A Look at Remaking Tradition: Modern Art of Japan from the Tokyo National Museum

Maiko Girl, 1893 (Meiji 26). Kuroda Seiki (1866-1924). Oil on canvas: 80.4 x 65.3 cm. Tokyo National Museum, A-11258. Important Cultural Property.

Opening this weekend, the Cleveland Museum of Art presents Remaking Tradition: Modern Art of Japan from the Tokyo National Museum, which features more than 50 masterpieces of modern Japanese art from the Tokyo National Museum. Exhibition highlights include six objects considered ‘Important Cultural Properties of Japan.’ These include Maiko Girl by Kuroda Seiki and Portrait of Reiko by Kishida Ryūsei as well as other important works in Japanese modern art history such as Mount Fuji Rising above Clouds by Yokoyama Taikan and Spring Rain by Shimomura Kanzan. 

Modern Japanese artists re-formed and explored the visual presentation of the traditional arts from the late 19th to the early 20th centuries, inspired by their cross-cultural explorations of Western art and its paradigms. The masterworks assembled in Remaking Tradition: Modern Art of Japan from the Tokyo National Museum reflect a confluence of influences drawn from the Japanese traditional style of painting in concert with the emerging crafts tradition and Western styles of oil painting and sculpture.

By reinterpreting tradition in Japanese modern art, they maintained the continuity between the pre-modern Edo period and the beginning of the Meiji period as well as integrating cultural influences from the West. Japanese artists invented new traditions for a new age employing a variety of media, including painting, crafts, and sculpture. We highlight three of significant objects from the show below, with additional insight from Curator of Japanese and Korean Art, Sinéad Vilbar.

Portrait of Reiko, 1921 (Taishō 10). Kishida Ryūsei (1891–1929). Oil on canvas; 44.2 x 36.4 cm. Tokyo National Museum, A-10568. Important Cultural Property

SV: Sixworks of art in the show are designated as Important Cultural Properties by the Japanese government. One of these is the 1921 Portrait of Reiko by Kishida Ryūsei (1891–1929), an artist who deeply embraced Western philosophy and aesthetics. Kishida’s reception of Western painting was indirect. Although he longed to travel to Europe, he never had the opportunity. His primary exposure to Western art came through reproductions in the literary journal of the White Birch Society (Shirakaba-ha), a group of writers and artists who sought to promote Western humanism and individualism in Japanese intellectual circles. A touching image of his daughter, the painting is one of a series depicting her that demonstrate Kishida’s interest in the realism of Northern European Renaissance artists.

Priest of Brahmanism, 1914 (Taishō 3). Satō Chōzan (1888–1963). Wood with polychromy; h. 63.9 cm (with base). Tokyo National museum, C-1501

SV: Sculpture also occupies pride of place in the exhibition. One memorable sculpture contributes further to the narrative of how those “caught in transition” managed to adapt their traditional skills to the new reality unfolding around them. This is the 1914 Priest of Brahmanism by Satō Chōzan (1888–1963), who was raised in a family of temple carvers in Fukushima. Satō traveled to Tokyo, where he trained with some of his day’s greatest names in sculpture, and was ultimately appointed artist to the Imperial Household. The sculpture is a remarkable product of Satō’s fascination with traditional Japanese Buddhist sculpture, which often tackled originally Indian subjects viewed through a Chinese lens, combined with his early exposure to Western sculptural methods.


Footed Bowl with Applied Crabs, 1881 (Meiji 14). Miyagawa Kōzan I (1842–1916). Ceramic with colored glazes; h. 37 cm, diam. 39.7 cm. Tokyo National Museum, G-105. Important Cultural Property

SV: Another of the Important Cultural Properties is Footed Bowl with Applied Crabs, a ceramic bowl created by Miyagawa Kōzan (1842–1916) in 1881. Miyagawa trained in ceramics with his father in Okayama in western Japan, and as is evident from the basic structure of this bowl, he initially made tea wares based on 17th-century prototypes. He later moved east to Yokohama, where he took advantage of the opportunities afforded by the burgeoning export market. Footed Bowl was made a few years after Kōzan won international praise for his work at the 1876 Philadelphia World’s Fair.


Remaking Tradition: Modern Art of Japan from the Tokyo National Museum at the Cleveland Museum of Art is a part of a unique cultural exchange. On view at the Tokyo National Museum through February 23, 2014 is Admired from Afar: Masterworks of Japanese Painting from the Cleveland Museum of Art, featuring highlights of the Cleveland Museum of Art’s stellar Japanese art collection as well as select works from the Korean, Chinese and European art collections. Admired from Afar will travel to the Kyushu National Museum from July 8 to August 31, 2014.

Remaking Tradition is open through Sunday, May 11, 2014. Members see it first starting Friday, February 14, and the exhibition opens to the public on Sunday, February 16. Several of the light-sensitive objects displayed in the Remaking Tradition exhibition, including Mount Fuji Rising above Clouds by Yokoyama Taikan (1868-1958), Meishō by Tsuchida Bakusen (1887-1936) and Spring Rain by Shimomura Kanzan (1873-1930), will rotate. The first rotation will be through Sunday, March 30 and the exhibition will re-open to the public on Wednesday, April 2.


> Remaking Tradition: Modern Art of Japan from the Tokyo National Museum
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