- Making Modern Japanese-Style Painting: Kano Hōgai and the Search for Images by Chelsea Foxwell
Kano Hōgai 狩野芳崖 (1828–1888) presents something of a paradox. He looms large over the phenomenon of “modern Japanese-style painting” despite his death before the movement got underway. He would certainly have taught at the new Tokyo School of Fine Arts, had he not died the year prior to its opening, and yet those who studied there still painted in his shadow. He became, in Foxwell’s assessment, the “ideal father figure … [who] provided a symbolic foundation for the next generation without actively interfering in its work” (p. 9). Foxwell’s study is a richly conceived, ambitious consideration of the complex process by which the neotraditional form of painting known as nihonga 日本画 came into being, and the role therein played by Hōgai. Yet, rather than a thorough study of Hōgai’s career in toto, this book is a sophisticated conceptual and theoretical treatment which charts the professional and aesthetic shifts occurring within the broad field of “image-making” in Japan during the 1870s and 1880s. Foxwell considers two-dimensional images in the context of the three-dimensional arts that were initially privileged as crucial sources of foreign revenue, and this consideration makes for a rich range of works reproduced and analyzed.
The use of dual terminology in the book’s title—painting and image—is itself indicative of the unstable nature of naming during the period under Foxwell’s consideration: the new category of painting (kaiga 絵画), first used officially in 1882, meant many things to different people, and certain parties strove to circumscribe its parameters. The experiments and transformations visible within Hōgai’s oeuvre are used as a starting point to analyze the broader situation and to consider the multiple agents invested in the search for “images” during the early decades of the Meiji era. Hōgai is a suitable figure for consideration as “a thoughtful painter who confronted myriad problems of the picture’s surface, of audience expectations, and of general political and economic upheaval” (p. 4). [End Page 550]
The “modern Japanese-style painting” in the book’s title is an English rendering of nihonga, a notoriously labile concept coined in reaction to the encounter with Western notions of art and its modes of display and consumption. Foxwell thus introduces Kitazawa Noriaki’s 北澤憲昭 notion of nihonga as “painting in translation,” a form created in response to foreigners’ perceptions and expectations. The neologism was coined during the 1880s in order to refer to the whole of painting created in Japan, viewed ahistorically. More specifically, nihonga described the works created by painters associated with the project to preserve “authentic” Japanese painting, a project that was spearheaded by the American academic Ernest Fenollosa (1853–1908), adviser to the Japanese government and first head of the Tokyo School of Fine Arts. Thus nihonga was clearly premised on the exclusion of Western painting (yoga 洋画), that is, painting in oils. Nihonga existed as a discursive concept before it materialized within artists’ actual work, and Fenollosa’s advocacy and direction were required for its instantiation.
Producers and consumers of “images” during the Meiji era stood on perhaps uniquely unstable ground. Image-making was uncoupled from its established modes of production and patronage. New venues were created for display, new audiences were encouraged to view and assess, and a new taxonomy of art was introduced from the West to organize and categorize exhibits. Foxwell explores how this new form of painting emerged within the nexus of artists, patrons, audiences, critics, and government. She identifies the result as “a kind of expressive crisis in which art became detached from its ordinary circles of viewership and was suspended between domestic and foreign audiences and expectations” (p. 207).
The introduction succinctly sets out the historical context, the art historical issues to be examined, and the case for choosing Hōgai as an object of study. Foxwell is clear that nihonga was contested from...