This page was created by Magdalena Kolodziej. 

Bodies and Structures 2.0: Deep-Mapping Modern East Asian History


Nihonga is often translated into English as "Japanese style painting." It refers to paintings executed with ink and/or mineral pigments on paper or silk. Its major formats include hanging scrolls, handscrolls, folded screens, albums, and framed works.

Artists and art critics in Japan began to use this term in the second half of the nineteenth century to distinguish native modes of painting from oil painting and watercolor (seiyōga). The official exhibitions in Tokyo accepted submissions to the two respective divisions, nihonga and seiyōga. Other institutions, including art associations and art schools, also upheld the division between nihonga and seiyōga. However, the two modes of painting share many stylistic and thematic similarities; the boundaries between them were often fluid and contested. Many artists engaged in both.

In principle, the distinction between nihonga and seiyōga was based on the medium and the presumed set of traditions and masters each mode was indebted to, not on painter's nationality or the painting's subject matter. Both categories reflect a Japan-centric view of global art in the time of empire. Nihonga often artists took up styles of the Kano School, Rinpa School, Maruyama Shijō School, Yamato-e, and Ukiyo-e in their works. Generally, nihonga was viewed as distinct from literati painting. However, some modern nihonga artists did incorporate literati painting into their artistic practice; also, paintings in the literati tradition were displayed in the nihonga division at the salon.

Konoshima Ōkoku's "Drizzling Shower of Rain" is an example of nihonga. This work was on display at the first Ministry of Education Fine Arts Exhibition in 1907. It is a pair of six-fold screens depicting deer wading through wet grasses. Associations of the subject matter with autumn match the salon season of October. Konoshima Ōkoku's masterful brushwork received much acclaim. The work won a prize and the Ministry of Education purchased it for a prospective art museum. In 1922, the Ministry loaned it for display at a major exhibition of Japanese historic and contemporary art held at the Grand Palais in Paris. In 1923, Ōkoku's screens traveled to Seoul as one of the model works for the second Korea Fine Arts Exhibition.

In certain contexts, artists and critics used the term nihonga as a synonym of tōyōga, or "East Asian Painting." The equivalent of nihonga in Taiwan and Korea and a counterpart to seiyōga came to be known as tōyōga. By the 1930s, some artists from Korea and Taiwan, like Guo Xuehu, came to work in the medium of nihonga.

See discussion of Guo Xuehu's art to better understand the relationship of nihonga and tōyōga.

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