Exhibition: Tamako Kataoka

Centenarian's art defies Nihonga conventions

Painting is clearly good for one’s health. While rock stars, rappers, and movie actors crash and burn, artists seem to go on forever. This is even more true in the case of female Nihonga painters. One of the most famous, Yuki Ogura, passed away a few years ago at the sprightly age of 105, while Tamako Kataoka, one of the most distinctive, is currently being celebrated with an impressive centennial exhibition at the Kanagawa Prefectural Museum of Modern Art, Hayama, a picturesque seaside resort that faces Enoshima and, on clear days, Mt. Fuji.

Although 100 years old, Kataoka is still active today, as Assistant Curator, Tomoyo Sanbonmatsu points out.
"She continues to paint and also teaches as a visiting professor at the Aichi Prefectural University of Fine Arts and Music."

Nihonga, a movement that began as a reaction to the Westernization of Japanese art, is often thought of as an old-fashioned, conservative and rather sedate style of art. Indeed, Kataoka’s earlier paintings, like Foot Warmer (1935) and Tonsure (1950), confirm this impression: The former presents a muted domestic scene of a young girl reading a book while her mother knits, as they both sit with their legs ensconced beneath a kotatsu. While the latter presents a religious ritual, subtly highlighting the monochrome serenity of the central figures, who happen to be men, with two flanking figures in brighter colors, who happen to be women.

"These female figures were included to represent the material, everyday world," Sanbonmatsu says.

From In the Art Section of a Department Store (1952), for which she received the Taikan award – named after the most famous Nihonga painter Taikan Yokoyama – Kataoka’s work started to show greater confidence, with the use of stronger colors, more elaborate decorative patterns, more energetic brushstrokes, and greater freedom in composition. This gives her work a very modern and expressive quality that is not normally associated with Nihonga. Sometimes the colors, patterns, and brushstrokes seem to crowd the large panels on which they are painted and clash – as in the lavishly decorated Fantasy (1961) or the luridly beautiful Mountain: Mt. Fuji (1967) – but such dissonances help generate the visual energy that make her paintings as dynamic as that of any Western style painter.

Her landscapes can be astounding, like Volcano: Mt. Asama (1965), in which a rustic village nestles between a field of gentle wheat and the menace of the towering volcano. Although technically a static object, Kataoka's skill gives Mt. Asama the movement and energy that reflects its geological instability and potential for destruction, striking a note with a powerful resonance in a country like Japan, perched on colliding continental plates.

Sanbonmatsu attributes the dynamism of this and other works to the fact that Kataoka had several teachers, including Tadao Yoshimura (1898-1952) and Yukihiko Yasuda (1884-1978), and also associated with Western style painters.

"Usually in Nihonga, the artist follows one teacher closely, or belongs to a tight circle," she says. "But Kataoka was able to associate with several teachers, some of whom told her that she had to choose her own style because she was so unusual."

The first painters of the modern Nihonga movement, like Taikan Yokoyama (1868-1958), felt that the traditional flatness of Japanese painting and its emphasis on surface decoration was naïve. This led them to try to incorporate aspects of Western art, like its emphasis on light and its feeling of spatial depth, to give their works greater sophistication. But by the height of Kataoka's career, the traditional characteristics of Japanese painting, its flatness and decorativeness, were no longer regarded as weaknesses, as leading Western artists had abandoned the illusionism of Western realism and were emphasizing the surface of their paintings. Accordingly, there is none of the ambivalence about Japanese aesthetics in Kataoka's paintings that is sometimes seen in earlier Nihonga works.

Her great love of Japanese artistic traditions is also expressed in her Tsuragamae series, in which she paints figures from Japanese history, including monks, rulers, and various ukiyo-e artists. Although translated as 'look,' tsuragamae also has a connotation of 'aura,' something that comes across in many of the paintings, which create quite distinct moods, using distortions of form and color, as in Tsuragamae: Tokugawa Ieyasu (1967), where the shogun’s patient, owl-like character is emphasized by his small, beak-like mouth and the large rings around his eyes. Although some of the Tsuragamae series are based on known portraits, and, in the case of artists, include their famous works in the design, several of them, like her vision of the enigmatic 18th century artist Toshusai Sharaku, are pure invention.

Although it’s perhaps safe to say that Kataoka is now in the Autumn of her career, the energy, vividness, lush decoration and bright colors of these beautiful works, as well as the scenic location, make this an ideal exhibition for the early Summer.

International Herald Tribune Asahi Shimbun
20th May, 2005
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