Is it right to call Meiji Art Derivative?


"The traveler who enters suddenly into a period of social change- especially change from a feudal past to a democratic present- is likely to regret the decay of things beautiful and the ugliness of things new. What of both I may yet discover in Japan I know not; but today, in these exotic streets, the old and the new mingle so well that one seems to set off the other ..."

Lafcadio Hearn Glimpses of an Unfamiliar Japan 1894



"The age is disordered in a tumult of changing
How can I carry on much longer?
Orchid and Iris have lost all fragrance..."

Chu-Yuan Li Sao (On Encountering Trouble)




What is referred to as the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912) is a political, not an art historical, period. Much of Meiji Art has been overlooked by Western scholars as an indiscriminate and uninformed pastiche of Western art. As a country whose modernization was forced from above rather than developing autonomously as a natural progression of events, Nihonga may also seem to be a futile utopian response to a crisis of identity, and more often than not is neglected as a hybrid bi-product of rapid industrialisation.
The Meiji period, as the beginning of modernity in Japan (Kindai), seems to be the start of the eclectic mix of East and West that so defines Contemporary (Gendai) Japan. This 'familiarity' is an obstacle to a true appreciation of Meiji art. Meiji Art i.e. the art of the Meiji period, is as complex and varied as it's cultural context.
Transitions in art do not coincide so easily with political change, and the sudden political and social changes of the Meiji period were, like it's art, a continuation of the transition which began in the Edo period. Although the work of the Edo period developed in relative isolation from the West, this by no way means that Japanese art did not contain elements deriving from external sources.
To label all Meiji art as merely derivative would be a superficial assessment of a body of work which exists in a tradition of juxtaposition and adaptation, where possession of history equaled authority and validity, where every image had a narrative. This does not negate the work's artistic integrity or innovative qualities. The advancements in art were massive considering the speed and the times in which they were shaped and many artists showed a great deal of innovation and originality in their adaptation of varying styles. Works of art exist independently to the limits of art criticism. To judge whether a work of art has failed or not we must first reconsider our criteria. This itself was a major issue for artists of the Meiji period and probably the most valuable lesson for a student of history glimpsing into an unfamiliar past.
Firstly, it is necessary to briefly consider the background of events prior to the Meiji Restoration, including works of art in the definition of an historical event, before viewing works in relation to the events in the three stages of the period, early (1868-1882), mid (1883-1887) and late (1887-1912). Ideally I would like to finally consider how art of the time was viewed and collected in the West as this may shed some light on why Meiji art would be considered derivative, but also how Japanese characteristics were equally absorbed into European art and architecture (Art Nouveau, Impressionism, William Morris, Japonisme, Japonaiserie etc. ). However, this subject deserves more attention than can be devoted to in this essay.
Japan started to absorb western culture from the time the 'southern barbarians' set foot on the islands in 1549 and introduced art lessons in the Christian seminaries in 1579. This produced 'Nanban' art of the late sixteenth and early seventh centuries which used western oil painting and engraving techniques to depict mainly Christian subjects. Pictures of foreigners called Koumouga or 'red-hair pictures' used Japanese methods and materials. The adaptation of western elements into Japanese art became more clearly defined during the Edo period (1600-1868) with the 'Rangaku' movement. Ukiyo-e artists, keen to use new trends to make a living, made western style illustrations and depictions of foreign landscapes despite of the seclusion policy (sakoku) and western depictions also influenced lacquerware and ceramics. Already in the Edo period there were shifts in art which lead to the appearance of characteristics of a 'modern art world' which was consolidated in the Meiji period. Among these were:
A widespread attempt to concile schools of thought through works of art containing different styles. This can be seen in the development of Kano painting during the Edo period where artists worked in different ateliers or schools and even used different names according to the style they chose to use. Ike no Taiga (1723-1776) was a landscape bunjin painter who combined traditional Chinese styles with the Kano school style and he painted a view of Azama Mountain in 1750 which had a strongly European sense of space and attention to detail. Watanabe Kazan's portraits are essentially western in their approach to the portrayal of character, and this characteristic can be traced to the Zen portraits of the Kamakura period. Hokusai is also said to have been able to combine Western perspective and realism with 'Eastern emotion' (Rosenfield p.192) through practicing pencil life-drawing. Oukyo's student, Goshun (1752-1811) merged Oukyo's style with Yuso no Buson (1716-1783) to form the Shijo school.
Works being produced independently from patronage due to commercial sale. Public exhibitions allowed artists to sell their work and be informed of general trends which in turn informed the public's taste. There were also shogakai, calligraphy exhibitions where works of art were on sale. Commercialism also freed artists somewhat from the workshops and established independent art practice. The Meiji Restoration created a nouveau riche and thus a new clientele for the commercial art scene which had started in Edo.
With the exhibiting of works critical discussion of works also increased and the re-evaluation of works from the past. For example, literati painting theory appeared in this time nearly a century after it's introduction into Japan.
Circulation of graphic images informing artists of art trends. (The literati painters learnt mostly from imported books.) These publications not only informed artists but emphasized the 'personality' of an artist as they appeared in town guides.
A development of a 'modern art world' indicates the appearance of 'modern' problems many of which were shared with artists in Europe; the role of the artist in society, the individual versus society, national identity; Meiji was the first time the concept of Kokka or nationhood had come into existence; the traditional versus the new or foreign etc. Critical discourse was, however, lacking in western style art in Japan just as 'Japonisme' adopted certain aspects of Japanese culture indiscriminately in the search for the 'other' alternative to utilitarianism.
During the Meiji period the Chinese 'other' was substituted by the western 'other'. This 'otherness' even included Japanese art itself for the painters working in western style. (What Clark calls the 'double othering') New forms of art call for new criteria and 'new codes of authority or legitimation' ( Clark ) Although perspective had already started to become absorbed into Japanese art, especially in the Maruyama school, the discussions about painting which were happening in Europe, such as the conflict between classicism and romanticism, weren't taken up in Japan. However, for the first time the arts stood alongside science and technology in status in the Meiji period.
Long before the polarization of Nihonga and Youga there was a great interest in forms of representation other than traditional means. As early as 1788 the scholar of Dutch studies (Rangakusha) Shiba Koukan (1747-1818) was using a camera obscura to draw perspective, but Shiba Kokan's interest in western art was more scientific and pragmatic than aesthetic. He wanted a scientific meaning in art which, for him, the traditional arts lacked. This gap in knowledge may be the explanation for why some of the early explorations into western style painting (later to become known as Youga) are 'derivative', drawing on western historical subject matter as well as painting technique.
Maruyama Oukyo (1733-95) seemed to foresee this problem of identity when he claimed that he had learnt about perspective from studying Chinese not Dutch painting. His realism went beyond traditional realism; he paid much more attention to anatomy, sketching figures in intriguing positions, and used megane-e to experiment with vanishing points. His screen painting of Pine Trees seems to show exactly the kind of dynamic combination of styles Okakura Tenshin was aiming for with Nihonga; a forging of western perspective and shading (naturalism) with a Japanese theme and atmosphere. He uses the technique of 'mokkotsu' -washes rather than lines of colour, to create a sense of three-dimensional space undefined by the Japanese word for space at that time which meant two-dimensional space. 'Okuyuki' or depth was a new concept.
Before the introduction of western ideals to Japan many artists had not only experimented with but also autonomously absorbed so-called western techniques into their art.
Early Meiji: 1868-1882.
In 1867 the 15 year old 'Emperor' (Tennou) was taken to Edo and reinstated as political leader. The coup d'état (Meiji Ishin) was lead by the Southern Daimyos of Satsuma (now Kagoshima) and Choushuu (now Yamaguchi prefecture). Meiji was the name chosen to declare that the young Emperor Mutsuhito would give 'enlightened rule'. In the charter oath of 1868 he promised democratic style freedom; participation through administrative channels, reform, fairness and a search for wisdom throughout the world. In 1869 domain administration was made uniform and samurai ranks were reduced and simplified.
The impact of the Meiji Restoration was only preceded by the Taika reform of 645 AD which introduced a new political system with the Tang dynasty as its role model, instating Buddhism as the official religion. Japan had a long history of acquiring cultural artefacts and making them her own without losing their own distinctive quality. The Meiji government reinstated Shintoism as the state religion thus legitimizing the Emperor's inheritance. The era is often defined as absolutist to suggest a transition between feudalism and twentieth century capitalism. The Tokugawa had opened national trade and laid the path for this 'capitalism'. Japan seems to have been prepared for European systems and ideals before Commander Perry forced Japan to open trade relations with the West in 1854 with unfair trade treaties.
The main changes which had a huge effect right through society and the arts were: the introduction of universal education, the separation of Buddhism and Shintoism, industrialization, and an opening of the country to westerners and western culture. It wasn't long before the Meiji government recognized the power of painting and the arts for it's society, and for Japan in it's new role as an international unified power. Just as the Tokugawa had set up the Institute for the Study of Barbarian documents (Banshoshirabesho) to understand the colonial enemy which threatened them, the Meiji government had a political and practical rather than aesthetic motive in promoting the arts; this was to gain foreign currency through exports to pay for the huge cost of modernization and to present herself to the world as a cultured and 'civilized' nation.
The policy of 'Enlightenment and Civilization' (Bunmeikaika) lasted from 1868-1887 became associated with the indiscriminate borrowing from the west, which happened to an absurd degree. Initially, the government was happy to promote western studies and the adoption of western customs even to the extent of discarding traditional values.
The first visible effect of westernisation was on fashion and architecture. Fashion was inexpensive to change and traditional buildings were not suitable to house the machinery imported from the north of England. In 1883 the government opened the Rokumeikan or Deer-cry pavilion that was designed in Renaissance style by English architect Josiah Condor as a meeting place for the new Japanese elite and westerners, diplomats etc. This became a forum for the 'ex-pats' to complain about Japanese customs and the government responded to their criticisms by trying to ban nudity in public places and habits so offensive to the westerners such as mixed bathing. The governments eager response illustrates a new sense of shame towards westerners which was taken to the extreme in Takahashi Yukio's book The Improvement of the Japanese Race published in 1884 which stated that Japanese were genetically inferior and should marry Western women to improve the race.
In 1887 the Empress switched to western dress and made an official proclamation calling on all women to do the same. Education was stressed and the Emperors son set an example by going to Tokyo Gakuin. The educator and polemicist Fukuzawa Yukichi (1834-1906), founder of Keio University and editor of a Tokyo newspaper wrote, "To abstain from intercourse with foreign nations is against the laws of nature and human nature." The establishment of many public and private universities as well as newspapers and magazines (1872), and the lifting of the ban on Christianity ensured a surge of western knowledge. To satisfy this demand many books were also translated into Japanese. (A parallel discussion about westernization was happening in literature.)
The Iwakura Tomomi Mission of 1871 had a huge impact on the arts in Japan. A group of government officials traveled all over the US and Europe with the aim of changing the unfair treaties and studying western administration systems. They brought back over 500 foreigners to assist in the modernization which had come to mean westernisation, many of whom taught at Tokyo University. They had studied western tastes and brought back specialists to assist in the arts and crafts. This catering to westerners tastes for the International exhibitions was to shape the face of Japanese crafts, but this adaptation to foreign market demands was not new to The Meiji period.
The Asian mainland had been trading with Japan for centuries. The isolationist policy of the Tokugawa shogunate (Sakoku Edicts 1630's) was only aimed at colonial Christians from Europe. The specialists who were brought back with the commission had a large impact on many aspects of life in Japan. The British architect Josiah Condor was responsible for many of the first western style buildings; the Italian engraver Edoardo Chiossone (1832-1898) produced banknotes and stamps and trained Japanese artists. In his search for relevant imagery he documented major monuments using photography and drawings. He published albums of prints of places like Ise shrine and the Soushouin that stimulated interest in Japan's cultural heritage in Japan and abroad before Fenollosa was actively promoting Japanese arts. (Kodansha)
The 1873 Vienna Exposition divided had categories of 'Fine' And 'Industrial' or technical arts. This differentiation between arts and crafts did not exist in the Japanese language before this time when the words 'bijutsu' and 'geijustsu' were created to hold these respective meanings. The use of this language may have had an effect on art production in Japan for the craftsmen who, feeling the elevated status of 'bijutsu', attempted to take their work out of the realm of industrial arts by making elaborately decorated work which suited European tastes at the time, as opposed to the simpler more understated 'wabi' style, for example, which was closer to a true Japanese aesthetic. Meiji crafts are now characterized by an opulent decorativeness using designs and motifs derived from Chinese, Japanese and Western painting.
The 1893 exhibition at Columbia was the first exhibition where Japan had exhibits in both the categories, unlike China who only exhibited in the Industrial arts section, showing the popularity of Japanese culture. This success prompted the government into organizing national exhibitions (naikoku kangyou hakurankai) which were in turn imitated throughout the country. The governor of Kyoto Makimura Masanao (1834-1896) was a choushuu samurai who keyed the slogan 'Bijutsu fukoku', 'Enrich the country through the arts'. This was to unify the crafts in an effort to monitor quality and therefore promote trade. The first Kyoto exposition was a huge success, visited by the Emperor, forty thousand Japanese and 770 foreigners. Japan participated in at least twenty-five foreign exhibitions between 1873 and 1910.
Fenollosa, an academic from Salem, Massachusetts, introduced an appreciation of Japanese art to the west (despite underestimating Japanese art as being 'decorative'). He also contributed to the reassessment of Japanese art in Japan when many Buddhist treasures were being discarded or sold in a misinterpretation of the Separation Edict of 1868 where Shinto became the state religion. He made a great effort to preserve national treasures during the period of haibutsu kishaku (extermination of Buddhism) which peaked in 1871. Many of the objects Fenollosa acquired are now in the Boston Museum of Art. He is until the present day best known for his connection with Japanese art despite being invited to Japan in 1878 by Edward S. Morse, the zoologist at Tokyo University to teach philosophy and political economy. He held this chair until 1880 when he changed to teaching philosophy and logic (1880-1886.)
In 1888 Kano Hogai painted Hibo Kannon (The Compassionate Kannon), a hanging scroll, colour on paper, under the precepts of Fenollosa. This painting has come to stand for Meiji art and the conscious effort to create an art representative of a new national identity and a cohesive culture suited to an international power. The painting echoes Christian paintings in it's 'mother and child' composition. It's traditional Buddhist theme and traditional materials combined with western elements of perspective are typical of what was to become the ideal of the Tokyo School of Fine Arts and Okakura's futile attempt to override the importance western style art in Japan.
The Separation edict also resulted in a temporary decline in traditional arts, especially sculpture, lacquerware. The impoverishment of the samurai class and the mass exodus of samurai from Tokyo (over half the population) hit painters left painters bereft of their patrons and many of them turned to Ukiyo-e , Yokohama-e (souvenir pictures for foreigners) or any means available to be able to make a living. Some were engaged by the ministries and worked with western style painters. Western style painting and sculpture had received official approval in 1876 by the Engineering College Art School (Koubo Daigaku Bijutsu Gakkou) which was set up by the government. Fenollosa patronized traditional artists like Kano Hogai and Hashimoto Gahou to continue painting a 'Japanese style' art, especially with Buddhist themes with elements of shading and perspective, in the hope of counteracting the initial government approbation of western art practice in Japan.
In 1877 both Kawakami Togai and Koyama Shoutaro were at the height of their careers as advocates of western style painting. Because of the efforts of these two men as well as Takahashi Yuichi who was Togai's assistant under the Bakufu, western style art became a school of art in the Meiji period. The 1878 portrait of Togai by Koyama was painted whilst he was the 'official' Meiji government painter and so is the epitome of what became known as Youga i.e., oil painting on canvas, dramatic lighting, subject is in western dress. Koyama also painted landscapes whilst on an inspection trip with the Emperor of Hokkaido and Northern Honshu in 1876. These paintings incorporate a vanishing point, vagueness in the distance and dappled sunlight very reminiscent of renaissance style painting. His portraits if Ainu are redolent of Carravagio. Koyama studied under Antonio Fontanasi, an Italian painter who came to Japan with the Iwakura Mission. He was a romantic painter whose work had been heavily criticized in Italy for being too romantic. The early work drew heavily from western sources, for example, the early paintings in Pre-Raphaelite style depict European rather than Asian mythology.
It was a great break-through for Youga when artists realized that western style oil painting could be made their own through the depiction of Japanese subject matter; not a 'traditional' theme such as Buddhist paintings but a 'Japanese' still life for example. The still life oil paintings of Takahashi Yuichi (1828-94) e.g.. 'Sake' Oil on paper, ca.1877. or 'Tofu' ca. were extremely controversial and even seen as derogatory to Japanese. Takahashi claimed to 'have a stronger liking for western painting than for food or drink' and emphasized the importance of oil painting to his students. The painting 'Sake' is reminiscent of the documentary paintings commissioned by Franz Von Siebold by Kawahara Keiga (1786-1860) in it's combination of western technique and Japanese subject matter, yet is technically more similar to the Dutch still lives Tahashi had studied. A salmon is hanging towards the left of the frame with part of the flesh cut away, casting a large shadow in the background which suggests the thickness of the fish. He has given special attention to the differing textures in the picture including the rope. A sense of weight is achieved through the single movement and direction of line and through variation to the attention to detail. This gentle realism also appears in his painting 'Tofu'.
Mid-Meiji 1883-87
Mid-Meiji was marked by a change in attitude by the government from blind acceptance of western systems, customs and ideals to a valuing of Japan's heritage and conservative nationalism. This shift occurred because of an increased critical knowledge of the west and perhaps also from frustration at the sense of inferiority which attitudes in early Meiji had generated, (Baeckeland); frustration at the unfair treaties Japan was forced into signing, and therefore Japan's unequal diplomatic status.
The art was marked by self-conscious academic painting. Japan had blended elements from western art, the near and far east for many centuries; over long periods of time and in relative isolation so that these elements went through a natural transition of first being a novelty, then exoticised and finally being absorbed into local customs, similar to the assimilation process a foreigner himself experiences when emigrating to another country. Western culture adopted abruptly with little time to synthesize a harmonious relationship just as westerners today often skip some of these stages of transition in their 'assimilation' to Japan.
In 1800 the Kyoto Prefectural school emphasized Japanese art in it's curriculum although it continued to teach western painting. Confucian moral training was reinstated in the school curriculum in the 1889 Constitution and 1890 Imperial Rescript on Education. The constitution emphasized German ideas rather than a liberal philosophy. The rescript emphasized that education was to serve the state not the individual.
In 1886 Fenollosa resigned from teaching and started working for the Ministry of Education and Imperial Household to be involved in art full-time. From 1886-89 they traveled as part of an Imperial commission to Western Europe and the States to investigate art administration, methods and programs. Fenollosa and Okakura Tenshin were part of this commission and instrumental in establishing the Tokyo School Of Fine Arts (1889-1906). Okakura Kakuzou (Tenshin) had studied under Fenollosa since he was fifteen at Tokyo University and also worked for the Ministry of Education after graduation. Together, they set up Kangakai (1884), The Painting Appreciation Society to systematically record, catalogue, authenticate and exhibit Japanese art treasures. The more conservative Ryuuchikai (Dragon Pond Society) started in 1879 and became the Japan art Association in 1887. The members of Kangakai were also involved in the opening of the Tokyo School of Fine Arts which was an important development in Nihonga. It was a government approved school to train school teachers and designers for the craft industries as well as professional artists.
The exhibitions showed that foreigners and Japanese alike valued traditional designs and traditional artists suddenly were seen as a resource for the government to develop and exploit. Together with the new patronage of the nouveau riche, the status of the craftsman was elevated. (Wagener, after seeing the Vienna exhibition recommended that a National Museum Art school be established)
Because the school was seen as a threat by many art circles it provoked artists into forming their own organizations which also contributed to the development of Nihonga. The opening of the school coincided with the government's decision to replace pencil drawing with Mouhitsuga, traditional brush drawing. Pencil drawing had been on the curriculum since the founding of schools in 1872. Many of the former teachers entered the Tokyo school, where Nihonga was the only painting course, to try line up with government practice in order to make a living. Many of them had been trained by students of Togai Kawakami (1827-1881) who had been attached to the Bansho Shirabesho assigned by the Tokugawa shogunate to inform them and Kano artists of western methods in drawing and painting.
In 1881 western art was abolished from the official domestic Industrial art exhibitions. In 1883 the Engineering Art School was abolished. These actions are attributed to the influence of Fenollosa but also illustrate the backlash effect of early Meiji policy. In 1885 a reaction against western things began. Nationalism was invigorated with the victory of the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese war. This nationalism inevitably expressed itself in art with a return to traditional subject matter and materials and even a copying of old works.
It wasn't until the 1890's that the terms Nihonga and Youga came into use. Youga was previously known as abura-e or oil painting as opposed to shoga (calligraphy) and suiboku-ga (ink painting). The differentiation in language illustrates the tension of art politics between conservative trends and the wish of many artists to combine the best of east and west to produce art suitable for the new Japan. Okakura Tenshin embodied the latter and pursued this goal despite much opposition which eventually lead to his dismissal.
The allegorical portrait of Okakura Tenshin as the Chinese poet Qu Yuan (Kutsugen in Japanese) 1898 by Yokoyama Taikan (1868-1958) exemplifies, not only the ideal of Nihonga but also the politics of the time. Yokoyama was the master of Nihonga style. The portrait is painted in water soluble inks on silk in the traditional format of a hanging scroll with the emphasis of movement on the fabric rather on anatomy. He is dressed in ancient robes like idealized Fujiwara period Buddhist painting and depicting as Li Sao shows him as a betrayed and disillusioned scholar. Yokoyama has skillfully blended western elements into the painting; melodrama created by the use of colour, individualism in the portrait and his own personal style, theatrical consciousness in the face and the setting, the reference to a contemporary issue, receding ground plane and foreshortening, a foreground of branches to emphasize depth, the use of the morotai or 'dimmed' style without outlines.
Late Meiji 1898-1912.
By this time, an ardent almost xenophobic nationalism existed. (Baeckeland) Around the turn of the century Youga resembled the Pre-Raphaelite paintings the artists admired, even copying the mythological themes of these paintings. It seemed to be a case of total adoption or nothing at all.
It was necessary for these artists to look back to Tang China, which was a traditional role model, to confirm their identity as part of Asia. This nationalism is manifested in Yokoyama Taikan's painting 'Ryuutou' or 'Floating Lanterns' exhibited in the Third National exhibition in Tokyo in 1909. Taikan's critics called his mourou style untraditional and westernized but this painting was received very well and purchased by the Ministry of Education. The painting portrayed contemporary India and shows that tensions in Meiji art politics weren't limited to the aesthetic, but also were very much bound up in issues of the day such as gender, race, nationality and most of all colonialism. Okakura Tenshin and Taikan had traveled to India. By adopting India as the new significant 'other', above the West and China which had been defeated (and whose meaning had changed in Meiji Japan), Taikan was advocating the colonial slogan "Asia is one" and affirming that this Asia was to be a Japanized Asia. He had confidently conciled the dichotomies of East and West, of Tradition and Modernity.
During this time India was popular as Japan's true source of Buddhism. The general public may have been attracted to the spiritualism India symbolized, in the face of all the industrialization and upheaval they had suffered. The government had economic interests in India through the Mitsui trading company. Taiwan had been acquired in 1895 and the government, despite rejecting many western ideals, were keen to compete by gaining more colonies, spurred on by their victory in the Russo-Japanese war.
After traveling around Europe and the States, a colleague of Okakura and arts administrator in the Ministry of Education Masaki Naohiko (1862-1940) established Bunten, government sponsored art exhibitions following the example of the French Salons. The Bunten were to promote arts separate to industry and was divided into Nihonga, Youga and Sculpture. The first was the 1907 exhibition in Tokyo. The prizes awarded at these shows were extremely important for artists success. All works were for sale like the earlier industrial expositions and so the monetary value of work was dictated according to what works the government purchased.
In the 1890's shops selling modern painting started to appear and department stores followed Takashimaya in opening an art section. (Conant) This commercialism caused artists to be increasingly competitive and pushed the development of Nihonga as artists tried to cater to public taste and gain government recognition.
The Emperor died on July 30th 1912 and symbolically marked the end to Japan's forty five year transition into a modern state. The period was fraught with social change and political events that make the influences on the art of the time hard to discern.
I suspect that the differences between Youga and Nihonga were not so great as many historians speculate. Many Nihonga artists had studied and practiced western style painting and had traveled to Europe. In fact, Hashimoto Gahou was one of the few Nihonga teachers at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts who didn't have an interest in western art. Nihonga was intended to express a new national identity but may have resulted in polarizing issues more. This debate was healthy for Meiji art as it meant that artists themselves became aware of the issues involved and were working quite consciously with methods deriving from multiple sources but producing work which cannot be called derivative.
Works which are particularly nationalistic have a recognizable characteristic: idealism. This is a characteristic of all nationalistic art . However, these characteristics we call 'western'; the use of perspective; depth using vagueness in the distance and the use of a foreground; shading to create volume; contemporary subject matter; the depiction of setting; the attention of anatomy etc. are as transferable as cultural artefacts as technology and, in fact, are not sole properties of one country or another.
The attitude of many Europeans at the time of Meiji that Japanese art had been 'arrested in it's infantile stage' show the condescension with which they admired Japanese art in the exhibitions of the late nineteenth century. Opium was even blamed for some of the more fanciful 'primitive' aspects western art critics found difficult to accept. (Evett) As crafts became a valuable export commodity styles were adapted for European taste and even today Meiji crafts are not as valued as other Japanese arts. The goods were eagerly bought in Japan, perhaps also because they represented the international spirit of the exhibitions themselves as well being a symbol of a cultured lifestyle ordinary people aspired to in the west.
Youga artists were able to free themselves from nationalism and were the pioneers of an internationalism which marks much of contemporary Japanese art. But is this 'internationalism' really desirable? Can art really escape the confines of cultural interpretation to achieve a true universality? ( I think of the non-spaces of airports and five -star hotels)
Artists in post-war Japan had to reconstruct a national identity whilst rejecting Japanese Imperialism and Western 'humanism' as well as coping with the devastation of the war and the atomic bombing. The whole of 'coming to terms with history' was implicit with this search for a new national identity, the struggle which was started by artists in the Meiji era. Does Universalism imply 'westernism' as 'modernization' meant 'westernisation' in early Meiji?
It is difficult to recognize this in Meiji art through the filter of post-war Americanization. Weren't Okakura and Fenollosa at least partially successful in their defiant attempt to revitalize traditional arts in Japan? Although they were wrong to try and deny alternative forms of expression, were their aesthetic aims the appropriate path for Japanese art? They were at the very least a pointer to the issues of contemporary Japan; that a positive reclamation of Japanese culture would be necessary in art before it could be 'overleapt'.
It is difficult to disassociate the art from the politics of the day, Nihonga became a banner for a unified Asia and artists in Formosa (Taiwan) and Korea were forced to paint in Nihonga style. Whether Nihonga evolved from the autonomous experimentation of different artists or was a style adopted for political motives it is a progression in the history of Japanese art and not one which can be dismissed as being derivative.
Tanya Grassley
march 1997