- Painting Nature for the Nation: Taki Katei and the Challenges to Sinophile Culture in Meiji Japan by Rosina Buckland
Taki Katei (1830–1901) was once the highest-paid artist in Tokyo, a leading master of bunjinga (literati painting), and the only painter to be included in the Meiji hyakketsuden (Biographies of One Hundred Meiji Greats) of 1902. His works represented Japan at international expositions and graced the imperial palace. Despite Katei’s fame in his lifetime, he virtually disappeared from art history after the early 1920s. Only one small museum has ever devoted an exhibition to him. His fading from Japan’s collective consciousness underscores several “historiographical, disciplinary, and conceptual issues” (p. 2) that are the subject of Rosina Buckland’s Painting Nature for the Nation: Taki Katei and the Challenges to Sinophile Culture in Meiji Japan.
The prevailing narrative of modern Japanese painting centers on two contending forces, first, Western-style painting (yōga) and second, Japanese-style painting (nihonga)—especially that by the faculty, students, and graduates of the Tokyo School of Fine Arts (established in 1887). In comparison, monochrome ink landscapes and colorful bird-and-flower paintings rooted in the Chinese-inflected bunjin culture outside of academia have been much overlooked. But this is not to say that bunjinga did not evolve into a potent instrument of nation-building, as yōga and nihonga did, starting in the Meiji period.
One reason for historians’ relative neglect of bunjinga, Buckland observes, is “a modernist bias towards new departures, focusing on the ‘pioneers’ who struggled to produce oil paintings on canvas and then on the ‘reformers’ of traditional Japanese painting” (p. 4). Another factor is the difficulty of placing Sinophile culture, inherited from the Tokugawa period, in the framework of Japanese nationalism in a new age of rising westernization. Painting Nature for the Nation complicates this Japan-West dualism, taking stock of the ways in which the Sinified bunjinga emerged as a major [End Page 331] type of Japanese “nationalist painting” despite Japan’s growing sense of superiority over China.
To date, the only in-depth study of the deployment of bunjinga (also called nanga) for geopolitical purposes and of bunjinga’s Sino-Japanese network is the Ph.D. dissertation by Rhiannon Paget, “State of the Art and Art of the State: Komuro Suiun (1874–1945) and Nanga in Imperial Japan” (University of Sydney, 2015). This work adds to the findings on Sino-Japanese diplomatic art exhibitions in my own Parting the Mists: Discovering Japan and the Rise of National-Style Painting in Modern China (University of Hawai’i Press, 2006). But both of those works focus more on the Taishō and early Shōwa periods (1910s–1930s). Buckland’s contribution is on the Meiji period, when bunjinga flourished commercially and was actively promoted by the imperial family. In 1893, in recognition of his service to the court, Katei was given the title of “Imperial Household Artist,” which came with “an annual pension of one hundred yen and considerable prestige” (p. 137). The system of appointing Imperial Household Artists was created to support traditional arts and crafts toward the larger goal of “cultural unification of the modern nation of Japan under the imperial system” (p. 138).
Japanese bunjinga included paintings in ink as well as in mineral pigments for rendering flora and fauna in saimitsu (meticulous) style. Katei produced a large number of works of these kinds on hanging scrolls, sliding doors, ceilings, and screens. Besides decorating interiors, some of his compositions were made into lacquerwares and metalwork. Admittedly, his iconography was rather predictable. For a set of luxurious screens with engraved silver plaques commissioned for the silver wedding anniversary of the emperor and empress in 1894, Katei offered birds, flowers, deer, waves, and the rising sun. Buckland notes that artists like Katei who straddled “fine arts” and “crafts” became casualties of an “epistemological shift” (p. 5) between the 1870s and 1890s that privileged kaiga (paintings) on silk as the preeminent “fine art,” considered “equivalent...