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

Tōyōga Painter, Nihonga Artist

Guo Xuehu displayed his paintings in the tōyōga division of the Taiwan Fine Arts Exhibition. Nihonga painter and juror, Araki Jippo, made following comments on works in the tōyōga division at the salon in 1935:

I have heard that at the first and second Taiwan Fine Arts Exhibition there were some extremely crude literati landscapes and flower paintings. Today, works on display have progressed and aren't any different from contemporary nihonga. It is truly a remarkable development (Araki 1935, 58).

Already in 1927, Japanese art critic, Ōsawa Sadayoshi (1886-?), suggested that the division itself was improperly named and should be called nihonga instead (Yen 2007, 86). Also, when Taiwanese tōyōga artists submitted their paintings to the salons in Tokyo in the 1930s and early 1940s, their works were on display in the nihonga division.

To address this conflation of nihonga and tōyōga, art historian Yen Chuanying has proposed an expanded definition of nihonga for the colonial period. She has described nihonga as painting with Eastern qualities under Japan's leadership (Yen 2009, 296; see also Lin 2008, 145). Similarly, Jason Kuo has argued that the naming of tōyōga division reflected Japan's ambitions to best represent East Asian art (Kuo 2000, 36).

Yen's political take on nihonga takes into account nihonga's popularity in Taiwan as well as its material affinity to painting in other East Asian countries vis-a-vis oil painting. It points to the cultural imperialism inherent in the official exhibitions' and Japanese artists' promotion of nihonga in the colonies. I argue that in the process Japanese artists lost their monopoly on nihonga. By the 1930s, nihonga became a creative medium for some Taiwanese Chinese artists. The naming of the tōyōga division helped to obscure this fact.

The shift in the meaning of nihonga became even more apparent in the early 1940s, when art critics in Japan began to discuss the implementation of the ideals of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere (Daitōa kyōeiken) in art. Some art critics found it difficult to praise paintings at the metropolitan salon simply for depicting ideologically relevant and politically correct subject matter. So, they were relieved to notice paintings by young Korean and Taiwanese artists in the nihonga division. Art critics envisioned these colonial artists as the vanguard, leading the metropolitan salon to becoming a center for all cutting-edge artists from each region of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere in the near future (Kolodziej 2018, 217-218; Ōyama and Kimura 1942, 37). Such comments suggest that, under the wartime regime and imperialization policies, art critics began to imagine the boundaries between Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese art in new ways.

One of Guo Xuehu's most striking works is “Solitude” (also translated as “Silence,” jakukyō in Japanese) from the 1933 Taiwan salon. This work is said to have been inspired by Guo's visit to the Nanzen Temple in Kyoto, during his first trip to Japan in autumn of 1931 (Taipei Fine Arts Museum 1989, 25). This painting includes typical elements of a literati landscape, with mountains, a waterfall, and trees. Yet, the unusual composition and execution in all encompassing dark color make it appear so fresh and modern, foreshadowing developments of postwar nihonga.

Guo Xuehu did not study art in Japan for any extended period, nor did he exhibit his works there in the prewar period, unlike some of his more wealthy peers. The Taiwan Fine Arts Exhibition, the Taiwan Government-General Library, and the community of Japanese-settler artists in Taipei brought him into the purview of Japan's imperial art world. His paintings shared the stylistic and thematic concerns with nihonga artists, pushing the boundaries of the medium, and redefining its very premises. By rendering the distinction between nihonga and tōyōga superfluous, his work complicates our understanding of nihonga as simply “Japanese-style painting” or neo-traditional painting.

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