(based on Modern Japanese Art, A Concise
History: Gallery Guide to the Collection of the
National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, 2005)
“ . . . modern Japanese art has evolved under
the strong influence of European and
American art. . . Although the Japanese people
were at the mercy of the gap that existed
between European culture and their own, that
gap served as a stimulus for them to develop
shrewdly a new culture of their own. [6]
“From the beginning of the 20th century
onwards, Japanese painting was divided into
two categories, nihonga (Japanese-style
painting) and yoga (Western-style painting).
. . Nihonga is a direct extension of Japanese
painting from ancient times and employs sumi
ink and mineral pigments on paper or silk. Yoga
refers to painting done in oil, a medium that was
rapidly transplanted from Europe from the latter
half of the 19th century onwards.” (7)
1. At the Launch of the Fine Arts Exhibition
(Bunten) (1907)
Having outgrown both worship of the
West and xenophobic nationalism, the country
started to explore what kind of culture it
would need to acquire as a modern nation.
Shimura Kanzan, Autumn among Trees (1907)
Skillfully adopted Western techniques in order
to modernize nihonga. Autumn among Trees
depicts the trees in graded shades in order to
provide Western-style perspective, which
gives the overall image of depth.
Hishida Shunso, Bodhisattva Genju (1907)
Shunso in Bodhisattva Genju painted in a
pointillist style, without employing lines.
Graduating the color tones produced a sense of
perspective and three-dimensionality.
Wada Sanzo, South Wind (1907)
South Wind, ordinary people’s life presented
with compassion, as well as historical
episodes that reflected the artist’s own
feelings towards historical characters in ways
not seen in earlier works that were detached
and without subjective emotion.
2. Art in the Meiji (1868-1912) and Taisho
(1912-1926) Periods–Humanism
The need to make statements advocating
individuality and freedom was apparently
based on a new set of values that had emerged
against the nationalism dominating the country
since the Meiji Restoration, when it was
adopted as a necessity in achieving
Ogiwara Morie, Woman (1910)
Woman is of monumental significance in the
history of modern sculpture in that it enabled
the Japanese to realize the expressive
potential of sculpture. “Throughout the Meiji
period, all Japanese sculpture had managed to
do was to present the model faithfully. Ogiwara
reached a totally new level when he succeeded
in capturing human beings complete with
emotions of love and agony.” (30)
Hayami Gyoshu, Tea Bowl and Fruits (1921)
Taisho Realism, as seen in Hayami’s Tea Bowl
and Fruits, emphasized texture over spatial
depth and attached great importance to the act
of diligently working on precise details.
Kishida Ryusei, Road Cut through a Hill (1915)
Road Cut through a Hill (1915), one sees the
way he tries to identify “beauty’’ in even the
soil and weeds by depicting them
realistically with great persistence.
3. Art of the Prewar Showa (1926-1945)
Period–Artists in the Modern City
“The Great Kanto Earthquake hit the Tokyo
area in 1923 and the city suffered extensive
destruction. The last remnants of old houses
from the Edo period were wiped out, and
concrete buildings started to pop in their
place. The first subway line was opened, and
other fundamentals of a modern city were built
one after another. . . , the new urban culture
blossomed in large cities, and women wearing
bobbed hair and Western-style clothes, called
`moga’ (modern girls), flocked to fashionable
places and enjoyed the new liberated lifestyle.”
Innovative trends developed under the influence of
European movements such as Cubism, Futurism,
Expressionism, Dadism, and Constructivism.
Japanese artists began to discover the special
dynamism and social contradictions of the large
People found that life in large cities, which offered
spectacles and stimulation, was coupled with the
solitude of being an anonymous individual within
a huge crowd. The sense of disconnectedness
and the need for spiritual support grew.
Murals became very popular and many cafes and
department stores adorned their walls with them.
Saeki Yuzo, Gas Lamp and Advertisements (1927)
Hasekawa Toshiyuki, View of Shinjuki (c. 1937)
4. Art of the Prewar Showa (1926-1945)
Period–Maturity of Nihonga (Japanese-style
Only nationalistic values were approved by
the government and society, so artists came
to take more interest in Japanese culture
and the Eastern heritage, and many adopted
techniques and expressions from traditional
Japanese art. Sophisticated approach to
composition and colour choices was, at the
same time, based on a thorough grasp of
traditional painting styles from Japan and,
more generally, from the East.
Both Kobayashi’s Indian Corn Plants (1939)
and Yasuda’s Camp at Kisegawa (1940/41),
which are good examples of this style, show
an excellent grasp of form and colour, while the
less important details and emotional elements
have been eliminated and the background is left
Kobayashi Kokei, Indian Corn Plants (1939)
pair of screens
Yasuda Yukihiko, Camp at Kisegawa (1940-/41)
pair of screens
5. Art during and after the War
The majority of artists were sent to the front and
commissioned by the army to paint records of
the war.
Shimizu Toshi, Japanese Engineers’ Bridge Construction in Malaya (c.1944)
After the war, artists confronted a relationship
between art and society that differed from that
which existed during the war. “Realism,” that is,
an effort to approach the truth, was
reinvestigated. Artists tried to approach human
existence itself, rid of ostentation, or to uncover
social contradictions.
Aso’s Saburo, Red Sky (1956), represents a
human being confronting the oppressive reality of
the postwar era by placing one layer of paint over
another as if in contention against the space of the
image. “Nihonga” artists also sought a new
direction. The postwar era criticized various
traditions and conventions that had previously
prevailed in Japan.
Aso Saburo, Red Sky (1956)
Under such circumstances, nihonga was also
a target for reexamination. Nihonga artists
responded by questioning the meaning of
tradition and how a new type of nihonga could
be created from it. Road (1950) by
Higashiyama Kaii hints at the start of postwar
nihonga, a means of projecting spirituality
within a modern formal sensibility.
Higashiyama Kaii, Road (1950)
6. Art in the 1950s and the 1960s
The first step forward for postwar art was to part
with the half-hearted attitude towards work that
still persisted from before. The significance of
nihonga, which was so adamant about
observing tradition that it had become
detached from social reality, was questioned
strongly In Yokoyama’s Tower (1957).
Yokoyama Misao, Tower (1957)
Hamaguchi Yozo, Blue Glass (1957) mezzotint
New ideas were introduced to allow the
artist’s feelings to be revealed. Art was
considered to be a direct confrontation
between the paint and the brushwork and
the artist’s body. Out of this tension came
experimental expressions that went far
beyond the conventions of art.
Mainstream art shifted away from realism
and into abstract painting. Hamaguchi Yozo’s,
Blue Glass (1957) is characterized by a black
background. Within the silent darkness, a vivid
impression is produced through the contrast
between the cold texture of the cherries visible
through the blue glass and the feeling of vitality in
the cherries overflowing the bowl.
Beginning in the late 50's the anti-art
movement began, which featured the use of
waste materials to create art, with a goal to
destroying the existing view of art. In 1964, this
movement carried forward into guerilla events
on the streets of Tokyo in attempt to disturb the
order of the city that was being prepared for the
Olympics. This was an age of many new forms
of expression beyond the framework of
conventional genres.
Miki Tomio, Ear (1965)
7. Contemporary Art, the 1970s and Beyond
The artist, by working his material, whether
paint or plaster, aesthetically refines form and
color and transfers it from the world of nature to
the side of culture. However, from the late
1960s, a group of artists known as Mono-ha
(Matter-school), . . . began creating a different
type of work. They refrained as far as
possible from processing matter and
attempted to present the incident itself that
occurs through the one-time encounter
between nature (matter and space) and
Enrokura Koji, Interference (Story-No. 18) (1991)
Instead of paint and bronze, they employed
natural materials such as stone, wood, soil,
and sometimes fire, water, or live animals.
Instead of the traditional procedures of drawing,
painting, or sculpting, acts following natural
force (gravity), such as laying, stacking, and
leaning, came to play the key role. . . Enokura
Koji’s Interference (Story-No. 18) (1991) took
advantage of the physical phenomenon of paint
seeping into cotton.
Lee U-Fan, From Line (1977)
Lee U-Fan in From Line (1977) dipped his
brush in mineral pigments and pulled it
downwards in a single stroke. He performed
this act repeatedly until he had covered the
entire canvas.
SLIDE Kusama Yayoi, I Want to Live Forever
(2008) is said to have experienced since
childhood a peculiar vision of a pattern that
proliferates to such an extent that it fills the
world and the artist herself ceases to exist. The
ultimate unity of the world and the self
eventually became the continuing subject of
Kusama’s art. The canvas is covered in minute
nets and dots, of which not a single one is the
same as any other.

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