Here’s a post that’s been sitting in my “Drafts” box for over a year, mainly as I have had difficulty finding much information (and more importantly, any pictures) to include in the post. I was fortunate last summer to get to stay with a wonderful older couple in Kyoto who take in students for short periods, running a sort of dormitory out of their house. And, by sheer coincidence, or luck or fate or something, Otousan (or “host dad”) was the grandson of a major big name Nihonga painter. Now, I must admit that when he said his grandmother’s works were going to be on display at the museum, and encouraged us to go see them, I did not recognize the name Kajiwara Hisako, and sort of feared that I was being sent to look at some majorly second-string sort of work, and would have to come back and give platitudes. But, as it turned out, Kajiwara Hisako was an extremely talented painter, and famous enough that several of her paintings featured in slide lectures given by my advisor back in Honolulu. (Now that I saw them at the museum, I recognized them from the lectures and remembered.)
The Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art (京都市美術館) is currently hosting an exhibit of works by Kyoto-based Nihonga women painters. “Nihonga” might be summarized by describing them as neo-traditional paintings, made chiefly from the very end of the 19th, through the early decades of the 20th century, using traditional Japanese media and, to some extent, traditional themes or subjects, combined with Western influences in perspective, light and shadow and realism. The definition provided by JAANUS is more thorough.
The exhibition consisted of several rooms, one of which was dedicated solely to the work of Kajiwara Hisako (1896-1988), who, it just so happens, was the grandmother of my landlord/host-father this summer in Kyoto. I must admit that the name alone did not ring a bell, and I was a little nervous going into the exhibition that I might find that I did not much like her works, or did not have much to say about them, and that the ensuing conversation with my host dad would be somewhat awkward. But, to my surprise, not only was I truly taken by some of her works, but I recognized some of them from the survey of modern/contemporary Japanese art I took last year, and furthermore, sadly, pretty much none of the other works in the exhibition (by other artists) grabbed my attention or interest.
The 日本人名大辞典 (Japan Biographical Encyclopedia) doesn’t reveal anything too interesting about her life, I’m afraid, but I must say I found her work not only visually attractive, and of course masterful, but also quite dense with meaning and ripe for interpretation and comment. It would seem that her subject of choice is women, often depicted in elegant surroundings and beautiful kimono (though some are quite the opposite – one particularly famous work depicts poor girls, dirty, wearing rags, and missing teeth), but nearly always shown as very real people, their individuality and emotions expressed very much in their faces and their bodies. In particular, her women seem almost always to be tired, bored, or otherwise weighed down by the realities of everyday (modern) life. Whether it is the physical exhaustion of working long hours at the office/workshop/factory, like the woman in “Tram Stop Towards Nightfall” (暮れゆく亭留所, 1918), or the implication of the pressures of being a woman in a male-dominated world, Kajiwara’s figures always seem to be far more expressive, individualized, and real – in the sense of possessing real concerns, and dealing with the difficulties of real life – than, for example, those of earlier Japanese painters of Japanese beauties such as Utamaro. One could assume, simply, that since Kajiwara was a woman, she understood women and wanted to represent their emotions, identity, and problems in a way that Utamaro, as a man, did not, but I think there’s a lot more to it than that… and that discussion could be a whole book unto itself.