East, West, and Transformation

Late 19th century Japanese art sought to find its place among the influx of Western ideas and a growing sense of nationalism, where the definition of art in a social and historical context was more ambiguous than ever before. There were suddenly two terms for art itself – yoga and nihonga – that needed to anchor their identities, just as Japan had to find a balance between accepting foreign influence and strengthening their position in a global context. It was harder to determine the value of Western influence during the period of cultural nationalism, because the political relationship between Japan and Europe was not quite certain. They did not entirely look upon the West as a cultural model they had done for China, because now there was a sense of competition, and establishing a national identity would begin to secure their standing in the eyes of foreign nations. Thus, blindly emulating Western styles of painting could pose a problem in terms of distinguishing the difference between influence and gradual subservience. Yoga and nihonga schools could not exist as completely separate entities, just as Japan could not remain isolated and open to outside influence at the same time.

Both the Western and Japanese traditions had been irrevocably infused with each other’s ideologies and visual representations. As European artists questioned the meaning of the brush in relation to perception, Japanese artists debated the role of the individual artist’s vision. As Japanese painters strove to apply Western techniques and ideas to their own painting, the West was most fascinated by earlier styles that were uniquely Japanese, possibly overshadowing some of the artists working at the turn of the century.

There are hundreds of books on Edo prints and numerous examples online, but it is hard to find as much information about painters such as Kawai Gyokudō or Shimomura Kanzan, even though their art is equally interesting, if not more so. Their paintings are hard to pinpoint or identify with certain cultural or historic associations, as individual artistic vision became more accepted, but it is precisely the exchange of visuals and ideas that enriched both traditions. Both artists, like many of the time, were trained in Western techniques, but chose to reflect traditional Japanese style in their paintings, resulting in a broader, more ambiguous view of art.