Artist: Kaburagi Kiyokata (鏑木清方)

Lifetime: 1878 - 1972

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"During his long life, Kaburaki Kiyokata was highly renowned as an illustrator, painter and essayist, a spread of talents so rare as to find no equivalent in the history of modern Japanese art. Kiyokata the painter is often said to have worked for the modern development of ukiyo-e. His deep attachment to literature, however, marks him rather as the last artist in an older tradition of Japanese art: painting inspired by literature. In his art and life, he appears to resemble the Kyoto painter and scholar Tomioka Tessai, although Kiyotaka looked back to his beloved old Tokyo, and Tessai to China.

Raised in downtown Tokyo during the first half of Meiji, Kiyokata, the 'son of late-Edo culture,' sought to recreate in both the visual and literary arts the city's traditional life. His abiding nostalgia for the fading culture of old Tokyo was combined with a clarity of style and a highly sophisticated command of color and brushwork. He cared little for the nation-building agendas that fired the passions of so many modern Japanese painters and writers, or for the distinctions that modernists drew between high and popular culture. His art lay not in theories but in the details, achieving a quiet refinement matched by few painters of his generation.

Kiyokata's lifelong love of old Tokyo was nurtured in his childhood, when late Edo popular culture was still deeply rooted in the daily life of commoners in the city's downtown areas. His family and his nanny were great fans of Kabuki and entertainment fiction. Their friends and neighbors included more than a few noted figures of early Meiji culture, such as the ukiyo-e artist Andō Hiroshige III (1842-1894) and the lacquer craftsman and painter Shibata Zeshin (1807-1891). Kiyokata even went to school with the children of Kabuki actors.

The greatest influence upon his art and life, however, seems to have been his father. Jōno Saigiku Denpei (1832-1902), who had been a popular writer and journalist. As a co-founder of the Tokyo Nichinichi newspaper, the first daily newspaper in Tokyo, and then the owner of the Yamato shinbun, Saigiku had a range of contacts in both art and literary circles, including the ukiyo-e artist Ochiai Yoshiiku (1833-1904) and Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892), and the rakugo performer San'yūtei Enchō (1839-1900).

Although Kiyokata originally wished to become a writer, his father seems to have encouraged him to become an illustrator. He began to take painting lessons at the age of thirteen with Mizuno Toshikata (1866-1908), another family friend, and the most popular illustrator of the Yamato shinbun. Three years later, in 1894, Kiyokata replaced his teacher at the newspaper in order to help its finance.

His career quickly blossomed. He received commissions from local newspapers, often to illustrate the serialized novels so popular with Meiji readers. Then in 1867, he designed the frontispiece for the first piece of fiction by Yamagishi Kayō (1876-1945) in Shincho gekkan (New Books Monthly), one of the many literary monthlies that sprang up around the turn of the century. Kiyokata also became acquainted with Yamagishi's teacher, Ozaki Kōyō (1867-1903) abd ub 1903 designed a frontispiece for The Demon Gold (Konjiki yasha), the last novel by novel by this best-selling author.

Kiyokata was most active as an illustrator during the first few years of the 1900s. He was a full-time illustrator for Jinmin shinbun in 1899-1901 and for the Yomiuri newspaper, then the leading paper in literary circles, in 1901-1902. His illustrations and frontispieces also appeared in other new magazines such as Shin-shōsetsu (New Novels) and Kabuki. In 1901 Kiyokata executed the frontispiece and book design for Triptych (Sanmai tsuzuki), a novel by Izumi Kyōka (1873-1939) whose works he greatly admired. During their long friendship Kiyokata continued to be Kyōka's illustrator even after he limited his illustration work. In 1951, probably in commemoration of the thirteenth memorial service for Kyōka, the 73-year-old Kiyokata painted Novelist and Illustrator (Shōsetsuka to sashiegaka), recalling the first meeting of these two young professionals. Kiyokata also received a personal request from Shimazaki Tōson (1872-1943), who had come to Tokyo with the manuscript of his first novel, Broken Commandment (Hakkai, 1906), to do a forntispiece for its private edition. But at the peak of his career as an illustrator, Kiyokata grew determined to concentrate more on painting and gave up his post at the Yomiuri in 1902.

Kiyokata had already made his debut as a painter at the second competitive exhibition of the Japan Painting Association (Nihon Kaiga Kyōkai) in 1897. Four years later he became a founding member of he Ugō-kai, a small group of young painters who had shifted from illustration to painting. He was a regular and active participant in their exhibitions for the next decade. In 1903 he married Tsuzuki Teru, a younger sister of a fellow member of the Ugō-kai. It was not easy to show work at such major exhibitions as the Bunten. Kiyokata did not have a painting accepted until its third exhibition in 1909. He managed to exhibit several more times, but he failed again to gain entry in 1912, and could not complete his work for submission in 1916. He twice suffered nervous breakdowns in his mid-thirties. After he was appointed to the jury for the Teiten in 1919, he chose to exhibit only intermittently at such government exhibitions.

Many of Kiyokata's masterpieces were painted during the 1920s and 1930s. It was also during the 1930s that he advocated "tabletop art," that is, works small enough to be held in the hand for intimate appreciation, such as an album, handscroll, or tanzaku. This appeal, which countered Kawabata Ryūshu's call for kaijō geijutsu or "exhibition hall art," expressed Kiyokata's own preference as an artist.

Just as his father had spent his final years writing historical essays about early-nineteenth-century Edo, so Kiyokata in middle age grew more absorbed with making a visual and written record of Meiji life. He painted posthumous portraits of such noted Tokyo residents as San'yūtei Enchō..., a rakugo performer he remembered with respect and affection; Higuchi Ichiyō, his favorite mid-Meiji female writer (painted in 1940); and Dr. Fujikak Shizuya, an early art historian of ukiyo-e (painted in 1941). A collection of his essays was published in 1934, and ten more volumes followed in the next decade, including his celebrated autobiographical work, Records of My Life (Koshikata no ki, 1941). This shift to personal memoirs may his way of avoiding serious involvement in the nation's war effort, which he privately criticized. Another volume of autobiographical essays came out in 1967, followed by eight volumes of magazine essays posthumously compiled i 1979-1980.

Although he resided and painted in Kamakura during the last three decades of his life, Kiyokata's attachment to old Tokyo never waned. And in his style of life he remained a Meiji man of letters."

Quoted from: Nihonga: Transcending the Past, entry by Hiroko T. McDermott, pp. 300-301.

Related Entities

Torii Kotondo (鳥居言人) (was student)
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (月岡芳年) (was teacher of)