Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 20, 2017
Chelsea Foxwell Making Modern Japanese-Style Painting: Kano Hōgai and the Search for Images Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015. 296 pp.; 34 color ills.; 70 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780226110806)

“What is nihonga, where did it come from, and why is it still around?” (12). These questions comprise the final sentence of the introduction to Chelsea Foxwell’s impressive book and serve as our point of departure into the emergence and evolution of nihonga or “modern Japanese painting” in late nineteenth-century Japan. As Foxwell compellingly argues, the emergence of nihonga was not simply the result of Japan’s shedding its feudal past at the precise moment of the Restoration (1868) but rather a process that began in the diverse, hybrid artistic milieu of the late Edo period (1615–1868). By focusing on the earliest phase of the development of nihonga from the 1860s to the 1880s—a period characterized by significant political, social, and cultural transformation—Foxwell skillfully illustrates how this epoch fundamentally challenged people’s conception of painting: “It was not just—or not even—that paintings themselves were changing,” Foxwell argues, for “even when paintings stayed the same, there were notable changes in artists, viewers, viewing environments, and the words surrounding painting” (2). She elucidates how nihonga was not initially conceived of as a discrete artistic movement but rather as a term of discourse that remained fluid and subject to challenge and redefinition based on what styles, practitioners, or visual vocabularies were counted—or not—as modern Japanese painting. In this context, Foxwell highlights the crucial link between nihonga and changes in artistic production and exhibition practices both domestically and internationally. She complicates the codification of the nihonga/yōga binary in the late Meiji period (1868–1912) by asserting that the creation of these categories—that is, Japanese-style painting and Western-style painting, respectively—not only reflected a global nineteenth-century impulse to divide and catalogue art along cultural and national boundaries, but also constituted a self-conscious act of modern self-fashioning on the part of Japan, which sought to establish a national painting style through a process of negotiating between domestic and foreign constraints.

The book is organized in six chapters, with chapters 1 and 2 establishing the broader art-historical context for Japanese painting during the late Edo and early Meiji periods, particularly in relation to international and domestic exhibitionary practices. In chapter 1, Foxwell contends that the exhibition, or hakurankai, can be read as a liminal space in which the division between pre-modern and modern art was not as clearly defined as the reader might think. Rather, artistic production and exhibition practices during the Edo-Meiji transition were much more fluid, with the proliferation of independent artists during the late Edo era leading to the diversification of Japanese painting production and reception. Stylistic innovation, eclecticism, personal values, and even individualism began to emerge as the powerful grip of the house-based (iemoto) studio system loosened. Moreover, exhibition practices during the early Meiji period used a process of framing, reframing, and—perhaps most importantly—unframing to change the meaning and value of objects even if they themselves did not physically change.

Building on this discussion of hakurankai, chapter 2 focuses more closely on Meiji-era exhibitions and their varied artistic content and meaning. Here is where Foxwell elucidates the title’s “Search for Images” by analyzing Japan’s national and international exhibition content and practices to illustrate the challenges Japanese painters faced when trying to articulate a visual language that met the perceived needs of both domestic and foreign audiences. In post-Restoration Japan, artists had to decide whether to represent their work as “pre-feudal” or “post-feudal” or a combination of both. Thus, the status of Meiji art objects ranging from lacquerware, ceramics, bronzes, and even cloisonné exhibited at World’s Fairs illustrates the re-articulation of value and meaning based on their ability to perform a variety of functions. For instance, the surface of a painted vase decorated with prints from Katsushika Hokusai’s (1760–1849) Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō or a lacquer box adorned with images of folding screens played the dual role of painting and craft. Both of these chapters would be perfect reading in courses focusing on World’s Fairs, exhibition practices, and/or the formation of audience and artistic patronage between Japan and the West.

Chapters 3 through 6 examine nihonga in relation to the artistic career of Kano Hōgai (1828–88). As an artist, Hōgai is emblematic of this transformative period, and it is precisely for this reason that Foxwell chooses him as her narrative thread. She states that while most of Hōgai’s oeuvre bears little resemblance to our mental image of nihonga, ultimately he is a figure who represents how Japanese artists “weathered the change from the shogunal era into the Meiji” (5). Foxwell presents Hōgai as a clear “winner” in the process of consolidating Japanese art in opposition to the West, as well as a painter who, in spite of his close association with Ernest Fenollosa (1853–1908) and Okakura Kakuzō (1863–1913), thoughtfully forged his own artistic path during a period of great economic and political upheaval. Chapter 3 introduces Hōgai as the artistic solution to the new problem of the need for modern Japanese painting to be progressive while also remaining a conduit between the past and present. Through an in-depth analysis of Hōgai’s painting Landscape Screens, completed in 1868, Foxwell destabilizes the traditional reading of the artist as a heroic actor in the early development of nihonga; instead, by mapping the painting’s transition from Edo to Meiji, the reader gains a clearer understanding of the various factors at play in the transformation of Japanese painting during the Restoration years. The status and meaning of Hōgai and his work evolved based on the shifting of patronage from private audiences—represented by the daimyo—to public audiences, represented by Fenellosa and the exhibition hall.

Using a case study format, chapter 4 examines the continued development of Hōgai’s artistic style and content in relation to the larger debates on modern Japanese painting unfurling within the artistic milieu of 1880s Tokyo. In her analysis of an anonymous lacquer panel of a ghost (exhibited in 1887), Kawanabe Kyōsai’s (1831–89) Winter Crow on a Bare Branch (1881), and Hōgai’s Hotei with Children (ca. 1882), Foxwell argues that the appearance of nihonga as a distinctive category was the result of a stylistic and thematic winnowing of Japanese painting by both the artist and the public. Chapter 5 focuses on Hōgai’s underappreciated, understudied Hawks in a Ravine (ca. 1885). Here, Foxwell pushes against the accepted narrative that Japanese painting became more naturalistic after the Restoration, as well as the belief that Hawks in a Ravine is emblematic of Hōgai’s association with shasei or “sketching from nature.” Foxwell undermines these naturalistic associations by arguing that Hōgai’s painting was caught between foreign and domestic audiences and modes of interpretation. This is perhaps most evident in the painting’s changing title—first exhibited as Eagles and later as Hawks—and its unusual depiction of the raptors, which did not fit squarely within the visual iconography of Japan or the West.

Chapter 6 examines the ability of nihonga to strike a balance between the past and present through an analysis of one of the most famous of Hōgai’s paintings, Merciful Mother Kannon (1888), along with Shibata Zeshin’s (1807–91) The Four Accomplishments (ca. 1880s), and Hishida Shunsō’s (1874–1911) Fallen Leaves (1909). Foxwell makes the case that these works should be interpreted as visual responses to the complicated debate surrounding how to maintain a connection between modern Japanese painting and its past. Through her analysis of these paintings, it becomes clear that the style and content of nihonga was assigned the difficult task of representing a break from the past while at the same time upholding a connection to it.

In her conclusion, Foxwell notes that category of nihonga was not formalized until after Hōgai’s death in 1888. Prompted by the introduction, in which she asks—“Why is it [nihonga] still around?”—I found myself wondering how we should evaluate Hōgai’s legacy in relation to the status of nihonga in the contemporary moment. If artists like Hōgai were intensely aware of the history of Japanese painting and the need to visualize Japaneseness, how does that translate to the present day, where the production, circulation, and exhibition of art is shaped to varying degrees by globalization? Is it still possible to speak of nihonga as a discrete, separate category in Japanese painting? Is there a contemporary nihonga artist that we can look to who, like Hōgai, is engaging in a similar dialogue between innovation and preservation, past and present? While Foxwell notes that in the immediate postwar years there were debates about the “death of nihonga” (212) and that Japanese artists engaged in visual critiques of the category, I believe the postwar status of nihonga is worthy of further discussion. Perhaps this is too tall an order for a book that takes Hōgai as its focus, but it points to an important path forward for future research, especially in relation to the book’s overarching argument that fundamental changes in the viewership and audience expectations of Japanese art led to the emergence of nihonga.

Leaving these questions aside, however, what makes this book such a great success is its close analysis of how nihonga took shape specifically through its relationship with the public, particularly the newly emergent domestic and international audiences for modern Japanese painting. By engaging in a larger scholarly debate on the relationship between art and audience, Foxwell emphasizes the crucial role of the public in defining the status and meaning of Japanese painting during the late nineteenth century. This book is an important contribution to the field of nihonga scholarship, as well as modern art history and East Asian culture as a whole. It would be an ideal text for any course dealing with modern Japanese art, exhibition practices, and/or East-West artistic and cultural exchange.

Erin Schoneveld
Assistant Professor, Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, Haverford College