Summary of Yōga
Following hundreds of years of self-imposed isolation during the Edo Period, Japan opened its ports to the outside world, causing a major influx of Western influences to infuse its national consciousness. This caused a race toward modernity as Japan strived to establish itself as a viable peer in the global arena. This push toward a fresh identity spurred one of the most important movements in Japanese art as some of its artists sought to detach themselves from the traditional realms of indigenous historical painting in order to create a new voice that better reflected integration into, and equality with, a contemporary world. Yōga art, or Western-style painting, became the key response to this impetus, made in accordance with European conventions, techniques, and materials, borrowing from important art movements of the time.
- The rise of Yōga marked a historical rift in the psyche of Japan; a mirror of the process of change that posits the old versus the new. Its artists were seen as a new avant-garde, pushing toward modernity, while its opposition, specifically artists of the Nihonga genre who strove to retain Japanese styles while evolving its art, fought to preserve the country's distinctive aesthetics.
- The Western techniques utilized by Yōga artists were significantly different from Japanese art's prior aesthetics which largely included woodblock prints noted for flat color, bold outlines, singular planes, and aerial viewpoints, and Nanga works which drew inspiration from Chinese subjects, among others. These new techniques introduced the employment of perspective, a push toward oil painting, lithography, pastels, watercolors, sketching, and the practice of plein air painting, and the incorporation of decidedly Western motifs and subjects.
- Although Yōga adopted characteristics of popular movements of the time including Fauvism, Cubism, Impressionism, and Naturalism, its artists distinctively created works that not merely copied these other conventions but helped evolve the Japanese artistic oeuvre into a modern idiom.
- Yōga artists made a bold departure from Japan's traditional creative subject matter of the past, which had been primarily steeped in portrayals of everyday Japanese life, literature, and cultural mythologies, by introducing the concept of the artist as an individual with an independent voice and opinion amid the country's changing social and political climates.
- The cycle of Yōga's rise and fall remains an important indicator of art's role in documenting periods of noted transformation within a country. It remains an inspiration to Japanese artists today who continue to work in the spirit of balancing a respect for the past with the innovations of progression.
Overview of Yōga
The earliest introduction of foreign religious paintings and imagery to Japan came via Christian missionaries with the arrival of the Portugese in 1543. At the time Japanese artists copied and imitated the works, though that interest declined in the following Edo period when Japan cut off all contact with the outside world. Only one port remained open, allowing for limited trade with China and the Netherlands. It was through this channel that Japanese artists discovered perspective by studying Dutch anatomical and scientific textbooks. As a result, some of them incorporated the technique into their own work, like Utagawa Toyoharu in his Perspective Pictures of Places in Japan (c. 1772-1781). Elements of this new perspective began influencing the dominant art style of the time, Japanese Ukiyo-e prints, particularly as seen in the work of Katsushika Hokusai.
Important Art and Artists of Yōga
This realistic work on paper focuses with sharply observed detail on a single salmon, a cord laced through its gills, as it hangs vertically against a cedar colored background. The upper part of the salmon has been filleted, displaying the reddish pink flesh cut down to the spine and bones. The vertical format of the work emphasizes the elemental form of the fish, the shadow outlining the fish, and the cord that holds it on the left to create a sense of depth, of the salmon partially suspended above the board. The remarkable texture of the skin in the lower part of the body is not only accurate but conveys a sense of daily life.
Yuichi felt that painting, through realistic depiction, could convey a sense of Japanese culture, and the image of a partially filleted salmon, prepared for guests, was a motif commonly used in small Japanese carved wood decorative pieces. Unlike the Western still life's emphasis on plenty, this work emphasizes a simple but essential element of Japanese life.
This painting received a great deal of attention when it was shown in 1877 in Kyoto and made a powerful argument for reviving Japanese art and making it equal to Western art. As art historian Michael Sullivan wrote, "Nothing quite like this had been seen in Japan before. Painted, like his still-lifes of this period, with a new honesty and feeling for texture - he was the first to see Western oil painting as a means of expression - this is a key work in the birth of modern art in Japan, standing out in contrast to the labored imitations of European salon painting then in fashion."
This landscape, reflecting the influence of the Barbizon School's Naturalism upon early Yōga painters, shows several farmers working with implements in the dark green furrows of their fields. The painting is horizontally divided into thirds between the fields, the thatched roofs of the village among the trees above, and a clouded sky, creating a sense of balance and of a life lived in harmony with nature. Curving lines - at the edge of the field, in the opening between the trees in the left middle distance, and the concave curve of the tree line - contrast with the diagonals of human activity and presence, marked in the furrows of the field and the ruts of the road. This use of line to create composition, dividing the pictorial plane into broad distinct areas is an essential characteristic of Japanese art, though here expressed through the Western form of oil painting. The dark earth tones of the fields and farmers create a feeling of intense and somber activity lightened by the presence of the white flowering trees that bloom along the horizontal center of the work and intensifying toward the whitish blue sky.
Asia's en plein air painting was influential not only upon other painters, but also upon Japanese writers like Massaoka Shiki who created a fresh approach to haiku, based upon contemporary realism, rather than worn literary allusions. Shiki called his haiku "sketching from life" and it became a dominant literary form in the early 1900s as literary magazines like Hototogisu encouraged submissions in the style.
This painting depicts a maiko girl, a young woman trained in playing music to entertain guests, in a vibrantly colored silk kimono sitting on a bench in an open sliding partition. An older server woman in a greyish blue kimono is profiled on the right, her face turned toward the young woman, as if in a moment of interrupted conversation. The young woman is framed by the open partition and the vibrant pond behind her, its blue and violet punctuated with yellow and white. Kuroda's Impressionistic use of vibrant color and light effects changed Japanese Yōga painting from its previous somber palette derived from the Barbizon School. At the same time, his subject is very much within the Japanese tradition of bijin-ga, images of beautiful women that often focused on maiko girls and geishas.
In the 1880s Kuroda spent almost a decade in France, studying art with Raphael Collin. When he returned to Japan in 1894, he said, "Visiting Kyoto, I had a feeling of coming to a strange country named Japan which is outside of the world," and he said of the maiko girls of Kyoto, "I have the same feeling as Westerners who describe Japanese females as pretty small birds. They look like very rare, pretty and fragile decorations." With her bright clothing and posture, the young woman does convey a sense of a brightly colored bird having just alighted, and the decorative effect appealed to both a Japanese audience, accustomed to bijin-ga, and to Western tastes inclined toward Japonism that favored the exotic and decorative elements of Japanese art. Nonetheless, the young woman with her right arm extended to the railing and her left on the frame of the partition as if having just opened it, and her vibrant direct expression, seems full of confidence and authority. What the artist conveyed here was a kind of intimacy, as the work, creates a sense of communicable feeling between the two women. A young Japanese artist Kobayashi Mango described the effect of encountering Kuroda's work, " It is like a feeling of seeing a ray of light all of sudden while walking a dark field path. Surprisingly, it was not just me thinking like this."