by Tanya Grassley


'Nabakayashi Chikuto, a bunjin artist, described Dutch painting as "the art of a very low country". What is the substance of this criticism?

Western art had been introduced to Japan with the arrival of the Jesuit missionaries in 1549 who introduced art lessons in the Christian seminaries in 1579. This produced the 'Nanban' (southern barbarian) art of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries which used western oil painting and engraving techniques to depict mainly Christian subjects. Nanban art, however, had relatively little impact on the face of Japanese art. Pictures of foreigners called Koumouga or 'red-hair pictures' used Japanese methods and materials. The adaptation of western elements into Japanese art didn't become clearly defined until late in the Edo period (1600-1868) with the 'Rangaku' (Dutch Studies) movement.
A true fusion of western and eastern painting was consolidated in the Meiji era with Nihonga. Western art in Japan was at first the domain of government study, but after it was taken up as a serious pursuit by the Rangakusha, became associated with criticism of the established Confucian norm. An artificial dichotomy was created treating western and eastern art as polar opposites, and this continued right through the Meiji era with the terms Nihonga and Youga being used to define or even stereotype the two streams of painting which in fact had more similarities than differences.
After the Sakoku edicts of the 1630s, western art was largely inaccessible. The ban on western books was not lifted until 1720, the Tokugawa only allowed science manuals and so western art comprised of Scientific Illustrations, a few copperplate prints and very few paintings. An image of what western art was developed from what limited information was available, and was soon held in contrast to the classical Chinese models by both its supporters and its critics. Western art was no longer labeled 'barbarian' (Nanban) but became associated with Holland as denoted as Ran (the Chinese character for 'orchid', as part of the name Oranda or Holland. Ran was a challenge to the assumed model of the mainland (Kan) New and a 'gimmicky' perspective prints or 'floating pictures' (Uki-e) were to be found in traveling fairs to be marveled at as a curiosity, something novel and fun. They were never considered to be 'art'; the first pictures seemed amusing or even 'useful' in its ability to describe an object with more accuracy than words, but this was not a priority of how art was seen to function.
Chinese science was not concerned with the appearances of matter but rather with the inner workings of nature or 'ri' -principles. If western science had no definition of the basic concepts of tama (spirit) ki , or matter, then what could it's over-representational art possibly have to offer? Rangaku itself (Dutch studies) was seen as 'a bag tricks' which had certain utilitarian characteristics which might serve society, but in no means was a comprehensive self-sufficient system to challenge the Chinese Confucian model.
Society under the Tokugawa considered to be well ordered and harmonious without these 'novelties'. It was in taking the whole nature of Chinese thought and comparing it to the limited information about 'the West' -more of an imaginary place embodied in 'ran' than any real place- which lead to comments such as these. Characteristics of a modern art world appearing in Edo period.

The first systematic study of western art began with the banshoshirabesho set up by the Tokugawa government in 1856. The atmosphere of suspicion which was attached to the group was to plague serious research right through to the end of the Meiji era. There were shifts in art under the Tokugawa which lead to the appearance of characteristics of a 'modern art world' which was consolidated in the Meiji period and opened up a forum of art criticism. For example, there was a general 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. Western art however was all too easily labeled as perspective pictures, and little more than that. Works were being produced independently from patronage due to commercial sale in public exhibitions and this 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. Ukiyo-e artists, in the struggle to survive, were keen to use new trends to make a living and made western style illustrations and depictions of foreign landscapes despite the seclusion policy. Western depictions also influenced lacquerware and ceramics, but a truly conscious integration between western painting did not occur until the efforts of the Youga and Nihonga painters in Meiji period.
Oukyo always claimed that he had discovered perspective through the study of Chinese painting. 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. The circulation of graphic images informing artists of art trends meant that artists were more informed about movements in other places. The literati movement gained much of it's information from imported books. These publications not only informed artists but emphasized the 'personality' of an artist as they appeared in town guides. As most books were in Chinese, artists were far more informed about Chinese painting than Dutch. The quality of the Dutch works reaching Japan was not particularly high as they consisted mostly of Vendutta prints, cheap souvenir prints rather than painting which was easy to transport. A development of a 'modern art world' indicated 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. Although the concept of Kokka or nationhood didn't come into existence until the Meiji restoration, the friction of traditional versus the new or foreign already appeared in mid-Edo when the western method was seen as an alternative to the traditional Chinese model. This awareness is illustrated with the Sakoku edicts and the ban on western books.
Despite all the developments, critical discourse was lacking in western style art in Japan. The adoption of western art by its advocates was similar to the way 'Japonisme' in Europe adopted certain aspects of Japanese culture indiscriminately in the search for the 'other' alternative to utilitarianism. " A careful study of the art and thought of Japan may indeed make us pause to ask ourselves whether or not there is at least something as good as, or better than, the utilitarian civilization of the twentieth century." Prince Arthur at the inauguration of the 1910 Japanese exhibition in London Perspective had already started to become absorbed into Japanese art, especially in the Maruyama school, but the discussions about painting which were happening in Europe, such as the conflict between classicism and romanticism, weren't taken up in Japan. 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. The art of the 'low country' may have been more quietly accepted if it hadn't been seen as a total alternative to established systems and concepts; the 'all or nothing' syndrome. The supporters of western techniques were as much at fault for promoting these ideas as the critics.

Shiba Kokan and advocates of the 'low-country'.

" Medical science cures illness with medicine. Relating this metaphorically to painting, let us call medical science the brush, illness the picture, and medicines the colours. The attempt of medical science to cure a specific illness with general medicine, or the attempt of the brush to correct a picture with colour, is like not knowing exactly where the illness originates or just what is at fault in painting. The primary aim of western art is to create a spirit of reality, but the Japanese and Chinese paintings, in failing to do this, become mere toys serving no use whatever." Shiba, Kokan.

As early as 1788 the scholar of Dutch studies, Shiba Kokan (1747-1818) was using a camera obscura to draw perspective. His interest in western art was, however, more scientific and pragmatic than aesthetic. He wanted a scientific meaning in art which, for him, the traditional arts lacked. 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. Okyo's 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 later aimed 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.
In Seiyogadan Shiba Kokan categorically lists the elements of western art which were so 'useful' in portraying reality. These particular techniques he had learnt from an imported book he had acquired called Het Groot Schilderboek (The Comprehensive Painting Book, published 1707 in Amsterdam) which described and illustrated methods of composition, architectural drawing, colour, still life, perspective etc.. Shiba Kokan was able to understand the concepts through the illustrations rather than the Dutch text which must also have impressed upon him the informative nature of western art. He studied the foreign techniques through practice and in 1783 produced a copperplate etching of Mimeguri shrine and Sumida river in Edo, very aptly taking the western technique and format of a landscape and choosing a local scene for his subject matter. The copperplate etching method was infinitely superior to the traditional woodblock prints to Shiba Kokan; not only were the lines much finer and therefore precisely representational, but thousands of prints could be made from one plate. He also copied maps imported from Holland and was impressed by the new world which had suddenly become accessible to him through this new knowledge. Western maps are authentically representational and essential to navigation he told his fellow countrymen. "It is truly a great misfortune that we Japanese know so little about the heavens and earth we live in." (French, 1974: 129) It must have seemed to Shiba Kokan's critics that he had been seduced by a mirage. The lines of perspective places the painter or artist at the single prefixed view of the world. This anthropocentric attitude separates and opposes nature and man. If the self is an integral part of nature, nature is not external and objective and so representing the world as distinct from the subject is a futile exercise.

The Buddhist concept that human beings are part of their environment is known as Fuudosei. The human being is not only a viewer but a participator and so according to this view, art is an expression of this intuitive relationship. To represent nature in subjective terms is to reveal its true essence. Western art which relies on the assumption of perspective was, therefore, not 'art'. Shiba Kokan and other Rangakusha did not agree but bitterly attacked traditional art as being mere 'playthings', or 'frivolous and useless'. His criticism did not stop at painting. His explanation of why western science was so advanced was because, he felt, Chinese scholars wasted years learning how to read and write. He admired the phonetic alphabet which was so functional and accessible and saw it as the language system of a 'truly advanced civilization'. There were artists who did see the value of studying both western and traditional painting.
"Only when we know and understand both their methods and ours can we paint well, taking advantage of both of them." Hokusai Katsushika.

The Other 'Other'
To fully understand the criticism of western art it is necessary to appreciate how extensive the prominence of Chinese thought was at the time.
In 17th century Japan there was a resurgence of learning & science in which Chinese learning came under scrutiny and a more of a comprehensive understanding evolved of what had been accepted for centuries. Neo-Confucianism equaled a general belief that Chinese science and Confucianism were comprehensive self-supporting systems. The Sung philosopher Chu Hsi was at the forefront in incorporating Sung teaching into a rational system. He aimed at unity of all knowledge for which he posited a metaphysical dualism. Confucianists in early Tokugawa accepted his ideas as a total synthesis of knowledge organized on three levels of nature within the whole universe; political structure, social and economic theory, and man as a moral being. Many Confucian schools opened & textual criticism developed. The Sakoku isolationist measures of 1630s added to this revival of interest in Chinese thought as well as the arrival of Obaku monks in... as it was aimed only at western influence. No Japanese went abroad to study but the only Chinese books which were banned were those relating to Christianity. The establishment of the Obaku sect helped sustain interest and respect in Chinese culture, and Obaku temples became centres of learning, functioning much like universities. New found economic prosperity lead to a new class of scholarly townsman. The rounin, or lordless samurai also rose in status and were frustrated by their lack of official influence. Learning Buddhism and Chinese culture had been a way in the past to exert influence on cultural, intellectual and even political life. Conclusion. The restriction to western learning had initially intensified anti-western, especially anti-Catholic prejudice and this prejudice continued throughout the Edo period.

The generally accepted view by mid-Edo that western science was advanced in many ways added to the dilemma in the arts. There was quite rightly an anxiety that all traditional values would be lost in a surgence of new information from the West and the anticipation that Japan should 'modernise'.
For a country still grappling with the idea of national identity and political stability, new ideas must have been an incredible threat to the status-quo. Rangaku was somehwhat parallel to Japonisme in that it added to the mystification of the West (as embodied by 'Ran') rather than clarifying the issues. The criticisms of the kind quoted from Nabakayashi represented an internal struggle with change, rather than a dialogue between two cultures.
Western art reprsented a whole cultural system which challenged China as the unquestionable role model and centre of the world. Western maps and science appeared as irrefutible evidence to the contrary. (Sugimoto/ Swain, 1989: 297) It was this fear or awe which was the catalyst for intellectuals in the Edo period to either whole-heartedly embrace or totally refute these findings. It was the working artist who resolved the issue by attempting to amalgamate the two styles in an attempt to offer their clientele something new and 'of the moment'.
Tanya Grassley
December 1997