Artworks and Artists of Nihonga

Progression of Art
Kanō Hōgai: Hibo Kannon (c. 1883)
c. 1883

Hibo Kannon

Artist: Kanō Hōgai

This signature work depicts Kannon, an androgynous Japanese god who embodied loving compassion, and who was called Kuan-Yin by the Chinese and Avaklokitesvara by the Buddhists. The figure, standing on a cloud, fills the upper right of the painting and looks down upon a child floating in an orb who looks back, returning his gaze. The overall effect is of graceful harmony, accentuated by the swirling forms of the clouds, the folds of Kannon's robes, the red coil that like an umbilical cord wraps around the child, and reaches down into the depths of rocks. The halos of the two figures create a kind of visual diagonal between lower left and upper right, emphasizing the connection between the two as sacred sources of illumination, further emphasized by the subtle oval that extends upward from Kannon's feet, like a wide beam of light. The precise lines of the painting ground the subject within a space that could be in the sky looking down upon the rocky pinnacle of a mountain, underwater in a golden sea, or, as if in inner contemplation, looking into the Pure Land of Buddhism.

Hōgai used the Kanô School's traditional mineral pigment and ink on a gold background to convey a traditional subject, but his treatment is innovative. By including the child, he depicted Kannon untraditionally, perhaps influenced by the Western depiction of the Madonna, and wanting to create an image that would appeal to both Asian and European audiences. He also adopted a more realistic treatment of the figures, with shading to create a sense of depth. A reproduction of the painting was included in an early issue of Kokka, and the painting was prominently exhibited at the 1883 Paris Salon to critical acclaim. It became one of the artist's most favored works, and he was to make a second version for Tokyo University of the Arts where it has been designated as an Important Cultural Property of Japan. The art historian Chelsea Foxwell noted that Hogai's work exemplified "a break from the past while at the same time upholding a connection to it."

Ink, color, gold, on silk - Smithsonian Museum of Art, Washington DC

Hashimoto Gahō: Dragon Against Tiger (1899)

Dragon Against Tiger

Artist: Hashimoto Gahō

This painting on silk focuses on the encounter between a powerful tiger, standing on a rocky crag, and a dragon that energetically takes form in serpentine curls borne of the clouds. A contrast between the elements of earth and air is conveyed, as the sold forms of the jagged rocks echo the lines of the crouching tiger and the dragon's fluid arabesques swirl up like white, golden tinged flames. The work is also equally divided between the two creatures, both mythical symbols of Japanese culture, the tiger often associated with earthly kings and the dragon with the Emperor of Heaven. Only the white foaming encroachment of waves cast up by the dragon upon the rocks breaks the almost equal symmetry between the two realms, suggesting the primacy of heaven.

Gahō's work drew upon the Kanô tradition's frequent depictions of two powerful and symbolic creatures connected to the concepts of ruler ship, and the use of strongly outlined forms. Nonetheless, he also adopted Western elements, as shown in the naturalistic treatment of the tiger, and the work's depth, as seen in the distance that opens behind the dramatic scene, its negative space informed by a sense of Western atmospherics. Influenced by European Realism, his work made a convincing argument to later artists that such elements incorporated into Nihonga made the traditional style all the more compelling. As art critic Michael Sullivan wrote. Gahō's "brilliant synthesis of Kano style and technique with Western realism created a model for painters at an early stage in the Nihonga movement."

Color on silk - Museum of the Imperial Collections, Tokyo, Japan

Shunsō Hishida: Ochiba (Fallen Leaves) (1909)

Ochiba (Fallen Leaves)

Artist: Shunsō Hishida

Each of these images depicts a six paneled byobu, or folding screen, a traditional Japanese format for painting landscape. Usually these two panels are shown together, as an intended pair, and the panel in the upper image is displayed on the right. In the top image, a small pine stands to the left of the curving trunks and branches of a small grove. The bottom image holds a sapling topped with a profusion of gold and brown leaves on the left with a grove of sparsely spaced trees behind it. In both images the russet and gold leaves that have fallen in the foreground create horizontal movement around the base of the trees, drawing the viewer's eye to the space that opens into the distance. Precisely rendered, the groves are diffused with a glowing light that creates the atmospherics of the autumnal season.

To achieve the work's luminosity, the artist used the karabake technique of dripping pigment onto an already wet surface, and then worked the pigment with a dry brush. The technique, evolved from classical sumi ink painting and calligraphy, allowed the artist to create a thin but radiant layer of color. Overall, this work exemplified Hishida's later style of luminous naturalism.

Ink and color on paper, pair of six panel folding screens - Eisei Bunko Museum, Tokyo, Japan

Tsuchida Bakusen: Serving Girl at a Spa (1918)

Serving Girl at a Spa

Artist: Tsuchida Bakusen

This four paneled work on silk portrays the spreading boughs of a pine forest, viewed as if from above, inhabited on the left by a single bird perched on a branch above the white cone shaped clusters of flowers. On the right a woman in a red robe, falling open at her breasts, reclines on an upper floor balcony, her left hand reaching up as if to touch her heart in response to her thoughts and the music, which is being played by a partially visible musician in the upper right. The sensuality and luxury of the scene is emphasized by the curving lines of the vibrant green boughs that echo and curve toward the woman's form.

In his desire to find new possibilities for Nihonga, Bakusen juxtaposed different Japanese styles with a Western influence, as seen in this work's treatment of the landscape taken from Heian period painting, the pines reflecting the influence of the Momoyama period's wall paintings, and the woman's odalisque form evoking a Western influence. The painting was exhibited by the National Creative Painting Association's show, as Bakusen was part of the group of artists who wished to challenge the official government show, the Bunten, with innovative works.

Bakusen was one of the few artists whose work influenced both Nihonga and Yoga artists. His Island Women (1912), while classified as Nihonga, used broad areas of color and simplified forms, influenced by Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, and Primitivism. In 1910 Bakusen also helped found various avant-garde collectives and later the Society of the Creation of Japanese painting in 1919 where artists of both movements gathered and were invited to exhibit, reflecting Bakusen's view that "the creation of art must be practiced with complete freedom. As a result, he has been described by art historian John Szostak as among "the most adventurous and inventive" painters of his era.

Color on silk - The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, Japan

Yokoyama Taikan: Seisei ruten (1923)

Seisei ruten

Artist: Yokoyama Taikan

These monochromatic images, also known as Metempsychosis or The Wheel of Life depict two details of this iconic scroll that is more than 130 feet long, and painted in sumi, traditional Japanese ink, on silk. The top image shows a dragon in a turbulent sky, its head visible in center left, and its light-filled form extending behind it, across the lower center. The dragon's form echoes and intensifies the energy of the sky itself, surging with swirling clouds against the ink black background, and displays the artist's mastery of tonal gradations in ink. The lower image shows a river, rippling with curves that suggest its depth, flowing along the lower third of the image, while behind it a waterfall cascades down a steep rock face. The black diagonals of jagged rocks emphasize the spot where the waterfall's white vertical intersects with the rippling river. To the right out of an inky black landscape a stream curves into the river. Both images convey a sense of nature's monumental power, viewed from a contemplative serenity, created by the use of a wide-angled, aerial perspective.

In creating such a long scroll, Taikan used one of the oldest Japanese formats, much like the Genji Monogatari Emaki (Tale of the Genji Scroll) (c.1120-1140) that depicted scenes from a classical Japanese novel of the same name, which was almost 450 feet long. The artist adopted the format, reserved for works of fundamental importance to Japanese culture, to depict the wheel of life. This scroll depicts a varied landscape: quiet mountains thick with trees and deer, small villages and scenes of human activity, all connected by the element of water. Travelers and fishermen, groups of monkeys, and a pair of cormorants, populate the landscape. The overall effect is to convey the cycle of life, embodied and represented by the water cycle, flowing through the river, rising as mist, and falling again as rain, to reflect the Buddhist concept of existence as a cycle of rebirth. Water was believed to be the most powerful of the four sacred elements, and its eternal presence, changing in metempsychosis through different forms, is the central preoccupation of the work.

In creating the scroll, Taikan used katabokashi, a Japanese ink technique that had a similar effect to Western chiaroscuro. The work, an Important Cultural Property, was acclaimed as a masterpiece at its first exhibition in 1923. The noted collector and founder of the Adachi Museum of Art Adachi Zenko wrote, "it is Taikan who stands out in terms of quantity and quality...His engagement in life's challenges with energy and a truth-seeking spirit give his works power, depth, and compositional integrity...such a painter comes along only once every 100 years, or even 300 years."

Sumi on silk - National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, Japan

Takeuchi Seihō: Tabby Cat (1924)

Tabby Cat

Artist: Takeuchi Seihō

Only a tabby cat, turning its green eyes to the viewer as it reaches back to groom its right flank, occupies this work, using a background of varying muted gold tones. Depicted in soft glowing shades of brown and grey, outlined at its top shoulder and front paw in white, the cat is both remarkably realistic and atmospheric in its treatment of colors. The cat is caught as if in movement, unconcerned with its surroundings, though the intensity of its gaze gives the somewhat humorous pose a kind of intense dignity.

Seihō was a leading master of Kyoto Nihonga, primarily known for his portrayals of animals and landscapes, though works like this one, showing a domestic cat, also draw upon the popularity of Ukiyo-e prints which had often featured images of cats, like Utagawa Kuniyoshi's Cats Suggested as the Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō (1850).

Seihō was also a noted teacher to students including Tokuoka Shinsen and Uemura Shōen. His work brought a Western naturalistic sense of observation to his subjects while at the same time used Japanese reduced elements, negative space, and broad areas of subtly varying color.

Color on silk - Yamatane Art Museum, Tokyo, Japan

Tsuchida Bakusen: Still Life - Salmon Slices and Sardines (1924)

Still Life - Salmon Slices and Sardines

Artist: Tsuchida Bakusen

This still life has a delicate asymmetrical balance between the bowl of sardines and two slices of red salmon filling up the left, and the five sardines on the right, their horizontal lines interrupted by one sardine creating a diagonal, and the round earthenware teapot in the upper right of center. Curves contrasting with lines and the red punctuating a grey, black, and white palette, all create a sense of vibrant spontaneity, as the balance between them creates a feeling of serenity.

Tsuchida Bakusen began as a Buddhist monk. While he was to abandon that path in favor of painting, studying under Seiho Takeuchi and attending Kyoto Municipal Painting College, his work was continually informed by Buddhist principles and values. He has said of his artistic philosophy, "Simply deepen the spirit and realize nature's inspirations." He was also interested in combining a more modern sensibility with Nihonga. While heavily influenced by Japanese genre works and early Buddhist painting, he also studied the Post-Impressionists and other European artists.

Color on paper - Adachi Museum of Art

Gyoshū Hayami: Enbu (Dancing in the Flames) (1925)

Enbu (Dancing in the Flames)

Artist: Gyoshū Hayami

This painting, showing a number of brightly colored moths dancing in the fire, dynamically depicts the swirling, glowing flames as they rise up, creating a kind of luminous form. He has painted the moths as if facing the viewer while blurring their wings to create an effect of dancing, and both the moths, as transitory beings, and the flame itself take on a deeply symbolic meaning. The image embodies the Buddha's well-known Fire Sermon that states, "all is burning... burning with birth, aging and death, with sorrows, with lamentations, with pains, with griefs, with despairs."

During a summer stay in the country with his family, Gyoshû observed and sketched the moths that were attracted to the evening's bonfire. He was a pioneer of new treatments in Nihonga and often adopted new styles throughout his career. This, his most famous painting, is informed by ancient Buddhist paintings of flames but also derived from naturalistic observation, as seen in the curling fractals at the edge of the flames. The work was the first of its era to be designated an Important Cultural Property and has been widely reproduced, including as a government postage stamp.

Color on silk - Yamatane Museum, Tokyo, Japan


Sazanami (Ripples)

Artist: Fukuda Heihachiro

This double panel image on silk deploys irregular lines of dark blue on a silver surface to convey the rippling patterns of water. Despite the title, the work is abstract. The pattern intensifies as the blue lines become closer, creating a field of movement, darker in intensity, and overlapping near the top of the image.

From the beginning of his career Heihachiro often painted water scenes, and the story goes that one day while fishing, he noticed the ripples created on a lake by a breeze that was so gentle he could not feel it on his skin. Subsequently he began sketching to try and capture the changing ripples forming on the water. The viewpoint of the artist is implied in this work, as the relatively fewer ripples suggest the quieter waters near the shore intensifying to waves in the distance. The artist intended to paint the image on platinum on silk, but due to a processing mistake, gold leaf was applied to the silk, necessitating that the artist then apply the platinum on top of the gold. This created the subtle variation of color as seen here in the background, which enhances the abstract effect, as the color is not obviously associated with natural colors.

Shown at the Imperial Fine Arts Academy Exhibition, this painting met with critical controversy, primarily because of its abstract treatment. Yet, subsequently, the work has been re-evaluated and seen as highly innovative in Japanese painting for its pioneering use of abstraction. The first abstract Japanese works were woodblock prints, created by Kōshirō Onchi, a leader of the sōsaku-hanga, or creative prints movement that began in the early 1900s. However, abstraction in painting was a later development, as the art critic Matthew Larking noted "came into vogue during a reinvigorated period of the 1950s and '60s," though informed by an awareness of early forerunners like Heihachiro.

Color and platinum on silk - Osaka City Museum of Modern Art, Osaka, Japan


Feathered Snow

Artist: Shoen Uemura

This work, exemplifying the use of negative space as seen in the grey sky surrounding the figures sheltering under umbrellas in the left quadrant of the work, is also an iconic example of Uemura's bijin-ga work, where, she portrays beautiful women but in unexpected ways to convey their inner feeling. The young woman in the lower center of the painting leans forward, her beauty conveyed by the broad planes of green, the elegant pattern of her clothing, and her face as if it were lighting up the grey scene, all further emphasized by the diagonals of the black and gold pattern of her open umbrella. Behind her another young woman can be glimpsed under the white umbrella her pale face wrapped in blue. The feathered snow falls upon them, but what is conveyed is of being caught in nature's vastness and unpredictability, and how under the grey horizon and the falling snow and implied wind, one huddles into one's umbrella or clothing, shrinking to a more confined space, to stay warm. Uemura who was one of the few women artists in her times brings a sense of feeling to her portrayals of women, and in a sense, the scene here is subtly symbolic of the circumscribed space that women inhabited in the World War II world.

Color on silk - Yamatane Museum of Art, Tokyo, Japan


Peacock Displaying his Wings

Artist: Shoko Uemura

This work, depicting a peacock with a multiple eyed tail that overflows the pictorial space, exemplifies the Japanese traditional style by focusing on a single bird that inhabits a large area of yohaku, or negative space. The vibrant tones of green and gold become a kind of cloud that hovers between intense atmospherics and sharply defined points, like the v shapes at the outer edge of the bird's plumage. The white background lets the creature inhabit a kind of undefined space, a sense of visual meditation. In Japan the peacock was connected to Kannon, a god who looked upon the suffering of the world with loving compassion, as reflected in the bird's 'many-eyed' gaze.

Uemura was the son of Shoen Uemura and began drawing as a child. However, unlike his mother who was known for her bijinga, he preferred the genre of flower and bird paintings. He also emphasized the abstract play of color and negative space to make Japanese style works contemporaneous with Color Field painting. In his later works, an exaggerated sense of negative space, contrasted with vibrant color and a simplified object, in this case a single peacock, became, as art critic Matthew Larking wrote, "an opportunity for dialog with abstract color-field painting in variegated modulations of tone and color that also retained their representational function...[and] became psychological landscapes."

The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, Japan



Artist: Hisashi Tenmyouya

This work shows two soccer players, both dressed as traditional samurai warriors, trying to gain control of the soccer ball. One player, is down on one knee with his back to the viewer and his gaze focused on the ball near his extended right knee, while the other player, wearing a black helmet with long curved horns, malevolently bears down, his leg cocked back to deliver a bruising kick that threatens the other player. The players, sharply outlined, are almost cutouts against the golden tiles of the background, and the naturalistic depiction of the figures and their movement is contrasted with the bold lines and colors of their uniforms.

What is conveyed most is a sense of ritualized action, as the combative competitiveness of soccer is paired with the samurai code of warfare, and a primal ferocity, conveyed by the emphasis on black helmet and its wearer's white-toothed snarl. In the upper right, a seal, encircled by a curving blue and purple dragon, evokes the traditional associations of Japanese scroll paintings, as the dragon hearkens back to a mythical creature revered in Japanese culture and identified with the Emperor. This work exemplifies Hisashi's concept of "Neo-Nihonga," seeking to connect the art movement to contemporary culture. This famous image was used as a poster for the 2006 World Cup in Barcelona. Critics have described him as a "punk samurai" due to what art historian Yumi Yamaguichi calls his "sophisticated grasp of both the ancient and the contemporary."

Acrylic, gold leaf on wood - Private Collection


Scattered Deformities in the End

Artist: Fuyuko Matsui

This psychologically compelling image shows a nude woman, her skin flayed down her spine, as she flees, pursued by a dog that opens its jaws to bite her heel. Her black hair streaming out behind her is torn from her head by a flock of pursuing birds. Other birds are tearing a strip of flesh from under the woman's right arm, and her right leg, just above her ankle, has a band of flesh already torn from it, in the way that trees are girdled, a ring of bark taken from the trunk to kill the tree. The background is an atmospheric greenish grey with the suggestions of hands and birds reaching within it, while the top of the canvas darkens, revealing black lines of skeletal trees where pulses of color suggest the forms of more birds. The space the figure inhabits seems both interior, as if a closed room or within an interior consciousness, and exterior as if she were running outside on a street or path with a forest looming behind. The overall effect is to create a state like a bardo, one of the transitory spiritual stages of Buddhism between life and death, or a psychological setting of abjection and fear.

Matsui called her terrifying images "talismans," and described her artistic intent as "to visually express something that is usually felt physically." They are often seen as a kind of distanced self-portrait, within the hell realm, informed by a feminist sensibility in confronting the abjection and traumatic experience of a woman in patriarchal society. They reflect her belief that "if the paintings are horrible they might act as a protection," drawing upon the Japanese adage "to use demons to control demons." As the Japanese art critic Matsui Midori wrote, they are "paintings that express the pain of living."

Her work draws upon a variety of influences, including Soga Jasoku, a 15th-century artist, the tradition of Japanese ghost painting, and the Buddhist tradition of Rokudou-e, or images depicting the bardos. She has been compared to other psychologically compelled female artists such as Kiki Smith, Eva Hesse, and Shirin Neshat.

Hanging scroll - color pigment on silk - Private Collection


Shrine of the Water God (Suijingū)

Artist: Hiroshi Senju

This large screen, twenty-four feet long, contains twelve panels all luminously depicting waterfalls, the streams of white water lighting up a dark background. The lower part of the panels fill with water mist and the dark edge of an implied shore borders the pools into which the water cascades. The overall effect is almost photographic, and yet fluid, as if one were looking at water actually streaming behind a panel of glass.

Senju's work is unique in its scale and singular focus, and, as many of his works are large screens or installations, they become a way of transforming the relationship between human structures and the natural world. He presents a kind of sublime reality that involves the viewer's consciousness and the surface of the work, where tiny drops of paint can resemble mist and other slightly larger drops that reveal the paint's stroke blur the distinction between the subject of water and the materiality of paint. As art historian Rachel Baum has written, "These drips of paint interrupt the pictorial space and, insist, instead on the painted surface. The result of this contrast is...a transcendent synthesis of liquids...intricate, indexical correspondences of material, process, and image that create the paintings' unmistakable sense of unity...[and] make manifest the transience of experience."

Waterfall depictions have a long tradition in Japanese art, and early Nihonga artists like Takeuchi Seihō explored the subject, as seen in his Waterfall (1925). Senju began painting waterfalls in the early 1990s and his work has had a tremendous impact upon architectural and interior design, first coming to public attention in the 1995 Venice Biennale. The art critic David Kropit has described his work as having "exceptional clarity and presence."

Natural pigments on Japanese mulberry paper - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols

"Nihonga Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols
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First published on 08 Mar 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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