Road Cut through a Hill (1915) by Ryusei Kishida
Innovation and Exploration: Kishida's short but brilliant career
When Japan opened up to the West after the Meiji Revolution, it had a lot of catching up to do. Achievements that took hundreds of years to develop in European civilization were transplanted to Japan in a few decades. This could only be done through the stupendous efforts of some very talented and dedicated reformers. In the art world, one such person was Ryusei Kishida (1891-1929) whose tragically short career helped Japanese Western style painting make up much of the distance that separated it from its foreign models. To commemorate the 110th anniversary of his birth, a major retrospective of his art is being held at MOMA, Kamakura, which is itself celebrating its 50th anniversary.
Early works like his watercolor Sea at Dusk (1907) and his oil painting Sukiyabashi, Ginza (ca.1909) show the work of a young artist who had already mastered much of the language of Impressionism. However, Kishida was not content to rest on his laurels. Through the influence of his friend, Mushanokoji Saneatsu, and the forward-looking art magazine, Shirakaba, he became interested in post-impression. His Self-Portrait (1912) with its thick, parallel brushstrokes in vivid colors echoes the expressionism of Van Gogh and Munch, while Toranomon (ca 1912) suggests an attempt to create texture in the style of Cezanne.
By temperament, Kishida was attracted to the work of William Blake, the Christian poet, artist, and engraver who was inspired by mystic visions. His ink on paper study for his 1914 work, Striving of Humanity, with its naked Biblical forms, is a clear tip of the hat to the Englishman.
Fired with an almost mystical sense of nature himself, Kishida viewed beauty as a unique reality. Dissatisfied with his technique, he was drawn towards the clear, precise paintings of the Northern Renaissance. While convalescing from the consumption that finally killed him at the early age of 39, he would lovingly study art books showing the works of the likes of Van Eyck and his favorite, Albrecht Durer. His finely detailed Portrait of the Artist’s Wife (1915) as well as his two dark, somber portraits of his friend, Mitsuji Takasu, from the same year, show a mastery in this new direction.
At this time, Kishida was living in Yoyogi. In those days, although still largely a rural area, it was starting to be engulfed by Tokyo's suburban sprawl. Some of his most accomplished work are his landscapes showing this transition, like Red Earth and Plants and Road Cut through a Hill, both from 1915, which show lifelike sky and earth tones combined with an expert use of light.
In 1917, he moved to the healthier climate of Kugenuma in Kanagawa. Here the limitations of his illness forced him to concentrate more on still lifes and close members of his family, especially his daughter Reiko, born in 1913. Sometimes enchanting at other times sinister, these portraits of Reiko are his most baffling and intriguing works. Photographs show that Reiko was in fact a rather pretty little girl, however in the portraits, Kishida exaggerated the width of her head to create a sometimes grotesque effect. Contrast the charm of Reiko, Eight Years Old, in Western Dress (1921) with the rather spooky atmosphere conjured up by A Little Girl (1922).
During this period, Kishida became interested in Oriental art. This can be seen in a wide variety of works, including the oil painting, Portrait of the Artist’s Sister, Teruko in Chinese Dress (1921). Using traditional Japanese methods and forms like sumi-e and scroll painting, he created pleasant but not particularly breathtaking works like White Gourd and Eggplants (1926). He also became interested in Song and Yuan period paintings and early hand-painted ukiyo-e, but before he could achieve a true synthesis between Western and Eastern art, fate took a hand. His interest in Oriental art led him to visit China in 1929. During this trip his illness suddenly worsened and one month later he was dead.
Kishida was an artist of great technique who successfully absorbed a wide range of Western styles. We can only imagine what his interest in Oriental art might have produced if he had been allowed to live a few years longer.
Ryusei Kishida runs until May. 20, 2001, at the Museum of Modern Art, Kamakura
The Japan Times
16th May, 2001