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Take a Trip Back in Time to Imperial Japan and “The Kyoto Art World”

Yamatane Museum of Art, Tokyo, presents “Definitive Nihonga Masterpieces: The Kyoto Art World” in celebration of the museum’s 50th anniversary.

Miss Rosenby Miss Rosen
Artwork: Ono Chikkyō, Lights in the Offing Color on Paper, Shōwa Period, 1977 Yamatane Museum of Art (detail)

The Meiji period (1868-1912) of Imperial Japan marks the time when the country transformed from an isolated feudal society into a modern nation on the global scene. These were the years Emperor Meiji reigned upon the throne, instituting major reforms that transformed all aspects of life, from social structure, national politics, and economy to military and foreign diplomacy.

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Emperor Meiji assumed the Chrysanthemum Throne as the 122nd emperor in 1867 as the 14-year old Prince Mutushito, and ushered in a new era for which his name of “Enlightened Rule,” which the name “Meiji” indicated.

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Tanomura Chokunyū, A Hundred Flowers(detail), Color on Silk, 1869, Yamatane Museum of Art

Under his leadership, the Nihonga style was born, one that was based on traditions that were over a thousand years old. Here, the artists paint in monochrome or polychrome on either Japanese paper or silk. Because the paintings use archival pigments derived from natural ingredients bound with a hide glue solution, they do not need to be put under glass and will retain their detail and color for thousands of years. The paintings were initially produced for hanging or hand scrolls, sliding doors, or folding screens that could be show in traditional Japanese environments.

The Yamatane Museum of Art, Tokyo, was founded as Japan’s first museum specializing in nihonga art. Its core comes from Yamazaki Taneji (1893-1983), founder of Yamatane Securities, who built his personal collection through close friendships with artists who were his contemporaries. To celebrate the Museum’s 50th anniversary, it is currently showing the best of the best in Definitive Nihonga Masterpieces: The Kyoto Art World, now on view through February 5, 2017.

Uemura Shōen, Feathered Snow Color on Silk Shōwa Period, 1944, Yamatane Museum of Art

Uemura Shōen, Feathered Snow Color on Silk Shōwa Period, 1944, Yamatane Museum of Art

The exhibition is divided into two parts, the first focusing on artists participating in the Kyoto art world, the second on the Tokyo art world. As the opening of Japan lead to an awareness of Western art, nihonga artists honed their gifts, developing ways that their aesthetic traditions would best suit the nation as it emerged.

Participants in the Kyoto art world continued to sketch from life will employing innovations in nihonga that would suit the styles of the times. They founded the Kyoto Prefectural Art School, Japan’s first public school of art, in order to pass on these practices to current and future generations.

Takeuchi Seihō, Tabby Cat (Important Cultural Property) Color on Silk, Taishō Period, 1924 Yamatane Museum of Art

Takeuchi Seihō, Tabby Cat (Important Cultural Property) Color on Silk, Taishō Period, 1924 Yamatane Museum of Art

Definitive Nihonga Masterpieces offers just that, with classic works including A Hundred Flowers by Tanomura Chokunyū, Tabby Cat by Takeuchi Seihō, Feathered Snow by Uemura Shōen, a younger artist, Lights in the Offing by Ono Chikkyō, and Bamboo Shoots by Fukuda Heihachirō. Through their eyes we see a Japan on the cusp, a Japan that made itself known to the world as a global powerhouse built out of more than a millennia of culture, history, and traditions.

The images of nihonga stay with us, for they are not only masterpieces in their own right, but works of tremendous influence on the development of Western art. In their style, composition, and approach we begin to see the way they surely amazed European painters who had see nothing of the sort, and deftly borrowed from their forms, techniques, and color palettes. We also observe an image of Japan that first made itself known to the world, one that embraced its native roots and continued in them as they moved forward in a brave new world.

Tsuchida Bakusen, Oharame, Women Peddlers, Color on Gold-Leafed Silk Gauze, Taishō Period, 1915, Yamatane Museum of Art

Tsuchida Bakusen, Oharame, Women Peddlers, Color on Gold-Leafed Silk Gauze, Taishō Period, 1915, Yamatane Museum of Art


Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.