The Painting of Sadness? The Ends of Nihonga, Then and Now

Nihonga (literally “Japanese painting”) is a term that arose in 1880s Japan in order to distinguish existing forms of painting from newly popularized oil painting, and even today it is a category of artistic production apart from contemporary art at large. In this sense, nihonga is the oldest form of a broader worldwide category of “tradition-based contemporary art.” While nihonga was supposed to encompass any form of “traditional” painting, however, in practice it was held together by a recognizable style. When nihonga stopped fulfilling certain material or stylistic criteria, it ceased to be distinguishable from the rest of artistic production. This led to a conundrum in which nihonga, constituted in an age of Orientalism by Western and Japanese fears about the loss of a truly “Japanese” form of painting, has been obliged to reaffirm and reiterate what Kitazawa Noriaki has called its “sad history” of segregation in order to avoid extinction. By examining a series of paintings and written statements that blur the line between nihonga and the rest of modern-contemporary artistic production, I question the practicality and the benefits of continuing to uphold nihonga and tradition-based contemporary as discrete categories of contemporary art.

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