Report on the talk ‘Nihonga – Restyling the Past and Present in Modern Japanese Painting’

In the Sainsbury Institute’s final Third Thursday Lecture of 2023, we were allowed to delve into the new nihonga collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The lecture, titled Nihonga: Restyling the Past and Present in Modern Japanese Painting, was given by Dr John Carpenter, who is currently the Mary Griggs Burke Curator of Japanese Art at ‘The Met’, and has been a long-standing friend of the Institute since his days at SOAS, University of London. John has an international reputation for his study of Japanese calligraphy, and as such, it was especially exciting to see his take on nihonga art with such a background.

Tsuji Kakō, After High Tide (detail), 1917. Pair of six-panel folding screens; ink, color, and gold and silver paint on silk; each: 155 × 360 cm. Purchase, Mary and James G. Wallach Foundation Gift, in honor of John T. Carpenter, 2022 (2022.163.1, .2)

The presentation was enlightening, and John’s discourse shed much light on The Met’s revitalized focus on nihonga within its Asian Art and Modern and Contemporary Art departments. I am pleased to say that the Met previously overlooked the genre of Nihonga but is now making a clear concerted effort to enrich its collection in this domain.

Nihonga (lit. Japanese painting), also known as modern-style Japanese painting, emerged during the Meiji era (1868–1912) as a counter-response to the growing popularity of yōga (oil painting) and as a vehicle for expressing Japan’s new national and international self-consciousness. Nihonga artists aimed to maintain the decorative quality found in Japanese paintings of the past while also incorporating the high degree of realism found in European examples.

In his presentation, Dr Carpenter delved into the exploration of how notable nihonga artists, such as Kikuchi Keigetsu, Watanabe Seitei, Hashimoto Kansetsu, Kainoshō Tadaoto, Kitano Tsunetami, and Yamada Shinzan, employed the human figure as a central theme in early 20th-century paintings. Three distinctive themes were introduced: Nihonga inspired by China, the Beauties (bijin-ga), and Western influence.

A standout example from the Met’s modern nihonga collection inspired by China was Watanabe Seitei’s Seven Beauties of Bamboo Grove, a parodic portrayal of the timeless East Asian painting theme of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove. Despite Seitei’s international recognition, notably at the Paris World Exposition in 1878 where he interacted with luminaries like Degas, his legacy faded in Japan after his death until the 1990s. This painting serves as a poignant reminder of nihonga’s evolution and its artists’ changing appreciation over time. As for the Beauties (bijin-ga), an excited Dr Carpenter introduced Ikeda Shōen’s Calligraphy Practice (1909), which has been a popular subject matter since the Edo period (1615-1868), and he compared it to the illustrated book by the Kyoto-based ukiyo-e printmaker Nishikawa Sukenobu (1671-1750). 

Ikeda Shōen (Tokyo) studied under Tokyo-based ukiyo-e and nihonga master Mizuno Toshikata, and later, she was well-known as being one of the three female nihonga painters of beauties, along with Uemura Shōen (Kyoto) and Shima Seien (Osaka). It is also noted that this painting was produced in the Meiji era (1868-1912), and this image of a mother training her child was used as part of the government’s ‘Good Wife, Wise Mother’ campaign.

Turning to Kainoshō Tadaoto’s Primavera (1929), Dr. Carpenter uncovered its complexities, revealing the artist’s unique perspective as the only openly gay painter in the Kyoto cultural scene. The portrait, seemingly depicting a young woman in traditional attire, challenges gender norms and incorporates diverse influences, creating a nuanced commentary on feminine beauty.

In his closing remarks, Dr Carpenter introduced Enomoto Chikatoshi’s Aquarium (1939), which depicts a modern girl (moga) adorned in contemporary Western-style attire and accessories. Notably, the painting was showcased at the national exhibition organized by the Ministry of Education during the onset of World War II in Europe. The poignant implication is that the young woman portrayed in the artwork would soon grapple with the transformative challenges of the wartime emergency, leading to a profound shift in her lifestyle.

Summing up, Dr. Carpenter’s comprehensive lecture on nihonga and its diverse themes provided a captivating glimpse into the evolution of this art form and its pivotal role in articulating Japan’s self-awareness during the modern era.

A recording of the talk can be viewed here:

Eriko Tomizawa-Kay is a former Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow for Art History at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2013-2014). She is currently Lecturer at the University of East Anglia and Toyota Visiting Professor at the Center for Japanese Studies at the University of Michigan. She has been writing her first monograph about Transnational Nihonga in Meiji.