While visiting Japan as a foreign advisor hired by the Meiji government, the art historian Ernest Fenollosa (1853–1908) referred to all of the paintings he came across as “Japanese paintings.” This term was translated by a Japanese interpreter as Nihonga (Japanese pictures), which, it has been suggested, subsequently led the Nihonga concept to take root in Japanese society.


In other words, after coming into contact with Western-style painting, traditional Japanese painting became established as a new form of expression known as Nihonga. As the genre emerged during a period of cultural chaos as Japan was formed a modern state, Nihonga painters were inevitably dogged with questions about what it meant to be “modern,” “Western,” and a “nation.” Following the Second World War, Nihonga was in some quarters declared dead, but the work of contemporary Nihonga painters, who strove to create a new form of Japanese painting that would transcend modern Nihonga led to a new phase in the genre’s history.


What is the potential for present-day Nihonga in this age of accelerated globalization, which has rendered meaningless the distinction between East and West, and the 21st-century art scene, which has grown increasingly diverse in terms of subject, form, and material? In this exhibition, we reexamine leading Nihonga figures of the Meiji, Taisho, and early Showa eras, the expressive methods of Yasushi Sugiyama and other postwar Nihonga painters, and the diverse practices of artists who are currently exploring the essence of the Japanese pictures of today and tomorrow.

1. The first Nihonga exhibition in a dozen years dynamically traces the development of Nihonga from its birth to the present day.

In 2010, the Pola Museum of Art held an exhibition showcasing our collection of modern and contemporary Nihonga (Japanese-style painting). The upcoming exhibition focused on Nihonga, the first of its kind in 13 years, will dynamically showcase the development of the genre from its emergence in modern times to the present day, featuring masterworks from our Nihonga collection by artists such as Taikan Yokoyama, Yasushi Sugiyama, and Tatsuo Takayama.

2. With the theme of “revolution,” the history of Nihonga is explored through technique, material, and format.

Changes in technique, material, and format have been crucially important to the development of Nihonga. This exhibition will focus on such advances as the invention of morotai (lit. “vague style”) which avoids the use of outlines, the use of Western and synthetic pigments rather than traditional pigments to achieve vivid palettes, and diverse changes in formats such as framing, scroll mounting, and folding screens. By shedding light on these changes, the exhibition will trace the history of innovation in Japanese painting from the Meiji Era (1868-1912) to the present day.

3. How does Nihonga differ from Yoga? Rediscover Nihonga through comparison with Western-style painting

Any discussion of the development of modern Nihonga (Japanese-style painting) must consider the influence of Western-style painting. There are Nihonga works featuring Western themes and compositions, as well as Yoga (Japanese Western-style painting) works that render traditional Japanese subjects in oils. Some Nihonga painters also took up Yoga to explore materials, techniques, and artistic styles.

This exhibition will highlight the characteristics of modern Nihonga by presenting the works of Meiji Era (1868-1912) Yoga painters such as Yuichi Takahashi and Chu Asai, and Taisho (1912-1926) and Showa (1926-1989) Era figures such as Ryusei Kishida, Saburosuke Okada, and Léonard Foujita (Tsuguharu Fujita), alongside Nihonga paintings. Through this comparative display, visitors will gain a picture of the uniqueness and diversity of modern Nihonga.

4. New works by contemporary Japanese artists. Explore the current state of painting in Japan.

This exhibition includes many new works by contemporary artists who continue bringing innovation to Nihonga in diverse forms. In today’s globalizing art world, less centered on the West and characterized by diverse media and styles, how do these artists engage with the Nihonga genre in creating their works? This exhibition aims to investigate the attitudes, creative practices, and works of these artists so as to investigate the current state of painting in Japan.

Prologue: The Birth of Nihonga

Ernest Fenollosa, who served as a foreign advisor to the Meiji government, referred to all the paintings he encountered in Japan as “Japanese Painting,” and the term was translated as “Nihonga” and continues to be used to this day. When traditional Japanese painting encountered Western art, Nihonga emerged as a new genre and developed through the work of artists who unceasingly grappled with questions about the nature of Japan and the state. The prologue features works by artists who explored their own directions in the intermediate zone between Nihonga and Western painting.


Major featured artists:

Gaho Hashimoto, Gyokusho Kawabata, Hogai Kano, Yuichi Takahashi, Chu Asai, Shotaro Koyama

Section 1: Meiji and Taisho Nihonga

Morotai is an innovative painting technique developed by Taikan Yokoyama and Shunso Hishida, among others, who were disciples of Tenshin Okakura. It originated from Okakura’s advice to “paint the air,” and was a deliberate departure from the traditional Japanese painting style emphasizing lines. These artists instead introduced techniques such blurring paint with brushes or applying paint in a manner similar to Western painting, rather than using lines to render subjects. This section highlights the approaches of Western-style painting contemporaries on Nihonga, and on morotai as a new stylistic innovation within Nihonga.


Major featured artists:

Taikan Yokoyama, Shunso Hishida, Kanzan Shimomura, Chu Asai, Kiyoo Kawamura, Soryu Tamura

Taikan Yokoyama, Mt. Fuji – Autumn, in the series of “Ten Scenes of Mt. Fuji”, 1940, Pola Museum of Art

Section 2: Innovation in Nihonga

Among the events that underpinned innovation in Japanese painting in the late Meiji (1868-1912) and Taisho (1912-1926) Eras were the development of new mineral pigments and durable washi paper. Troubled by their limited variety of colors and mixing methods, Nihonga painters succeeded in producing unprecedented chromatic effects by pursuing synthetic pigments that were more brilliant than traditional natural pigments. In addition, the development of washi paper that was smoothly textured, sturdy yet supple, captured brushwork beautifully, and preserved the vividness of colors contributed greatly to the development of Nihonga. This section focuses on relationships between techniques, materials, and expressive approaches.


Major featured artists:

Taikan Yokoyama, Shunso Hishida, Keigetsu Kikuchi, Hoan (Misei) Kosugi, Keisen Tomita, Saburosuke Okada, Ryusei Kishida, Léonard Foujita (Tsuguharu Fujita)

Ryusei Kishida, Girl Leading Dog, 1924, Pola Museum of Art

Section 3: Materiality in Postwar Nihonga

Yasushi Sugiyama, Kaii Higashiyama, and Tatsuo Takayama, referred to reverently as the “Three Mountains of the Nitten [Japan Fine Art Exhibition],” brought splendor to the world of Nihonga in the Showa Era (1926-1989), earning widespread admiration and respect. These leading figures in postwar Nihonga were enamored of 19th-century European art during their time at Tokyo School of Fine Arts in the 1920s and 1930s, and after World War II, they deeply immersed themselves in European art and culture. While influenced by Western abstraction, they created their own unique styles of Nihonga. Common features of their works include materiality reminiscent of oil painting, vibrant palettes derived from the natural beauty of mineral pigments, and refined compositions. This section compares their art with contemporary Nihonga so as to explore the possibilities of Japanese painting in the future.


Major featured artists:

Eikyu Matsuoka, Kyujin Yamamoto, Tatsuo Takayama, Kaii Higashiyama, Yasushi Sugiyama, Matazo Kayama, Toshimitsu Imai, Hisao Domoto

Yasushi Sugiyama, Scent, 1975, Pola Museum of Art

Section 4. The Future of Japanese Painting: Beyond Nihonga

How do contemporary Nihonga painters and artists who utilize the forms and conventions of Japanese painting approach Nihonga, and what possibilities do they find in it? Building on the history of Nihonga since the modern era, these artists choose suitable materials, techniques, and modes of expression from among a range of options, gauging their distance from the framework of “Japan” as it evolves over time and putting their own ideas and novel subjects into tangible forms. This section focuses on these contemporary creators, in the hope that through the stances and creative activities of each individual artist, hints of the true nature of “Japanese painting” will emerge.


Major featured artists:

Taro Yamamoto, Reina Taniho, Tomoko Hisamatsu, Naoto Sunohara, Natsunosuke Mise, Kei Arai, Makoto Fujimura, Tetsuya Noguchi, Riusuke Fukahori, Motoi Yamamoto, Yoshitaka Amano, Lee Ufan, Cai Guo-Qiang, Hiroshi Sugimoto

Reina Taniho, Shuka, 2020, Takahashi Collection

© Reina Taniho

Riusuke Fukahori, The Ark Ⅱ, 2015, Private Collection

© Riusuke Fukahori

Motoi Yamamoto, Floating Garden (Working Process), Ernst Barlach Haus (Hamburg,  Germany) 2013

photo: Andreas Weiss

Details to be announced on exhibition website once decided.

Shin Japanese Painting: Revolutionary Nihonga


Sat., July 15 – Sun., December 3, 2023, open daily


Pola Museum of Art, Gallery 1,2,3 and Atrium Gallery


Pola Museum of Art, Pola Art Foundation

Exhibition Design

Erika Nakagawa Office