Nihonga: the traditional Japanese expression and style of painting. The word may scratch some heads, but actually it’s a good chance that you’re well acquainted with the form. An elegant crane standing in a marsh; a mile long dragon twisting and turning; the works of Nihonga have been displayed in museums the world over, not to mention emblazoned on Asian styled t-shirts and burly tattooed arms. It is indeed popular, but why? Well, I can’t speak for everyone, but for me the sinuous line work of these paintings are ethereal fish hooks to the eyes. Those lines have since become iconic, and it can be difficult to imagine such symbols of Japan as the Geisha and Samurai without those misty mountain tops rendered in a clean two-dimensional finish.
Nihonga, though emerging from centuries of artistic Japanese aesthetic, really came into its own during the Meiji era of the late 19th/early 20th century. This was a time of dueling opinions regarding national identity, and so the style strove to differentiate itself from Yoga, or western painting, by focusing on a more flat representation of a picture, depth being accomplished through manipulation of line work and hue. The Nihonga artist had both monochromatic and multicolored techniques at their disposal; the former being painted with sumi ink, the latter with crushed sea shells or minerals joined to a glue-like substance. Both mediums were next mixed with water, the final destination being washi, a tough paper handmade from wood, rice or shrubs. All of this culminated in a painting technique that abandoned photo-realism and deep shadow for smooth shapes and wispy, opaque colors that together often produced a dreamy atmosphere.
The subject matter of Nihonga paintings shifted with the times, as most art does, and masters like Takeuchi Seiho, a founder of the movement as well as Uemura Shoen, famed for her bijinga works of beautiful women, have now given way to modern artists who honor their roots in the style, like Murakami Takashi and Amano Yoshitaka. Murakami has pioneered the style called “superflat” that builds off of the classic Nihonga method with vibrant, often psychadelic colors and pop imagery. Amano, one of my personal favorite artists of any genre, is famous for his conceptual work on the anime “Gatchaman” as well as the “Final Fantasy” videogame series, blending the classic Japanese line work with romantic moods and patterns inspired by Gustav Klimt.
If your interest has been piqued or you are an artist yourself looking to add a new stroke to your repertoire, visit the links below. There are also museums that specialize in Nihonga, such as the Yamatane Museum of Art, in case you’re living in Japan or plan to come here in the near future. Enjoy!
– Nihonga blogspot
– Takeuchi Seiho bio and online gallery