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.