There may be no more widely known painting than Lakeside with its image of a woman in a light summer kimono robe holding a fan as she sits against a backdrop of a pale blue lakeside scene. This work exudes an unutterably cool sensibility, and we recognize in its subject the ideal image of an elegant Meiji-era woman. It is also widely recognized that the artist of this work, Kuroda Seiki, played a major role in the history of modern art in Japan as indicated by his sobriquet, "the father of modern Japanese western-style painting". Thus, when we consider western-style painting as a transplanted culture vis-a-vis the Japanese, we can see how the high artistic quality of his paintings, the painterly expression found in each of these works, and the philosophy that lay in their background all combine to embody issues that continue to be important for us today. At the same time, if we consider the life of this man as an artist, we can understand that Kuroda's life was, in a sense, pre-ordained by that historic age known as the Meiji period. Japan was equipping itself with the systems of a modern nation-state, promulgating constitutions and laws, and Kuroda was one of the main supports for the creation of a system of art education which established both a form of painterly Academism and western-style painting educational methods in Japan. Conversely, as an individual artist, Kuroda was a painter who sought the freedom of gaze and expression essential to the artist, and, at times, this attitude put him into direct opposition to the system as represented by the nation and its conservative society. The painter vacillated between system and individual, occasionally showing considerable swings in attitude and stance. The traces of these movements can be seen as one of the typical patterns exhibited by painters who lived in the Meiji period. This essay will focus on an examination of both the study-abroad period which formed the basis of Kuroda's arts, and the period after his return to Japan in which he transformed Japan's art world, and will consider his works in these contexts.
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Kuroda was born on the 29th day of the 6th month of 1866 (Keio 2) in Takamibaba, Kagoshima city. His father, Kuroda Kiyokane, was a samurai of the Shimazu clan, and his mother was named Yaeko. He was their oldest son. At birth, Seiki was given the name Shintaro which was later changed to Seiki. It seems, however, that even prior to his birth, the newborn child was to be adopted by his father's older brother Kiyotsuna, and the year after his birth the baby traveled to Tokyo with his mother and his new adopted mother, Sadako. He then spent his childhood years at Kiyotsuna's estate in Hirakawa-cho Kojimachi district of Tokyo. His adopted father, Kiyotsuna, was also a retainer of the Shimazu clan, but his numerous military deeds at the end of the Edo period, including particular valor in the Toba-Fushimi battle (1868) meant that he was then named to a number of important government positions in the Tokyo Metropolitan and national government after the Meiji Restoration (1868). In 1887 (Meiji 20), Kiyotsuna was awarded the rank of Viscount. Thus, Kiyotsuna was a high official during Japan's period of modernization in the early Meiji period, and the young Seiki was being groomed as his adopted father's heir. At the time, the Kuroda estate was a massive 7,000 tsubo in size, and in his early school years Seiki and his friends were said to have swum in the pond on the estate and to have played in its waterfalls. Such stories allow us to imagine Seiki's upbringing amidst considerable economic and material wealth. In his early teens, Seiki began to study the English language as part of his preparation for entrance to university, but then he switched to the study of French. At the age of 17, Seiki enrolled in a two-year French course at a school of foreign languages. His decision to study French was based on the fact that he wanted to pursue the study of law in college. During the early year of the Meiji period, the government established civil and criminal codes of law based on the French legal system, and hence, if one wanted to study law, one had to first study French. At about that time, in 1884 (Meiji 17), Seiki's elder brother-in-law, Hashiguchi Naouemon, the husband of Kiyotsuna's daughter Chika, was appointed to the French Legation, and it was decided that Seiki would travel with him to France where he would begin his real study of the law. Seiki arrived in Paris on March 18, 1884. At the time, France had been defeated in the Franco-Prussian War, had suffered through the Paris Commune confusion, and had finally achieved a measure of peace with the establishment of the Third Republic. With the coming of peace, Paris, the center of the French Republic, began its transformation into a modern city.
Kuroda spent about 10 years studying in France until his return to Japan in 1893 (Meiji 26) at the age of 27. This student lifestyle proved to be a period of self-discovery and self-formation amidst his impression-filled youth. The greatest turning point during these 10 years came when Kuroda decided to drop his study of law to become a painter. The impetus for this change came in February 1886 (Meiji 19) when a gathering of Japanese nationals residing in Paris was held at the Japanese Legation. At this party, Seiki met the painter Yamamoto Hosui (1850-1906), Fuji Masazo (1853-1916), another painter who had traveled to Paris to study as a study-abroad student sponsored by the Ministry of Industry and Commerce, and Hayashi Tadamasa (1851-1906), an art dealer active in the export of ukiyo-e prints. These three men all strongly urged Seiki to become a painter. Kuroda himself had received a watercolor painting set from his adopted mother to amuse himself on the long journey to Europe, and while he had occasionally sent sketches as illustrations to his letters home, he had never, as he set out to learn French and become a lawyer, viewed painting as anything more than a hobby. But while unexpected, this urging by others to become a painter was not wholly unforeseeable. Seiki expressed these sentiments in a letter to his adopted father.
Having begun to vacillate between the law and painting, Seiki finally sent the following letter to his adopted father to explain his decision to become a painter:
As seen in the comment in line with the god-given talents I have received 20-year-old Seiki announced that painting had brought about a self-revelation, and this is how he chose to inform his father of his decision and resolve. Seiki noted in his diary that he entered the studio of Louis-Joseph-Raphael Collin (1850-1916) the day after this letter was written. In spite of this resolve, his adopted father remained staunchly opposed to Seiki's decision to become a painter. As a result, Seiki continued to study law for a while as he pursued his painting studies. But the effort at compromise ended in August 1887 (Meiji 20) when he withdrew from the Law Academy and turned all of his attention to painting.
Kuroda's teacher Raphael Collin has been almost totally forgotten today, and his name has only appeared as the slightest mention even amidst the recent scholarly trend to reconsider the history of 19th century art which was centered on Academism. At the time of Kuroda's entrance into Collin's studio, however, a number of Collin's works had been accepted by the Salon, and the work submitted to the 1886 Salon, Floreal , had been purchased by the French Government and deposited in the Musee de Luxembourg. This was a period when Collin's fame was rising among the newer members of the Academic styles. His painting style, as seen in Floreal with its idealized image of a nude young woman reclining by a lake, was filled with a moderate, bright plein air expression. Fuji Masazo had already begun to study under Collin, and as Fuji was translating for those in the studio, his presence formed another impetus for Kuroda to study with Collin. In other words, Kuroda's choice of Collin as a teacher was not based on admiration for Collin's painting style or on other specifically subjective reasons; rather, it was simply a matter of connection. And yet, as will be noted below, the painting style which Kuroda learned from Collin came to completely change the western-style painting world of Japan. Given this fact, it might seem ironic that Kuroda's choice of Collin was purely a question of chance. Why had Fuji, who had subjectively selected Collin as his teacher, made this choice? The 8th and final Impressionist Exhibition was held in 1886, the year that Collin's Floreal marked the artist's real debut in artistic society. From the first of these Impressionist exhibitions held in 1874, each ensuing exhibition led to greater support for Impressionist painting, and by 1886 the Impressionists had conquered the Paris art scene. Thus, art students from abroad, including those from Japan, would have found it very hard to become students under any of the Impressionist painters. As has been indicated, from the 1880s to the 1890s,
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Another young Japanese man, Kume Keiichiro (1866-1934), arrived in Paris in August of the year that Kuroda entered Collin's studio. Kume was the oldest son of the historian Kume Kunitake and had first studied drawing under Fuji Masazo in Japan and ended up following him to Paris. Kuroda and Kume were the same age, and they soon became close friends and then roommates the following year. They remained lifelong friends. Kume also entered Collin's studio, and the two young men attended his classes at L'Academie Colarossi. Collin held two sessions a week at the Colarossi, and these sessions consisted of an approximately hour-long review of his students' works and individual advice on their progress. Such sessions were part of the standard educational methods of the day employed at this school and at other academies which adhered to a specific art curriculum. Under this system, students first learned basic drawing skills by copying classical paintings and sketching from sculptures. Second, they drew from the nude figure, and third, they painted oil paintings from the human figure and the nude. Finally, they would study composition from historical paintings and other subjects. This academic painting curriculum based on the period's artistic philosophies and aesthetics led the student from the fundamental elements of drawing (dessin) through the creation of finished paintings (tableaux). Among the works exhibited here, the drawings Portrait of a Woman and A Plaster Bust are representative of the fundamental stage of drawing, while the sketches of nude women are from the next stage in this learning process-- drawing from the live model. The oil paintings exhibited here,Nude, Female (A Half-figure from the Back) through Nude, Male (Bust), reveal a group of oil studies which speak of Kuroda's academic training under Collin.
Around 1890 (Meiji 23), Kuroda began to mature as a painter based on the painting skills he acquired through this academic training. Prior to that time, he had occasionally taken short sketching trips with Kume, but in May of 1890, he began to make real progress when he visited the village of Grez-sur-Loing, settled in the village, and began to create paintings. According to Kume, "No matter where you looked there was something just made to become a painting" (Kuroda Seiki shoden). This statement sums up the beauty of the place, a bucolic farming village with its flow of landscapes changing with each passing season. An artist colony made up of artists from America and Northern Europe had formed in the village during this period. Kuroda was attracted to this region not only by the beauty of the surrounding scenery, but also by the fact that he found in the village a suitable model for his figure work. This model was a young villager named Maria Billault. Maria is depicted in two of the most famous works from Kuroda's student years, Woman Reading (Tokyo National Museum), the first of Kuroda's work accepted by the Salon, and Portrait of a Woman (Kitchen) (Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music). Maria is seen in this exhibition in the oil painting Woman Knitting and in the drawing Woman Knitting. Kuroda became a close friend of Maria's entire family, and he rented a small hut on their land which he used as his painting studio.
What stylistic changes were brought about by Kuroda's stay in this region? According to the memoirs of Kuroda's close friend Kume, the foreign painters gathered in the artist colony "without exception, studied the impressionist depictive methods, and we too came to this place because of our natural interest in this subject" (Kuroda Seiki shoden). He remarked elsewhere that "impressionist painters of the day employed a variety of depictive devices to bring the effects of sparkling sunlight into their compositions, and those of us who had studied under Collin aimed to create landscape paintings with a quiet, gentle tenor (Fukeiga ni tsuite). Here, Kume describes these foreign artists as "studying the impressionist depictive methods", when, more accurately stated, they were studying the style of Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848-1884), an Academic painter whose farm village paintings with their even-lighted outdoor scenes and so-called plein air sensibility were popular with these foreign artists. Kuroda's teacher Collin was a friend of Bastien-Lepage, and under Bastien-Lepage's influence Collin himself began to bring the expression of external light into his works. As is well known, the impressionist style of painting begun by Monet employed brushstrokes, dotting, and bright colors to depict nature wrapped in light and atmosphere and completely erased unnatural looking outlines from the picture plane. Thus, rather than becoming painters like the Impressionists who worked purely in "impressions", both Bastien-Lepage and Collin created an eclectic style which utilized their academic realism with a degree of plein air expression or external light that was bright and impressionistic in effect. Both Kuroda and Kume translated plein air literally into the Japanese term meaning Pleinairism, and they too sought this form of expression. Examples of Kuroda's plein air expression can be found in the sere landscape scene Withered Field (Grez) and in A Girl with Red Hair where the viewer's gaze is drawn into the depths of the forest behind the young girl whose back is turned to the viewer. (Recent art historical research, however, has referred to Bastien-Lepage's style as "plein air painting" or "Naturalisme", while the "ism" form of this term, "pleinai-risme", is very rarely used. Thus, we must reconsider whether or not this "plein air" terminology is appropriate vis-a-vis Kuroda in our consideration of Kuroda's work in the context of the art history of that period.)
Returning to Paris from the rich harvest of works created in Grez, Kuroda began work on a life-size painting of a nude figure during 1893 (Meiji 26), which would become Kuroda's last year of study in France. Unfortunately this work, Morning Toilet, was destroyed in World War II. Kuroda himself said that this work "felt like a kind of graduation test" (letter to his father, dated April 29, 1893). At the same time, he also meant to bring the work back to Japan and thus shatter the Japanese prejudice against paintings of nude figures. The completed work was accepted with praise by the competitive exhibition held by the Societe Nationale des Beaux-Arts, an organization established in 1890, and with this recognition in hand, Kuroda set sail for Japan via America.
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In July 1893(Meiji 26), Kuroda returned to Japan 10 years after his departure for France. That fall he went to Kyoto in search of amusement where the traditional Kyoto neighborhoods, geisha, and local customs all seemed exotic to Kuroda after his long years of study abroad. These impressions led to his painting A Maiko Girl (Tokyo National Museum) and to the Talk on Ancient Romance which will be discussed later in this essay. Kuroda returned from his study period as a free, bohemian-like character confronted with a Japan that was facing rapid modernization as it approached the Russo-Japanese War (1894- 95). On the one hand, Kuroda appeared on the artistic scene as someone to reform, to enlighten from within the conservative art world and the society surrounding it. On the other hand, in terms of art education, he also functioned as one of the supporters of systemization through his implementation of and advice regarding the European academic education which had formed the basis of his studies in France. Will ye, nil ye, he assumed both roles in Japan at the time. While living the life of an individual painter who emphasized individuality, Kuroda was also a member of the establishment which built a system which suppressed the individual in the name of modernization. Kuroda lived a life which vacillated between these two opposing positions; as a result, he at times resisted their pressures and also suffered for them.
First, let us consider Kuroda's role as reformer. Yamamoto Hosui, one of the men who had urged Kuroda to become a painter, handed on his painting school, the Seikokan, and all of his students to Kuroda the year after Kuroda returned to Japan. Kuroda, along with Kume who had also returned to Japan, renamed that school the Tenshin Dojo and the two became its directors. Upon the opening of this painting school, Kuroda established as the first precept of its regulations that "lessons will consist of copying from plaster images and copying from live models". This was the basis for western painting which he had learned in Paris, and it was an educational curriculum based on drawing education. This curriculum rejected the painting education of the day in Japan which was based on the copying of photographs or prints and stipulated that plaster casts and live figures (nudes) would be the models for Kuroda's students. Another stipulation named charcoal as the medium for drawing. Until that time, Japanese artists working with western materials had used conte crayons and estompe which was basically a tool made by rolling up paper or parchment, creating a pointed end, and then using the pointed end to rub a pencil or conte line to achieve a three-dimensional effect. Charcoal, on the other hand, was more effective in the accurate depiction of details and the creation of an overall effect (the "ensemble"). Its characteristics reflected the academic tastes of the latter half of the 19th century. One of the students who studied at Kuroda's school, Yuasa Ichiro recalled having Kuroda's comment, "What you are doing is good, but because it takes five years to accomplish what is done in France in one year, you are extremely handicapped" (Watashi no gakusei jidai). Thus, Kuroda obviously sought to employ both the new vision acquired during his time in France and the art materials used in France. Kuroda also brought a new attitude toward landscapes to the field of oil painting in Japan. Yuasa made the following comment about this subject:
Here we can see how Kuroda had been liberated from the depiction of stereotyped famous scene landscapes, had learned to create vivid depictions in plein air sketch forms that rely on lively brushwork and bright colors to depict an ordinary corner of nature, as seen in his Landscape of Honmoku, Yokohama painted after his return from France. The transformations of Kuroda's vision are apparent in both his charcoal drawings and these landscape paintings.
Kuroda did something else that caught the attention of society after his return from France. In April 1895 (Meiji 28), the 4th Domestic Exposition to Promote Industry was held in Kyoto, and Kuroda was both a member of the judging committee and also submitted Morning Toilet, the painting he had created in France. He was awarded a prize for this work. But the display of this painting of a nude woman before the massive number of visitors to the Exposition led to a number of damning articles in the press, all condemning its flaunting of social standards. The majority of the criticism decried the continued display of this painting and its disruption of public morals, rather than any particularly art-related issues. Kuroda's friend Kume wrote a defense of nude paintings to the newspapers, and Kuroda, at the heart of the maelstrom, wrote the following in a letter to Kume. Kuroda himself maintained a public silence on this issue and did not sway from his position of resistance.
The newspaper reactions and official control that surrounded the public display of paintings of nudes were repeated over and over again after this incident, but this was the first such incident in Japan.
Another event that focused attention on Kuroda's works occurred in October of that same year. Kuroda exhibited 21 works that he had created in Europe in the 7th Exhibition of the Meiji Bijutsukai, the only western-style painting group of the day. Kume, along with the young painters studying at the Tenshin Dojo also entered works in this exhibition. Visitors to this exhibition were struck by the difference in expression between Kuroda's group of works in the plein air style and the works done by other artists -- in essence the exhibition was clearly divided into two groups. The various newspaper critics of the day focused on the phenomenon as the difference between old and new. Further, they reported it as a factional difference, painting Kuroda and his fellows as the new school with the painters of the Meiji Bijutsukai as the old school, even going as far as linking the difference to a variety of specific factions, including those called the "orthodox school" and the "unorthodox school". This developed from the technical and theoretical differences pre- and post- Impressionism, and Kuroda, the man dubbed the leader of the new faction, made the following statement at the time regarding these differences:
Kuroda was not only displeased with the clear differences in painting style seen in such journalism, he was also unhappy with the bureaucratic methods of the rule-bound Meiji Bijutsukai with its board of officers. As a result, Kuroda, Kume, and the young painters studying with these two men formed their own art society the following June. They named the group the Hakubakai, after their favorite brand of unrefined sake, Shirouma, which can also be read hakuba, or literally, "white horse". This Hakubakai did not have clear-cut society rules; it did not have officers; rather, it set out to be a free and equal gathering of members with the goal of holding exhibitions where members could display their works. Until its dissolution in 1911 (Meiji 44), the Hakubakai held exhibitions almost every year, for a total of 13 exhibitions. These Hakubakai exhibitions led the western-style painting world of the latter half of the Meiji period and played a large role in encouraging a number of talented painters, including Fujishima Takeji and Aoki Shigeru.
As noted above, a visual revolution was brought about by drawings and landscape paintings, and we can clearly see that Kuroda featured in the public display of nude paintings and the formation of the Hakubakai as a reformer, a liberal-minded educator of the art world who had learned new forms of expression and took a stance of resistance. However, on the other hand, during the same year that saw the formation of the Hakubakai, the Western Painting Department was formed at the Tokyo Art School, and Kuroda was invited to become the director of this department. This meant that Kuroda then functioned as the person in charge of building an academic system to provide actual western-style painting education in an art school context. As a liberal painter, he emphasized the individual; as an educator and advisor, he emphasized the opposite, and it is fascinating that Kuroda was faced with these conflicting tasks in the same year. These opposing roles did not lead to inner confusion for Kuroda; rather, we can see that Kuroda faced these conflicting roles head on, in part due to his own conceit and sense of missionary zeal-- sentiments that were common among those who returned to Japan during this period known as the Meiji.
Kuroda stated the following as his ultimate goal of his educational aims and ambitions when he gave the opening lecture of the Western Painting Department course:
Kuroda set his goal as history paintings, or as paintings "which take on abstract subjects and which fully bring the imagination to the brush tip". The term "historical painting" meant that the subject of the work was an image from history, mythology, religion, or an abstract concept from philosophy or the imagination. A "composition" in the French academic sense of the word meant the arrangement of a group of figures depicted in oils on a large canvas. As part of his own work, Kuroda himself set out to experiment with the creation of such a "composition". This experiment became the work known as Talk on Ancient Romance.
This work, as previously noted, was conceived while Kuroda was visiting Kyoto immediately after his return to Japan. According to Kuroda's memoirs, he was visiting the temple Seikanji --coincidentally mentioned in the poem Nakayama-- and the priest at Seikanji told him the tale of Kogo from the Heike Monogatari. Kuroda commented, "The person telling this tale was a talented storyteller, and I fell into a somewhat strange mood. It was as if the ancient days had appeared again today. it was extremely strange, but I thought that I should make this image into some sort of work" (Yoga mondo). About the time that he made up his mind to pursue this project, he received assistance for material costs from the Sumitomo family through the auspices of Saionji Kinmochi, then Minister of Education. This monetary assistance allowed Kuroda to gather models and begin work on preparatory drawings for the painting. The charcoal drawings and the preparatory oil sketches seen here were part of this project, and this group of preparatory materials was exhibited in the First Hakubakai exhibition. Wada Eisaku, the sole member of the first graduating class from the Western Painting Department of the Tokyo Art School, and Kuroda's student, made the following comment on his impression of this group of study works when he saw them at the exhibition: "I was not the only one who was surprised to see how much effort went into the production of just one composition" (Gonenmae to kyo). From then on, Kuroda continued to both employ this method of creation and convey it to his students. While this production process was intended for the creation of a composition painting --the highest level of achievement in Kuroda's form of academism --we must consider that the subjects of these works were, in fact, genre scenes from his own period which were composed to express images gleaned from history. It seems that Kuroda took this opportunity to diverge from his educational plan quoted above, and his students created a series of Meiji genre scenes which began to appear as graduation works and as works entered in the Hakubakai exhibitions. Kuroda finished this Talk on Ancient Romance, an intentionally large work which seems to have been intended as a wall panel --but like Morning Toilet, it was lost in the air raids of World War II, and today we can only see Kuroda's intentions for the work from the group of preparatory drawings and oil sketches.
Kuroda's next composition project was Wisdom-Impression-Sentiment. This work, consisting of a nude woman posed in three different poses on three separate canvases coated with a gold ground, shows the same intent handling as seen in Talk on Ancient Romance, and yet here the artist does not clarify the meaning of the work. As a result, even today these canvases interest scholars, and a variety of research has been carried out on them. While clearly the different figural poses are intended to express different abstract concepts, it is the current consensus that these are Kuroda's own concepts, not images linked to Japanese, Asian, or western concepts. Wisdom --the figure on the right of the triptych-- holds her right hand to her forehead with her left hand raised in front of her stomach; the central figure, Impression, raises both hands to either side of her head, while the Sentiment figure on the left grips her long hair with her right hand. According to a contemporary newspaper critique of the work, Kuroda is said to have identified the figures as symbolic representations, with Wisdom as "Ideal", Impression as "Impression", and Sentiment as "Real" ("Hakubakai shirotomi no ki" Yomiuri Shimbun, November 29, 1897). This kind of symbolic use of figures in different poses to represent the unseen world of abstract concepts and ideas may indicate the influence of the fin-de-siecle symbolist paintings on Kuroda's work. Further, this work is the first example of a Japanese woman used as a model for a nude work which was then publicly displayed. This work was entered in the 2nd Hakubakai exhibition, and then after Kuroda had made some adjustments to the work, it was displayed, along with Lakeside, in the 1900 Paris World Exposition. Kuroda went on to experiment with other composition works, such as Flowering Field (no. 48), but they all remained unfinished works. Kuroda seems to have then held these unfinished thoughts for the rest of his life.
The first Bunten exhibition (the Ministry of Education-sponsored exhibition) was held in 1907 (Meiji 40). This exhibition was an effort on the part of the Ministry of Education to hold an exhibition open to public entries to encourage the arts as part of its educational policies. Kuroda had worked hard on the government to achieve this event --an exhibition open to entries regardless of artistic group affiliation, where the entered works would be judged for display and prizes by a judging committee. As the Bunten exhibitions were held each year, the members of the Hakubakai came to enter their major works in the Bunten exhibitions. This move to exhibiting in the Bunten then led to the disbanding of the Hakubakai. Just as the final Hakubakai exhibition was held in October 1910 (Meiji 43), Kuroda was appointed a Court Artist to the Imperial Court. This was the first time that a western-style painter had been appointed to such a position, and this appointment was in recognition of both his paintings and his activities on behalf of the nation's educational policies, as seen in his work at the Tokyo Art School, the Hakubakai, and as a member of the Bunten judging committee. Kume, still a close friend of Kuroda's, noted,
In fact, Kuroda's activities in arts administration involved a series of important appointments, such as member of the House of Peers (1920), and then head of the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts (1922), and he only created small works for display during this period. We can get a true sense of Kuroda's feelings as an artist during these late years from his following recollections:
These words by Kuroda indicate that he believed that he had not yet been able to create the "composition" level of paintings (or tableaux in French), and he felt the imperative to convey that such achievement was his future goal. But the new artistic expression and ideas that Kuroda brought to Japan and his liberal spirit undoubtedly made huge changes in the Japanese art world, and it is these achievements, along with his many extant works, which remain highly revered today.