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Light from the East


Traditional Japanese paintings are an excellent buying opportunity, as well as a portal into a world of timeless grace and beauty.

Katsushika Hokusai, Tiger in Snow, 1849

Katsushika Hokusai, Tiger in Snow, 1849, hanging scroll, ink and color on silk;

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When Ernest Fenollosa, one of the pioneering Western scholars and collectors of Japanese art, was living in Japan in the 1880s, great Japanese paintings could be had for next to nothing. The daimyos, or nobles, caught up in the modernization of the Meiji Restoration, regarded their traditional art with indifference or even contempt, and this attitude, coupled with financial insecurity brought about by the fall of the feudal system, caused many of them to dump their collections. Fenollosa, who had a good eye and knew as much about Japanese art as many a native expert, was making incredible finds. He bought a great painting by Motonobu, a 16th-century master of the aristocratic Kano school, from an Osaka dealer, and he managed to find a famous ceramic Buddha head in a garbage can. When Fenollosa had amassed over a thousand paintings, he sold them to a Boston collector, C.G. Weld, who donated them to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The Fenollosa-Weld Collection is, to this day, one of the two greatest museum holdings of Japanese paintings in the United States.

Today’s collectors can’t replicate Fenollosa’s experiences, of course, but traditional Japanese paintings still represent a great buying opportunity. New York dealer Joan Mirviss explains that several market factors have come together to make the present moment a very good time to collect in this field. For one thing, although museum exhibitions of Japanese paintings are well-attended, the commercial market has weakened over the past 15 or so years, because the top few collectors have either died or exited the field, donating their collections to institutions. That, says Mirviss, “has put an enormous dampener on the field,” which means that prices are at a relative low.

Meanwhile, in Japan, since the economic downturn that began in the mid-1990s, corporate and regional museums have had a difficult time making any acquisitions at all, and even the major national museums have “had their hands tied for some time in terms of having money,” says Mirviss. As a result, there are more good paintings still on the market than there would otherwise be. And finally, Japanese export laws are favorable to Western collectors, and, unlike China, the government is not in the habit of making cultural-patrimony claims on artworks or restricting them from being exported. In the case of paintings, says Mirviss, a work would have to be in the “A+++ category” in order for the government to say that it could not leave the country. “One can still get great things and export them legally,” she says. “That is not true of most of the rest of Asian art.”

Japanese painting dates back to the 8th century A.D., but collectors can realistically expect to find works on the market dating from the 17th century down to the early 20th century. Among the many schools and eras of Japanese painting, there is a distinction made between Japanese style (yamato-e) and Chinese style (kara-e)—although the distinction is a bit arbitrary in that yamato-e, as it developed in the Heian period (794–1185) is derived in many of its particulars from Tang-dynasty Chinese painting. As the terms evolved, yamato-e involves a highly detailed approach to landscape and a narrative aspect, whereas kara-e refers to a looser style derived from Chinese ink wash paintings. No paintings that anyone could collect today are pure yamato-e; rather, they may incorporate elements of it. For example, the great Kano school, which dominated Japanese painting from the late 15th century through the beginning of the Meiji period and produced the large-scale paintings that decorated noblemen’s castles, freely combined Chinese and yamato-e styles.


In terms of genres, Japanese painting can be divided into figurative, landscape, and “bird-and-flower”; the latter refers not only to paintings of those creatures only but also to studies of animals in general and to tabletop still lifes such as depictions of “scholars’ objects.” Ukiyo-e is a subset of figurative painting that is very appealing to collectors today. The term, often misunderstood to mean color woodblock prints, actually means “pictures of the floating world,” the Edo-period world of courtesans, actors, and other denizens of the urban night. Originally ukiyo-e meant pictures of any kind, whether paintings or prints, that depicted such characters and scenes, and by extension it came to refer to populist images that did not fit within the strictures of courtly art.

The physical presence of Japanese paintings is quite different from that of most paintings in the West. In traditional Japanese dwellings, artwork was never affixed permanently to walls. That was partly because of the fact that the walls were made of thin materials, but more importantly because of the Japanese belief that paintings should be rotated with the seasons or specially installed to satisfy the taste of a visiting guest. “Because of that predilection towards exhibition on an extremely temporary basis, works have to be able to be stored with great ease and safety,” says Mirviss. Therefore, most paintings were executed in scroll format, on silk or paper, usually hung vertically but sometimes horizontally, and they could easily be rolled up and slipped into purpose-built wooden receptacles for storage. Japanese collectors usually had storerooms or even warehouses off-site, where their artworks would be protected from fires and earthquakes, and paintings would travel back and forth between these facilities and the collectors’ homes.

The best-known format for Japanese painting is the folding wooden screen. Again, this format accorded particularly well with the impermanent nature of Japanese art display. Screens functioned as temporary room dividers, so the paintings that were affixed to them would be seen only on particular occasions. “If you want to make an elegant and inviting interior for your guests,” says Mirviss, “you put out a screen with, say, a snow scene or a harbinger of spring.” The typical format was the six-fold screen, with 12 panels, each about five and a half feet tall by one foot wide. And since screens usually came in pairs, the artist would have designed 24 feet of art. If you see a four-panel screen, it probably means the two outer panels have been lost over time. A much smaller type of screen is the two-paneled “sleeping screen,” around two to three feet high. They usually came in pairs and were put up to give houseguests privacy while sleeping, as well as during tea ceremonies.

The other major Japanese painting formats are the handscroll, the album, and the fan. These are less frequently collected by Westerners because they are more difficult to display and not suitable for decorating homes. A handscroll, which could be 20 feet in length, has to be unrolled bit by bit, so that one cannot view the entire composition at one time. Albums could be by a single artist or compilations of works by many artists; sometimes they contained narratives from classical literature, like illuminated manuscripts in the West. And finally, artists made paintings to be mounted on fans, many of which are not in good condition because of wear and tear through use of the fan. Some fan paintings have been removed from the fans and remounted as hanging scrolls.

A rich variety of Japanese paintings is available on the market today. Mirviss has a six-panel screen by the artist Tani Buncho, a member of the Yamato-e Revivalist School, dating to the period 1804–18. Done in ink and colors on gold leaf, it depicts Mount Tsukuba with trees and a river in the foreground. The use of vivid green and the extensive use of negative space give the painting a distinctive and almost mystical quality. Its companion screen, which depicts Mount Fuji, is in a Japanese museum collection. Mirviss is also offering a hanging scroll painting of a tiger—an important symbol of the yang principle of male energy in Asian art—by Kokei, a Kano school artist who moved more toward naturalism and embraced bird-and-flower painting. Signed and dated 1836, it was executed in ink, color, and gold on silk.

Another hanging scroll in Mirviss’ inventory, dated to an earlier period, circa 1745–48, depicts a flowering plum tree with the full moon in the background, in a nearly monochrome palette. The aesthetic is very Chinese, and the artist, Taiga, made it using the Chinese practice of finger-painting, in which the hand, fingertips, and fingernails and used to create effects supposedly unattainable by the brush. The full moon is given a looser, more colorful, and almost Impressionistic treatment in a 17th-century two-panel screen offered by Naga Antiques in Hudson, N.Y. Done by an artist of the Rimpa school, it depicts the plains of Musashino in rich green with the rising full moon shining white.

“During the Momoyama period (1573–1615) of early Japanese screen painting, this was one of the six very famous subject matters,” says Jim Marinaccio, owner of Naga Antiques. “Later, these same subjects were used as backdrops for Noh theater, and with time, these subject matters have become even more desirable.”

New York dealer Sebastian Izzard is a specialist in ukiyo-e paintings. He points out that these were done by the same artists whose names are famous for woodblock prints, such as Hokusai. The artists started out with book illustrations, then prints, and finally, when they were successful enough, they could make paintings, which were commissioned works. Of course, paintings are far rarer than prints, because prints are multiples while paintings are unique works, and many paintings in any given artist’s oeuvre are likely to have been destroyed or otherwise lost over time. Among Izzard’s stock of ukiyo-e paintings, many are of the typical beautiful, elegantly dressed women, such as Hishikawa Morotane’s Seated Beauty Smoking a Pipe (circa 1690–1710), and hanging scroll in ink, color, and gold on silk. Another scroll, Bewhiskered Man Importuning a Wakashu (circa 1736–44), by Miyagawa Issho, highlights the shadowy realm of nightlife. The older man, seated on a colorful carpet, reaches for the richly embroidered hem of the robe of the wakashu, a young man who inhabited a gender-fluid “third sex” category in Japanese culture.

Ukiyo-e also included vivid depictions of events both contemporary and legendary. The artist Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847–1915) did both. The Great Fire at Ryokogu, in the Princeton University collection, has a journalistic, you-are-there quality. Izzard says the artist “makes you feel he is standing behind the firemen, in the line of fire. It’s very immediate.” Another work by Kiyochika, The Fury of Monk Raigo, in the Met’s collection, also uses a virtuoso treatment of flames, this time to illustrate a quasi-historical event in which the 11th-century monk became enraged during an esoteric Buddhist fire ritual called a goma-e.

Prices for Japanese paintings at the top of the line can be in the seven figures. Izzard says “the best quality Hokusai,” could bring $1.5 million to $3 million, if it were to come on the market. Early ukiyo-e screens from the 17th century could bring similar prices. However, outside of such special works, Japanese painting is still a field in which top-quality works in excellent condition by great artists can be had in the five figures. Late-18th-century to early-19th-century paintings are available in the range of $30,000 to $250,000, depending on quality, rarity, and size (prices can go higher for paintings of this era that are especially large or important). Beginning collectors should be sure to buy from dealers who have expertise and can vouch for authenticity and condition.


By John Dorfman

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: August 2018

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