Yokoyama Taikan: Japan’s ‘National Artist’
Who hasn’t sometimes wondered what they should be looking at when they attend an art exhibition? Here, art writer, Makoto Murata, shares his insights into the unique aspects we should look out for with each featured exhibition.
Yokoyama Taikan Gunjō Fuji (Fuji Dyed Ultramarine) c.1917. Shizuoka Prefectural Museum of Art. (On display 3～22 July)
A ‘national artist’
The term, kokumin gaka, or ‘national artist’, refers to a painter who is loved and respected by the people of Japan, and whose work symbolises the spirit of the nation. The term might make one think of Sesshū Tōyō (1420-1506), the master of ink and wash painting, or of Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), the ukiyo-e artist. However, neither of these artists has ever been referred to as a ‘national artist’, possibly because during their lifetimes Japan had not yet developed a sense of nationhood. The concept of Japan as an imperial nation unified under a divine ruler did not come about until the Meiji Reformation of 1868.
So, if the concept of ‘nation’ is a modern idea, who would be a ‘national painter’ in Japan’s modern age?
If we conducted a survey, the name Yokoyama Taikan is bound to be at the top of the list, or at the very least in the top three. There are a number of reasons why this is so.
The first reason is that he painted Nihonga (Japanese-style paintings).
This is an important point. For instance, the term ‘national artist’ has never been used to describe Kuroda Seiki, who introduced oil painting to Japan, or Okayama Tarō, who breathed new life into the Japanese art scene after the war, although both of these artists were loved and respected by the Japanese people. However, with Kuroda being responsible for importing a foreign art form and Okayama’s work being outlandishly avant-garde, one would hesitate to call either of them ‘national artists’. But with a nihonga painter, the term somehow seems a more comfortable fit.
The second reason is that Yokoyama repeatedly painted Mount Fuji. Needless to say, Mount Fuji symbolises Japan and Yokoyama’s painting of Fuji was connected to his own love of Japan. Other typically Japanese themes that he chose were cherry blossoms, autumn leaves, the rising sun and groves of pine trees. In other words, kachōfūgetsu, the traditional themes of nature befitting a nihonga artist.
And thirdly, born in 1868, the first year of the Meiji Period, Yokoyama came of age together with modern Japan, living for almost a century until the late 1950s. He remained a popular nihonga artist his whole life.
Yokoyama was born the eldest son of a former samurai family of the Mito clan. He was a foundation student at Okakura Tenshin’s newly opened Tōkyō Bijutsu Gakkō (present-day Tokyo University of the Arts), where he studied nihonga.
Let us pause here for clarification. While we might think of nihonga as being a traditional Japanese art form that has existed for centuries, nihonga was in fact an invention of the modern age. Artworks from before the Meiji Period are variously categorised according to their techniques (suibokuga ink paintings, ukiyo-e woodblock prints), or according to which particular style they followed, such as the Rinpa School or Kanō School of painting. Alternatively, they might be called yamato-ga or waka (Japanese paintings) to distinguish them from kara-e (after the style of colourful T’ang Dynasty Chinese paintings) or kan-ga (after the style of Chinese ink paintings).
Nihonga developed as a genre from around 1900. The aim was to reinvigorate traditional Japanese art by consciously incorporating what were considered to be the best aspects of traditional art, and combining these aspects with techniques and materials from Western art. The purpose was to counter what some felt was an infatuation with the West.
The biggest proponent of the nihonga movement was Okakura Tenshin, who developed the theory, but it was his students such as Yokoyama Taikan who put the theory into practice.
Yokoyama Taikan Yozakura (Cherry Blossoms at Night) 1929. Ōkura Museum of Art (On display 8 June – 1 July)
Yokoyama Taikan Kōyō (Autumn Leaves) 1931. Adachi Museum of Art (On display 8 June – 1 July)
Creating a viable art genre was no mean feat; in fact, it involved a great deal of trial and error. Japanese painting had previously emphasized clear contour lines but Yokoyama Taikan moved away from line in his early days, diluting his ink in order to express light and shading as well as to create aerial effects. As a result, his outlines were blurry and his work was criticized as being lifeless and vague.
Interestingly for nihonga, Yokoyama incorporated contemporary events and foreign themes into his work. In a six-panel screen, he painted Niagara Falls on the left and the Great Wall of China on the right. In another painting he depicted Japan as a lost child being helped by major religious figures, the Buddha, Confucius, Lao-tsu and Christ (which reflected his view on the direction contemporary Japanese society was taking). He also depicted Halley’s Comet, which passed during 1910. All of these were painted during the Meiji Period (1868 – 1912), the period during which Japan crafted its modernization and as nihonga, they represent extraordinary ideas and unprecedented experimentation.
Yet, when we think of Taikan, we think of the elegant scenes depicted in paintings such as Yozakuraor Kōyō, or majestic works in ink such as the forty metre-long Suisui Ruten (Metempsychosis/The Wheel of Life) scroll.And above all, we associate him with the over 1,500 images of Mount Fuji that were the crowning achievement of his life’s work.
Interestingly, compared with Yokoyama’s early paintings of Fuji, the paintings he made of Japan’s iconic mountain towards the end of his life look as if they were painted by someone else entirely. For instance, the Fuji depicted in the six-panel screen Gunjō Fuji (Fuji Dyed Ultramarine) is a steep-sided mountain rising abruptly above the clouds like a somewhat comical caricature. Contrast this with Aru Hi no Taiheiyō (The Pacific Ocean, One Day), painted in 1952. In this painting Fuji, only just visible at the top of the painting, is depicted with photographic realism.
Yokoyama’s wide range of artistic expression spanning a lifetime of painting is part of the appeal of his work.
One thing that cannot be overlooked in Yokoyama’s depictions of Mount Fuji is the Umi-yama Jū-dai series he painted in 1940, when Japan was in the third year of its war in China. The series comprises ten views of Mount Fuji and ten seascapes, which were exhibited separately. These works were to commemorate the 2,600th anniversary of the Empire of Japan – celebrating the Emperor Jimmu, legendary descendant of the sun goddess – a time when nationalistic fervour was at a peak in Japan. Yokoyama donated the proceeds of the exhibition towards the purchase of four fighter planes – two for the navy and two for the army. As a painter of his time, Yokoyama was a model patriot and in his patriotic behaviour, he lived up to the title of ‘national painter’.
Speaking of war, in 1937, the year the second Sino-Japanese war began, Yokoyama Taikan, along with Kyōto’s Takeuchi Seihō, was one of the first recipients of the new Order of Culture medal. Perhaps in return for this honour, Yokoyama and Takeuchi created the original paintings used for posters for the National Spiritual Mobilization Movement, whose purpose was to rally the nation for the war effort against China.
The following year, at the request of the Ministry of Education, Yokoyama’s painting, Kyokujitsu Reihō (Sacred Mountain with Rising Sun), was presented to Adolf Hitler (one of Yokoyama’s works having been presented to Mussolini ten years earlier). In 1943, when the war intensified, Yokoyama became the inaugural chairman of the Nihon Bijutsu Hōkokukai (Japan Art Patriotic Society), set up to harness the creativity of the nation’s artists in service of the war effort. However, after Japan’s defeat when the Empire of Japan was dismantled, Yokoyama was criticised for having cooperated with the war effort.
When viewing Yokoyama’s work, it is worth remembering that his connections to the Imperial Household and his links to nationalism are what lie behind the principal themes of his nihonga paintings. ‘National painter’ has a nice ring to it, but patriotism can spill over into nationalism and under a wartime regime, people can find themselves acting as national flag bearers for the regime.
Yokoyama was, after all, born into a samurai family with a deep reverence for the emperor. Strongly affected by the ultranationalism of his artistic mentor, Okakura Tenshin, Yokoyama was, in fact, a staunch nationalist himself.
The 150th Anniversary of His Birth: Yokoyama Taikan exhibition
runs from Friday 8 June until Sunday 22 July at the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyōto.
A graduate in Fine Arts from Tokyo Zōkei University, Makoto Murata worked in the editorial department at the magazine, Pia, before setting out as a freelance art writer. He lectures part-time at Tokyo Zōkei University and is the principal of the BankART School (post-graduate school of art) in Yokohama. He has authored a number of books on art in Japanese.
Judy Evans is a high school teacher of English and Japanese, and a Japanese-English translator. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Japanese and Art History and has studied production horticulture and landscape design. Judy has a keen interest in the internet environment and has administered websites for a number of organisations. She lives on a small farm in rural New Zealand and is a frequent visitor to Japan.