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What is Nihonga Art and Its History?

NIHONGA literally translates to “Japanese Painting” [Modern and Contemporary] which sounds broad but this is a very unusual and specific niche within the variety of Japanese painting styles and techniques. Nihonga incorporates ink, and/or pigment, gold and silver leaf on washi (Japanese paper) or eginu (silk). Introduced to Japan through its contact with Chinese culture, the Nihonga technique has remained relatively unchanged since the 8th century. Although the style originated in the Chinese Tang Dynasty (618-907), it was overlooked by its native country when ink painting became the dominant medium. The Chinese style, however, was adopted in Japan and its development defined Japanese painting for centuries.

Begun in late 19th century Japan as an indigenous art movement, Nihonga continues to the present day, exemplified by the art and lineage of over six generations of painters. Described in part through their use of traditional materials, techniques and methods, Nihonga artists are highly skilled and versatile, having mastered a wide variety of styles while possessing a full repertoire of genres, themes, and subjects. It is not unusual for a Nihonga painter known for his meticulous gold and silver screens to also create profoundly expressive ink landscapes. As an art movement, Nihonga and its artists have incorporated nearly every aspect of modernity in painting.

The In-Depth Story…

Japanese art has often been characterized as following a pattern of inspiration, reinterpretation, and, eventually, transformation. Indeed, the art of this island nation owes an enormous debt to the cultures of its Asian neighbors. Yet, as time and time again, Japanese artists have demonstrated a remarkable ability to distill and create from foreign influences something unmistakable and uniquely their own.

The greatest influence on Japanese painting came from China. It wasn’t until the late Heian period (931-1185) that indigenous Japanese tastes began to assert themselves in art and literature. Japanese artists reveled in creating paintings that reflected their native landscape or that illustrated Japanese literary subjects rather than those of China. This shift to specifically Japanese subjects and locals, as well as the increasing tendency to evoke emotional, subjective responsive in the viewer, were the primary characteristics of a style that came to be known as yamato-e. By the end of the Edo period, or Tokugawa, period (1615-1868), many different schools of painting flourished, including Kanō which followed Chinese precedents more closely, Rinpa, followers of the artist Kōrin and Sōtatsu, who extolled indigenous traditions; and bunjinga or  nanga, which referred to Chinese literati paintings created by scholar-gentleman.

Japanese painting is generally characterized as linear, with color applied in flat areas. Historically, both Chinese and Japanese painters have eschewed the simple replication of nature’s forms. But unlike the more intellectual and scholarly tendencies of the Chinese artists, Japanese artists have also sought to convey a subjective response to the beauty and pleasure in the world around them. A Buddhist appreciation of the transitory combined with a reverence of nature derived from Shintō, the native Japanese religion, have given rise over centuries to an art that is quintessentially Japanese.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, Japan was no longer looking eastward to China for artistic inspiration. With The Meiji Restoration in 1686 – when the nation opened up to international trade and exchange after nearly 250 years of self-imposed isolation – Japan gained access to Western technology and art. As early as 1876, the study of Western art was made part of the Technical Art School (Kōbu Bijutsa Gakko). Yōga, or Western style oil painting, executed with stiff brushed on coarse canvas, was encouraged as an important tool for catching up with the West. 

Interestingly, it was an American, Ernest Fenollosa (1853-1908), who acted as a prominent spokesperson for the indigenous artistic traditions in the midst of this vogue for all that was Western. A Harvard graduate and an amateur artist, Fenollosa arrived in Tokyo in 1878 to teach philosophy and political economy at Tokyo University. He had intended to encourage the study of Western art, but quickly became a passionate advocate of the rich heritage of Japanese art. Along with a Japanese colleague, Kakuzō (Tenshin) Okakura, Fenollosa embraced a revivalist a traditional approach to painting, called Nihonga, which literally mean Japanese-style painting on silk and paper. Nihonga was taught at the Tokyo School of Fine Art (now known as the Tokyo School of Fine Art and Music, Tokyo Geijutsu Daigaku), which opened in 1889, and later at a private school, the Japan Art Academy (Nihon Bijutsu-in), founded in 1898. 

Nihonga artists attempted to merge aspects of Western art, such as chiaroscuro and one-point perspective, with the conventions of traditional Japanese styles of painting. Not only were Japanese materials used, but the teaching and practice of Nihonga incorporated centuries-old beliefs and traditions. Given the strong focus on group identity within Japanese society and culture, many artists have felt a responsibility to cultivate a common national style, taking their inspiration from historical schools or artists. Japanese artists have traditionally studies under established sensei, or masters, while the kai (group, association or guild), which developed during the Meiji period, has continued to occupy a crucial position in the Japanese art world. One of the principal functions of the kai is to hold exhibitions, providing young, aspiring artists with an opportunity to show their work. Artists apply for membership under the sponsorship of a teacher or mentor. Usually formed around one particular sensei or charismatic figure, kai are extremely volatile; many are created and soon disbanded. Some, however, do manage to achieve a respectable longevity. One of the earliest to foster Nihonga the Kangakai (Painting Appreciation Society), was founded by Fenollosa in 1884.

Even more powerful and prestigious than kai-sponsored shows have been the exhibitions supported by the government. The Monbushō Bijutsu Tenrankai (Ministry of Education Fine Arts Exhibition), known as the Bunten, functioned for many years as the Japanese equivalent of the French Academy. Initiated in 1907, it subsequently underwent various reorganizations, beginning as early as 1911 when it was renamed Teiten (Exhibition of the Imperial Fine Arts Academy). Under the Ministry of Education, this exhibition was christened Shin Bunten (New Bunten), and in 1958 it became Nitten (Japan Art Exhibition), at which time it came under the sponsorship of a private organization, Nitten incorporated. Other prominent ongoing exhibitions have included the Kikakai (Second Division Society), founded in 1914 as a sort of Salon de Refusés, and the Inten, organized under the auspices of the Japan Art Academy.

With the support of the government, Nihonga has continued to flourish with its own marketing system as well as with the support of powerful and wealthy patrons. Certainly, Nihonga has developed in various ways – some of which are more inspired than others – yet remains little known outside of Japan. A major exhibition, “Nihonga: A Century of Modern Japanese Painting: 1868-1968,” organized by the Saint Louis Museum in 1995, was a pioneering exhibition that, along with the impressive publication that accompanied the show. Has helped direct more attention to and serious scholarship about this fascinating genre. And, as in the past, among numerous challenges facing Nihonga artists remains how to meld traditional techniques with contemporary sensibilities. 

Written by: By Lynn Gumpert

From: Chen Wenguang exhibition catalog Nihonga Painting 1990-2007 – pgs. 56-57


Links within the Bruvel Fine Arts website for your further exploration:

* Who is Chen Wenguang and What is his History with Nihonga?

* Master Matazo Kayama on his student Chen Wenguang

* Symbolism of the Lotus Flower

* The Influence of the Lotus Flower in Chen Wenguang’s Painting