Japanese Painting in Search of Western Realism

Wednesday, October 19 at 18 p.m.: Japanese Painting in Search of Western Realism, Conference by Christine Shimizu, Honorary General Curator of Heritage, former Director of the Cernuschi Museum.

The first contacts of Japan with the West are due to the Portuguese. They are the first to develop the sea route of “spices”. In fact, the first goal was to counter the stranglehold of the Arabs on the Mediterranean by entering into contact with the kingdom of Prester John, which was located in Africa. To do this they have the idea of ​​circumventing the Maghreb. In 1487, Bartolomeu Dias (1450-1500) crossed the coast of Namibia. He passed the Cape of Storms (Cape of Good Hope) and arrived at Mossel Bay. However, he must stop in the face of a risk of mutiny. Ten years later, Vasco de Gama (1469-1524) resumed the route taken by Dias. He landed on May 21, 1498 a few kilometers from Calicut. After three voyages, Portugal set up a large number of trading posts along the eastern African coast and in India. The "spice route" is open and the Portuguese commercial empire will extend to Macao.
Three Portuguese, after many adventures aboard a Chinese junk, landed in 1543 on the island of Tanegashima located south of Kyūshū. Three years later, three Portuguese vessels reached Japan and this was the beginning of quite important commercial exchanges.

The routes taken by the Portuguese to Asia.

Arrival of the Barbarians from the South. Screen of a pair (detail). Kano school. Late 16th century. Kanagawa Prefectural History Museum.

In 1549, Saint Francis Xavier helped by a samurai, Anjirō, whom he converted to Catholicism in Goa, landed in Kagoshima. He begins the evangelization of the fief of Satsuma whose lord wishes to intensify his commercial relations with the Portuguese. We know about sixty pairs of screens called by the Japanese Nanban byōbu or "screens of the southern barbarians" (name given to Westerners). They depict the departure from an (Indian?) port and the arrival in Japan of a Portuguese caravel. Thus, on one, the ship enters a port, with on board merchants who are expected by missionaries. On the second, the captain of the ship heads for a temple, probably converted into a church, where a missionary awaits him outside the door.

Nanban Oratory (detail). Oil painting on copper. End of the 16th century. Santa Casa de Misecórdia, Sardoal.

Four horsemen in combat. 4 leaf screen. Early 17th century. Kobe City Museum of Nanban Art.

Jesuits send Western works for personal use and proselytizing purposes. However, their number is insufficient in front of the local demand of the lords. Father Alessandro Valignano arrived in Japan in 1579 and created a first school of Western paintings and called on an Italian painter Giovanni Niccolo. Valignano opens schools and seminaries on the fiefdoms of the Otomo, Arima and Omura lords, all located in Kyūshū. Besides religious paintings, Japanese artists copied or drew inspiration from Western works in the early 17th century. The screen Four horsemen in battle draws its representations from several engraved sources (Engravings of the 12 Roman emperors, c.1590, by Adriaen Collaert and portraits of emperors appearing on a map of the world by Wilhem Blaeu). The pair of screens Twenty-eight cities and a myriad of countries (Imperial Collection) bears witness to the introduction of Western cartography by Wilhem Blaeu, cartographer of the East India Company. Aerial views of famous cities in the known world are also borrowed from Western prints, such as the View of Rome derived from an engraving of the biography of St Ignatius published in Antwerp in 1610.

Twenty-eight cities and a myriad of countries (detail). 17th century (after 1632), Imperial Household Collection.

If the representation of soldiers and horsemen corresponds to the taste of the samurai, the elites certainly appreciate the exoticism of the genre scenes depicting Western landscapes and costumes. The pair of six-leaf screens European musicians (Eisei Bunko, Tōkyō) illustrates, on one, a country party with the temple of love and, on the other, a bucolic scene of musicians. Although the costumes and musical instruments are correctly represented, the perspective is quite different, the characters seem to be placed against a background of a distant bluish landscape.

European musicians. Early XNUMXth century. Eisei Bunko, Tokyo.

The pair of screens from the Map of the World and the Battle of Lepanto (Kōsetsu Museum, Kobe) is a composition made from several Western sources: we recognize in the Turk seated on an elephant an engraving by Cornelis Cort after the painting by Giulio Romano in the Vatican, entitled the Battle of Scipio, and in the king of the Christian forces seated on a throne, an engraving of the Triumphs, series of the Twelve Roman Emperors by Adriaen Collaeert published around 1570 after drawings by Stradanus (Jan van der Straet).

The Map of the World and the Battle of Lepanto. Around 1610-1614. Kosetsu Museum, Kobe.

The age of assimilation of pictorial techniques corresponds to the middle of the 18th century thanks to the establishment of the Dutch East India Company (VOC).

In 1636, the Factorerie de Dejima (formerly Tsukijima) was installed on an island built in the shape of a fan. For political reasons, the Portuguese were expelled in 1639 and, in 1641, the bakufu ordered the Dutch from the VOC to move their trading post from Hirado to this island.

The shōgun Tokugawa Yoshimune, interested in science (astronomy and mathematics) wants to obtain an exact calendar with the movements of the planets and stars to regulate the rites with accuracy. He addresses a Japanese man who refers to a Chinese book, himself indicating that the source is Western: in 1720, a decree was issued to encourage the study of Dutch and Dutch sciences. As the Japanese in charge of the scientific aspect and the language could only meet the Dutch once a year in Edo, progress was slow and only resulted in 1758 in the writing of a first dictionary. The great wave of Dutch studies (rangaku) ​​took place in the second half of the 18th century. The "red hair" (kōmō) are recognized as superior to the Chinese and Japanese by advocates of Dutch studies.
The first stage in the westernization of painting took place in 1718 with the introduction of the darkroom from Suzhou (China). It allows to carry out megane-e, views using linear perspective.
The first examples of megane-e would be those of Maruyama Ōkyo (1763-1795) produced in Kyōtō around 1759-1767, like the Archery competition at Sanjūsangendō attributed to Okyo. These linear perspective paintings are called uki-e and are also used by the print painter Okumura Masanobu (1686-1764). The Japanese transposition of the Western perspective is sometimes difficult to adapt, as can be seen in a print of a View of green house of this artist where the interior of a room in linear perspective and an exterior landscape in axonometric perspective cohabit according to the Japanese technique.

Maruyama Okyo (1733-1795). Archery competition at Sanjūsangendō. Circa 1759. Uki-e type woodcut.

Okumura Masanobu (1686-1764). Green house view. Circa 1770. Uki-e type woodcut.

The most important current of Westernizing painting is that called “School of Akita”. Hiraga Gennai (1729-1780) is the founder of this movement of Dutch Akita studies. Son of samurai from a small fishing village in Shikoku, he studied botany and visited Nagasaki in 1753 where he studied Western painting. Mineralogist, zoologist, writer, potter, political writer, he was invited by Lord Satake to the stronghold of Akita in 1773 to study the possibilities of mining and develop the output of the Ani copper mine. However, he did not limit himself to this and gave painting lessons to young samurais, such as Odano Naotake (1749-1780). In his oil painting Western portrait, Gennai tries to render the volume of a face seen from the front.

Hiraga Gennai (1729-1780) Portrait of Westerner. Oil on canvas. Kobe City Museum.

Odano Naotake (1749-1780) Shinobazu Pond. Oil on canvas. Akita Museum of Modern Art.

Satake Shōzan (1748-1785) Parrot on a Pine. Colors on silk. Private collection.

Odano Naotake is trained like all sons of samurai at the Kanō school. He is interested inukiyo-e and to the Chinese current of Shen Nanpin, but learns from Gennai how to depict objects, not with lines alone, but with oppositions of colors defining shadow and light. His oil painting, Shinobazu Pond, a place for the Edoites to walk, is built on several planes: a foreground with a pot of peonies and a distance marked by a horizon line separating the lake and the land from an immense sky in the style of Flemish painters; the lighting projected on the tree and the flowerpot, the shadows cast on the ground are technical innovations in Japanese painting. Shades of blue in the sky and clouds create atmosphere.
Boat back to Shinagawa, colors on silk by Naotake, shows great skill in integrating the lessons he draws from the engravings, even small ones, that he has at his disposal. The model for this painting is probably borrowed from the Abbé Pluche (Spectacle de la Nature, 1732-42 translated into Dutch) with his boats of various sizes to suggest distance, reflections in the water and the shape of the sail .
Satake Shōzan (1748-1785), of the Akita School, wrote a book in 1778 on the laws of painting, explaining perspective, shading and pigments. His painting on silk Parrot on a pine is crossed by a tree trunk arranged at an angle, in close-up, typically Japanese, but takes up the three compositional elements that Naotake developed: shade on the tree with an identifiable light source, a large sky and a line low horizon, reflections in the water.
In the 18th century, interest in natural history was renewed by illustrated works imported from the West and Japanese artists created numerous albums of studies of insects, animals and birds. Of the Studies of Shōzan would have served as study material for his large-scale paintings, but also for use by other Akita artists.
This current of interest in Western painting is also found in Edo (Tōkyō) with, as the main representative of Western painting in the 18th century, Shiba Kōkan (1747-1818). At the beginning of his career, he was an imitator of Harunobu, painter of prints ukiyo-e, then he turns to Chinese painting and surprises with his mastery of ink. But in 1763, he met Gennai from whom he learned oil painting. His first works feature Mount Fuji because he sees that the Dutch appreciate this subject very much when they come to Edo. He wants to depict the mountain as realistically as possible and give it volume. Shiba Kōkan met with Dutch embassies in Edo several times and obtained from the Dutch resident, Titsingh, a copy of the Big book of painters by Gérard de Lairesse who will have a lot of influence on Japanese artists. The art of etching was rediscovered by Shiba Kōkan (the Jesuits had introduced some examples), but the quality was poor. He was, however, the first to adopt the darkroom to execute engravings on copper.

Satake Shozan (1748-1785). Studies. Ink and colors on paper Private collection.

Shiba Kokan (1747-1818). Mount Fuji. 1812. Oil on canvas. Asian Art Museum San Francisco.

Isohachi Wakasugi (1759-1805). Basket of flowers. Colors on silk.

It was above all Aōdō Denzen (1748-1822) who made the etchings. He was sent by Matsudaira Sadanobu to Nagasaki in 1799 to learn the process directly from the Dutch, which earned him his nickname “Aōdō” (Pavilion of Asia and Europe). His painting on a screen, Mount Asama, presents a Western approach to a Japanese subject, but the decorative aspect of the large colored masses is still dependent on Japanese painting.
In Nagasaki, a current favorable to Western-style painting developed, in particular with Kawahara Keiga (1786-1860). In 1725, a shipment from Holland of a flower basket painting by Willem van Royen to the shōgun and was put on public display. Isohachi Wakasugi (1759-1805) painted flowers and landscapes in the Dutch style.

Aodo Denzen (1748-1822). Mount Asama (Detail). Oil on paper. Tokyo National Museum.

Hokusai (1760-1849). Chie no Umi. 1832-1834. (Detail). Xylography.

Interestingly, Hokusai (1760-1849) will use Western perspective. when he paints Chie no Umi (1832-1834), he uses a number of effects that can be found in Landscape at Mount Fuji (1798) by Shiba Kōkan: perspective, horizon line, rendering of the wind in the sail. If the woodcut treatment is Japanese, the entire composition is indebted to the work of Shiba Kōkan.


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