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  • What's in a Name?Rethinking Critical Terms Used to Discuss Mōrōtai
  • Victoria Weston (bio)

What's in a name? A rose is still a rose, but our understanding of the plant is improved when the terms of description and categorization are precise. In any domain of inquiry scholars sort, identify, and create structures of thinking that help us (hopefully) better understand our objects of interest and allow us to create narratives for sharing those thoughts with others. In art history, we take artists and their works and look for commonalities to describe styles, movements, and ideas. Meiji-period Japan (1868-1912) was an especially active and diverse period as artists sought to engage the titanic cultural ferment attending Western-style industrialization. Sundered from organic development within a named tradition, Meiji painters embraced a cornucopia of stylistic choice and a need to situate their work in a relevant engagement with the evolving present. Terms and goals were in constant contest in the dynamic environment of exhibition, review, and publication. Historians keep the struggle alive as we validate, repudiate, or redefine the search for more accurate structures of analysis. Nowhere is this more the case than in the career of Okakura Kakuzō (1863-1913), and nowhere is this more apparent than in the critical discourse addressed to the painting commonly known as "mōrōtai." This work, noted for its diffuse, even hazy forms, defied conventional style labels and forced critics and painters alike to invent their critical vocabulary.

Okakura was a product of his times, a bilingual intellectual riveted by the problem of Japan's status in international affairs. As a leading art critic, bureaucrat, writer, and educator in the later 1880s and 1890s, Okakura utilized these multiple platforms to promote a vision of Japanese art that would be responsive to contemporary life, embody shared cultural ideals, and burnish Japan's international reputation for artistic excellence. Okakura's activities are best understood as ever sensitive to Japan's position in the competition of nations. Tutored by Ernest Fenollosa, one of many foreigners hired by the Japanese government to lay foundations in Japan for Westernized education, politics, and [End Page 116] industry, Okakura understood the prevailing dismissive attitudes of Western critics toward Asian art. In addition, Okakura imbibed largely Western values of national art, the artist as public intellectual, and authenticity of cultural expression in the face of growing globalization.

The painters led organizationally and intellectually by Okakura spent much of their careers experimenting with ways to realize his ideas. First coming together as students and teachers at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts (Tokyo Bijutsu Gakkō) and later as founders of the Japan Art Institute (Nihon Bijutsuin), this collective functioned much like the many exhibition societies of this era.1 Thanks to the enormous fame achieved by some of these painters later in their careers, most notably Yokoyama Taikan and Shimomura Kanzan, and to Okakura's accomplishments and writings, this group rightly owns an important place in Japanese art history. The narrative of this group history begins with Okakura himself, who wrote prolifically in Japanese and English in order to shape how his contemporaries viewed the Meiji art world and his group's place in it. The artists exhibited frequently and occasionally published explanations of their works that addressed both style and content. Critics reviewed the public exhibitions in the many newspapers and journals of the era, bringing competing interpretations and labels to the work. This is the broader history I discuss in my Japanese Painting and National Identity: Okakura Tenshin and His Circle.2 The experimental "mōrōtai" works of the last years of the 1890s and into the first decade of the 1900s attracted some of the painters' harshest reviews.

In the early 1900s, some of Okakura's painters made works that defied traditional stylistic labels. Intense critical debate revolved around stylistic antecedents, the paintings' authenticity as expressions of national culture, and even what to call them. Who posited the labels, what names stuck with the works over time, and which works comprised a grouping continue to shape our understanding of not only the paintings themselves but also how we understand the artists' goals. In...