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Important Art and Artists of Nihonga
This signature work depicts Kannon, an androgynous Japanese god who embodied loving compassion, and who was called Kuan-Yin by the Chinese and Avaklokitesvara by the Buddhists. The figure, standing on a cloud, fills the upper right of the painting and looks down upon a child floating in an orb who looks back, returning his gaze. The overall effect is of graceful harmony, accentuated by the swirling forms of the clouds, the folds of Kannon's robes, the red coil that like an umbilical cord wraps around the child, and reaches down into the depths of rocks. The halos of the two figures create a kind of visual diagonal between lower left and upper right, emphasizing the connection between the two as sacred sources of illumination, further emphasized by the subtle oval that extends upward from Kannon's feet, like a wide beam of light. The precise lines of the painting ground the subject within a space that could be in the sky looking down upon the rocky pinnacle of a mountain, underwater in a golden sea, or, as if in inner contemplation, looking into the Pure Land of Buddhism.
Hōgai used the Kanô School's traditional mineral pigment and ink on a gold background to convey a traditional subject, but his treatment is innovative. By including the child, he depicted Kannon untraditionally, perhaps influenced by the Western depiction of the Madonna, and wanting to create an image that would appeal to both Asian and European audiences. He also adopted a more realistic treatment of the figures, with shading to create a sense of depth. A reproduction of the painting was included in an early issue of Kokka, and the painting was prominently exhibited at the 1883 Paris Salon to critical acclaim. It became one of the artist's most favored works, and he was to make a second version for Tokyo University of the Arts where it has been designated as an Important Cultural Property of Japan. The art historian Chelsea Foxwell noted that Hogai's work exemplified "a break from the past while at the same time upholding a connection to it."
This painting on silk focuses on the encounter between a powerful tiger, standing on a rocky crag, and a dragon that energetically takes form in serpentine curls borne of the clouds. A contrast between the elements of earth and air is conveyed, as the sold forms of the jagged rocks echo the lines of the crouching tiger and the dragon's fluid arabesques swirl up like white, golden tinged flames. The work is also equally divided between the two creatures, both mythical symbols of Japanese culture, the tiger often associated with earthly kings and the dragon with the Emperor of Heaven. Only the white foaming encroachment of waves cast up by the dragon upon the rocks breaks the almost equal symmetry between the two realms, suggesting the primacy of heaven.
Gahō's work drew upon the Kanô tradition's frequent depictions of two powerful and symbolic creatures connected to the concepts of ruler ship, and the use of strongly outlined forms. Nonetheless, he also adopted Western elements, as shown in the naturalistic treatment of the tiger, and the work's depth, as seen in the distance that opens behind the dramatic scene, its negative space informed by a sense of Western atmospherics. Influenced by European Realism, his work made a convincing argument to later artists that such elements incorporated into Nihonga made the traditional style all the more compelling. As art critic Michael Sullivan wrote. Gahō's "brilliant synthesis of Kano style and technique with Western realism created a model for painters at an early stage in the Nihonga movement."
Each of these images depicts a six paneled byobu, or folding screen, a traditional Japanese format for painting landscape. Usually these two panels are shown together, as an intended pair, and the panel in the upper image is displayed on the right. In the top image, a small pine stands to the left of the curving trunks and branches of a small grove. The bottom image holds a sapling topped with a profusion of gold and brown leaves on the left with a grove of sparsely spaced trees behind it. In both images the russet and gold leaves that have fallen in the foreground create horizontal movement around the base of the trees, drawing the viewer's eye to the space that opens into the distance. Precisely rendered, the groves are diffused with a glowing light that creates the atmospherics of the autumnal season.
To achieve the work's luminosity, the artist used the karabake technique of dripping pigment onto an already wet surface, and then worked the pigment with a dry brush. The technique, evolved from classical sumi ink painting and calligraphy, allowed the artist to create a thin but radiant layer of color. Overall, this work exemplified Hishida's later style of luminous naturalism.