“History of Art in Japan” by Tsuji Nobuo and “Hinges: Sakaki Hyakusen and the Birth of Nanga Painting” edited by Julia M White

Sakaki Hyakusen

Very few people (other than Anthony Janson in his monumental History of Art, published in 1968) would attempt to write a history of an entire country’s art, and even fewer could do it in one volume and cover a period from 15,000 BCE right up to the present day. Professor Tsuji does this for Japanese art with ease, elegance, humor and consummate erudition in an attractive volume printed on first-class paper and packed with quality color and black-and-white illustrations. What’s more, it isn’t a large format coffee-table book like Janson’s, which means a reader can actually curl up on a chair and read it quite comfortably. As Tsuji says, though, “to survey the vast sweep of Japanese art history was a great challenge and a daunting task;” but we are lucky that he also tells us “not only did no such book exist, but I needed one myself!”

The author, an emeritus professor at both Tokyo University and Tama Art University, wrote the book originally in 2005 as a student textbook. This new and definitive translation by Nicole Rousmaniere, now professor of Japanese Art and Culture at the University of East Anglia and recently (June, 2019) curator of a manga exhibit at the British Library, contains revisions and expansions on the original content, taking it up to the year 2018. The translator has collaborated closely with the author, who has himself written books in English on Japanese art, and the result is this stunning volume, which, as Chelsea Foxwell correctly notes on the cover, combines “authority and accuracy with interesting and imaginative insights,” concluding that “it is an immense gift to readers at all levels”—much as Janson’s book was in 1968. It’s worth noting that Tsuji is also renowned for his forays into the unconventional; his Lineage of Eccentrics: Matabei to Kuniyoshi (1970; English translation 2012), for example, radically altered art historians’ view of the artists of the Edo Period (1603-1868) whom he believed had been neglected, among them Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861), now well-known in the West for his wood-block works known as ukiyo-e, of which he was one of the last and greatest practitioners.

It’s extremely difficult to review a book which covers so much ground. However, as Tsuji intended this book for students, it can be read on many levels, and this is what makes the book so valuable to those readers who are interested in, but are perhaps not very familiar with the story of Japanese art. Tsuji leads readers on a journey that will assuredly give us, after many twists and turns, a “profound understanding of Japanese art, its aesthetics, and its cultural roots,” as the translator states in her preface. Tsuji does this by starting with the art of the Jōmon culture (13,500-900 BCE), “The Force of Primal Imagination”, and taking us through all the different stages and developments of Japanese art from that period to “Mid-Shōwa through Heisei (1945-2019).”

As a general observation, readers who think Japanese art is mostly one thing or another will be astounded at the variety of creativity deployed by artists in all areas, including sculpture, Chinese-style ink painting, gardens, musical instruments, household items, architecture, manga, samurai armour and even a chapter entitled “Art for Farmers and Fishermen”. The all-encompassing and comprehensive approach to art employed by Tsuji is backed by a massive amount of reading, taking in all the latest research and not only placing Japanese art in its social context, but, to borrow Matthew McKelway’s comment on the book’s jacket, “[Tsuji] liberates the arts of Japan from standard tropes of style, form and iconography that have dominated western historical discourse.” At the same time, he also shows us how Japanese art came to have such a great influence on not just mainstream western culture, but on what we might term the “sub-cultures” of comics, graphic novels, poster art and photography.


History of Art in Japan, Tsuji Nobuo, Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere (tr) (Columbia University Press, paperback edition, October 2019)
History of Art in Japan, Tsuji Nobuo, Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere (tr) (Columbia University Press, paperback edition, October 2019)

In his short introduction, Tsuji asks “what is art,” or, more precisely, “what is bijutsu?” The latter is “the Japanese term now conventionally used to refer to art,” and which originally appeared in the late nineteenth century as a translation of the English word “art”. At the same time, as Tsuji tells us in his preface, the Japanese coined words which corresponded to sculpture, painting, architecture and craft; in addition to these, there was also calligraphy (sho), which Tsuji calls “an art form somewhat neglected in the West,” a statement that might be be true if one takes calligraphy for it’s own sake, but which doesn’t take into account the artistic use of lettered in illuminated manuscripts and even early modern printing (Gutenberg’s bible, for example). Tsuji also claims, rather disingenuously it turns out, that he is “relatively unfamiliar with the history of Western art,” yet has no problem in some of the later chapters discussing the influence of various Western types of art such as oil painting and sculpture as they were introduced into Japan through contact with the West. This took place as far back as the 17th century, when we find Japanese converts to Christianity painting Western-style works depicting such subjects as the life of the Virgin Mary.

Tsuji retains the term bujitsu, but extends its range of meanings to make it a more “inclusive” definition, and adds the notion of “constant renewal” to signify that art “transcends its creator’s awareness and original intention to be continually rediscovered and recreated by others.” Tsuji believes, too, that “patriotism has no place in my view of Japanese art.” For him art, Japanese or any other kind, exists without national boundaries; he would likely not think much, I suspect, of current arguments about “cultural appropriation”. He quotes Ernest Fenellosa, the distinguished art historian and translator from Japanese, who stated that “no national or racial art is quite an isolated phenomenon.” Japanese art was connected to that of the Asian subcontinent, especially China, and to what we now call the Korean peninsula, but as it was transmitted through cultural contacts and exchanges it was subject to all kinds of influences, including that, finally, of the West. This can be easily seen, for example, in early Buddhist religious sculptures, which amply demonstrate Indian characteristics such as a “voluptuous, sensual quality”, but acquire their real Japanese distinctiveness at the hands of masters such as Unkei (c.1150-1223), who introduced a kind of realism into his works that had not been seen before, especially when he crafted figures other than Buddha himself.

As to what makes Japanese art distinctive, or what constitutes its “core”, Tsuji identifies three concepts; the first is kazari (adornment), the second is asobi (playfulness), which can be seen depicted on the book’s cover, as frogs leap about doing crazy things, and the third may be described as “animism”, which means essentially that everything contains a sacred spirit. Here, for example, a tree, which was already seen as sacred in itself by Shintō practitioners, could be used (after Buddhism came to the shores of Japan) as material for creating a figure of Buddha and thus acquiring a kind of spiritual nature which is both seen and unseen. This last characteristic may be the most important distinction between Western and Japanese art. To use a simple analogy (if I am reading this correctly), Michelangelo took chunks of Carrara marble and fashioned religious figures such as David out of them, thus endowing the inanimate marble with spirituality through his genius as a sculptor, but when Unkei or any other Japanese sculptor created a Buddha, the spirituality is already there in the material, and the resulting figure is the same spirituality in a different material shape, a continuity if you like. If it’s wooden, the tree is still present.

While these religious aspects are important in Japanese arts, Tsuji makes it clear that, as the centuries advanced, other influences come into play, widening the scope of Japanese art to embrace popular and aristocratic aesthetics as well as a increasing interest in what was going on in the art world outside Japan: the Japanese didn’t suddenly discover Western art and culture when Commodore Perry sailed into Edo Bay in 1852, but had known about it since the 17th century. The so-called opening of Japan did, however, allow Japanese artists to study abroad and for Westerners to go to Japan. Hence, by the Meiji Period (1868-1912), the Japanese had acquired a wider and deeper knowledge of European painting, architecture and sculpture, after which they never looked back, and in all aspects of aesthetic development they made these acquisitions their own. Fantasy, surrealism, modernist architecture and the avant-garde all take their place in the great cultural progression that is Japanese art.

As Tsuji always emphasizes, art, in the end, is not nationalistic, and is always being renewed at the hands of its best practitioners. And, of course, influence goes both ways; Japanese art and imitations of it have been present in England, for example, since the late 17th century, and of course, which is another story altogether, there’s also the profound effect Japanese poetry had on the Imagist movement of the early 20th century. Japanese art had a similar effect. This wonderful book, we can say with confidence, explains all this and much more in terms we can understand, and anyone interested in Japanese art should have a copy readily available. Professor Tsuji’s students are so lucky to have a sensei like him, and the close professional relationship between author and translator surely adds to the attraction of the book for a general reader.


Hinges: Sakaki Hyakusen and the Birth of Nanga Painting, Julia M White (ed) (University of California Press, October 2019)
Hinges: Sakaki Hyakusen and the Birth of Nanga Painting, Julia M White (ed) (University of California Press, October 2019)

Moving from the general to the particular, we now come to Sakaki Hyakusen (1697-1752) an artist who is mentioned only once in Tsuji’s book as one of the pioneers of nanga or “literati painting”, which he explains was “among the most popular imports of the Edo Period”, was modeled on “Chinese Southern School landscapes”, and is therefore a good example of cross-culturalism. At the same time, Tsuji states that they adopted (as might be expected from the artists who practiced this art) “the image of the unworldly Chinese literati”, and thus their art appealed mostly to people like themselves. They didn’t actually know a lot about China, but their imaginations filled in for them, creating a kind of ideal scholarly world in their ink paintings (no oils, yet): recluses are depicted sitting buildings erected on mountains or in solitary contemplation on the ground as the landscape is shown in harmony with the peaceful, contemplative mood. Some of the paintings are quite large in scale, a particular form in which Hyakusen excelled.

Julia White, Senior Curator of Asian Art at the UC Berkeley Art Museum, has drawn together a series of scholarly yet readable essays on Sakaki Hyakusen and other early nanga artists written by distinguished scholars and presented in a beautifully-illustrated large-format book. The art presented comes from a donation of a thousand woodblock prints presented to the UC Berkeley Art Museum by Professor William Dallam Armes (d. 1918), which greatly expanded the scope of the university’s art collection, and from other later sources as well. Armes himself wrote The Color Prints of Old Japan

Hyakusen himself did not come from an aristocratic family, but unlike many of the nanga artists he probably did have Chinese connections, as his father owned an apothecary shop in Nagoya which sold Chinese medicine. Not enough is known for sure, but the family itself may have had Chinese origins, and in any case as dealers in Chinese medicine they would likely have had, as Julia White points out in her essay, “more direct access to cultural materials originating in and relating to China than many of his contemporaries at a time when they were highly sought after by Japanese artists and intellectuals,” and indeed Chinese art was being imported into Japan at the time.

This explains why Hyakusen’s art took the direction it did; he painted not only Chinese-style landscapes but even portraits of ancient Chinese poets, including one of a rather inebriated Li Bai slumped in a chair with a silly smile on his face and a servant getting another drink ready for him, a good example of what Tsuji calls asobi. A drunken poet might have appealed to Japanese intellectuals or literati as an example of non-conformity or freedom from societal constraints, and they could take a vicarious pleasure in contemplating the great man in his cups. And Hyakusen wasn’t the only artist to tackle this theme. Another drunken poet depicted on a panel by Ike Taiga (1723-1776) is most likely also Li Bai; “one can imagine Taiga and a group of friends gathered in front of the panels … perhaps while consuming a pot of wine themselves,” the catalogue description reads.

It’s the landscapes, however, which really attract attention. Many are painted on screens, the outstanding one here being perhaps Hyakusen’s “Mountain Landscape”, which features a pair of six-panel screens. White herself describes it as “a bold depiction of a large expanse of mountains and water executed in ink monochrome with splashes of silver on a gold background.” This work shows, she tells us, how Hyakusen had really mastered the techniques of Chinese painting, and that he must have been intimately familiar with actual Chinese art in order to accomplish a masterwork such as this. For example, as White points out, “gold is notoriously difficult to paint on, as it does not readily permit absorption of the ink,” and because of this “Hyakusen had to employ multiple types of brushstrokes of various density and finesse to hold up the masses of hills dotted with pavilions and trees.”

As a true Japanese artist, though, Hyakusen “borrowed, combined and expanded on Chinese themes and techniques,” as did the other nanga artists who came after him. Of course, these are not “real” Chinese landscapes, but idealized ones which contribute to the overall atmosphere of serenity and contemplation, a “world of retreat”, as White aptly puts it. Figures tend to be solitary, too, as they commune with the natural surroundings. If we were to try and make a parallel with Western art, it might be with those paintings of solitary figures standing on crags gazing at the surrounding wonders of nature, which are themselves idealized, as in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840).

This book also contains essays by a number of scholars who explore various aspects of Hyakusen’s art as well as that of other nanga painters. Felice Fischer writes on Hyakusen’s legacy, and there are two essays by Kyoko Kinoshita dealing with the subject of the seals and signatures used by Hyakusen. The latter is interesting because Hyakusen chose different types of seals for different types of paintings, which can help date the paintings and give clues about the artist’s intentions, because they often contain more than just a name. For example, one seal reads “I take inspiration from poetry, wine, flowers and the moon,” and another states “My colorful paintings were not done for mere glory, my free spirit is just to take the place of plowing fields.”

Finally, Tomokatsu Kawazu contributes an essay on the conservation of Hyakusen’s works. This concludes a very satisfying and informative book; readers who know little about Japanese art need not worry, either, that the essays may be too technical, because they are all completely accessible to anyone who is interested in the subject. This splendidly-illustrated book should go a long way towards getting readers interested in an artist and an art-form which has been little appreciated in the West.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.