Motorcycle Samurais: Japan's New Nihonga Artists


bunshin (2005)
by hisashi tenmyouya
(c) hisashi tenmyouya / courtesy of mizuma art gallery
acrylic paint, wood 146 x 60.5 cm

(this article first appeared in the november 28, 2005 issue of newsweek international)

At first glance, Akira Yamaguchi's paintings look like traditional Japanese pieces. Inspired by centuries-old screens and scrolls, they feature armor-clad samurais and ancient castles with golden clouds floating overhead. But look closer: motorcycles and high-rise buildings are subtly embedded among the battle scenes and idyllic landscapes. And while traditional works are done with powdered mineral pigments and ink, Yamaguchi uses oil paints and sometimes watercolors. The result is a series of works that are as flashy and funny as traditional Japanese pictures are solemn and quiet.

Yamaguchi insists he doesn't mean to be cheeky; he is just trying to reconcile his heritage with his training. As a young art student, he felt "cramped" imitating Western styles, which was the norm at art schools in Japan. So he started experimenting with an era-confusing style of his own. "I thought I was falling and deviating from the mainstream," says Yamaguchi, 36.

More likely, he is helping to create a new mainstream. Several young Japanese artists are mixing motifs and styles from the traditional and the modern, and there is a burgeoning interest in their work. Yamaguchi will have a major retrospective of 60 paintings -- including a new piece featuring the Tokyo Tower, a symbol of the city's rapid modernization -- on display at Tokyo's Mitsukoshi Gallery Nov. 22-27. Another star artist, Hisashi Tenmyouya, has a solo show, featuring decorative portraits of men in traditional garb and tattoos, ending this week at Tokyo's Mizuma Art Gallery. Using acrylic, Tenmyouya paints fantastic vehicles, animals and statues based on the Ukiyoe woodblock prints from the Edo period (1803-1867) and other classic Japanese art schools. He directly challenges most Japanese modern art, which since the Meiji Restoration in 1868 has copied the European and, more recently, American models. "It just doesn't feel right to tuck myself into the West-influenced art," he says. "I'm a Japanese artist, with an unbroken tradition of history behind me."

Masako Hosoi, a Tokyo art historian, observes that the trend is all about artistic identity. In this age of globalization, with an increasingly borderless art market and information from around the world pouring into Japan via the Internet and cable television, "it is growing more difficult to establish identity as an artist," she says. "It's natural for them to look for uniqueness in classic Japanese art." In fact, the artists' work often satirizes Western domination of modern Japan: Tenmyouya created an image of two ancient feudal warriors playing soccer as one of the official posters for next summer's World Cup.

According to Sueo Mizuma of Mizuma Art Gallery, the market has responded well to the Japanese-and-Western mixed paintings. For several years now, pop, anime-inspired and cartoonish artworks have dominated the contemporary Japanese art scene, but "collectors are beginning to see [these works] as a welcome alternative," says Mizuma. They are increasingly in demand domestically and internationally.

As the artists attempt to find their voice, scholars and experts are debating the meaning of Japanese-style painting. Nihonga, the term that means "Japanese painting," usually refers to pictures done with traditional materials: powdered mineral pigments or ink on paper or silk, as opposed to oil or acrylic on canvas. In this light, both Yamaguchi and Tenmyouya are working outside the conventional idea of nihonga. Curator Hiroko Kato, who is mounting a major exhibition (including Tenmyouya's paintings) tentatively titled "No Border: From Nihonga to Nihonga" at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo (Jan. 21-March 26, 2006), says these artists tend to look at traditional motifs and styles objectively, as if they were foreign observers. That's a big shift from previous generations of artists, even the most avant-garde, who felt trapped by their heritage. Postwar, "those who embraced the Western art denied anything nihonga-like, almost as a taboo," she says. Today's young artists have no such restrictions; they easily blend the traditional and the modern, giving the concept of "Japanese painting" a whole new definition.

(c) 2005 Newsweek, Inc.



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