style of painting that has flourished here for the past 160 years, and which is not easy to see outside Japan.”

As the third-generation director of the museum her grandfather founded, Yamazaki knows that she will need all her talents and creativity as she looks to introduce new audiences to the unique appeal of nihonga painting.

(Published on November 22, 2019 in Japanese, based on an interview by Itakura Kimie of Nippon.com. Banner photo: In the entrance lobby of the Yamatane Museum of Art in Hiroo, Tokyo. All photos by Miwa Noriaki except the photo of Yamazaki Taeko in a kimono.)

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