This page was created by Magdalena Kolodziej.  The last update was by Kate McDonald.

Bodies and Structures 2.0: Deep-Mapping Modern East Asian History


Seiyōga, or yōga for short, is often translated into English as "Western-style painting." Artists and art critics began to use this term in Japan in the second half of the nineteenth century to describe oil painting and watercolor. They distinguished between this newly imported medium of painting from Europe and the native modes of painting executed with ink or mineral pigments on silk or paper, which became known as nihonga.

In principle, the distinction between nihonga and seiyōga was based on the medium and the presumed set of traditions and masters each mode was indebted to, not on painter's nationality or the painting's subject matter. Thus, seiyōga referred to oil paintings executed by Japanese artists and foreign artists. The categories of nihonga and seiyōga reflect a Japan-centric view of global art in the time of empire.

The official exhibitions in Tokyo accepted submissions to the two respective divisions, nihonga and seiyōga. Other institutions, including art associations and art schools, also upheld the division between nihonga and seiyōga. However, the two modes of painting share many stylistic and thematic similarities; the boundaries between them were often fluid and contested. Many artists engaged in both.

Okada Saburōsuke's "In the Bath" is an example of seiyōga. This painting was first on display in the seiyōga division of the fifth Ministry of Education Fine Arts Exhibition, held in Tokyo in 1911. It is a nude, one of the major subject matter of seiyōga. It shows the back of a woman, who is pinning up her hair. The pose displays well her nape and gives us also a glimpse of her breast. Other popular subject matter included landscape, history painting, genre painting, still life, and portrait.

The term seiyōga came into wider use in colonial Korea and Taiwan after the establishment of the Korea Fine Arts Exhibition in 1922 and the Taiwan Fine Arts Exhibition in 1927, respectively. Each of these salons for contemporary art featured two divisions for painting, one for tōyōga and one for seiyōga. (Initially, the Korea Fine Arts Exhibition also had a third division for calligraphy. In 1932, it was abolished and replaced with a crafts division.) The majority of art students from Korea and Taiwan, who came to Japan to study painting in the 1920s and 1930s, pursued seiyōga. 

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