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Fukuda Heihachiro’s “Ripples,” from 1932, is in the Rome exhibition (Photo: Osaka City Museum of Modern Art)

After more than 200 years of self-imposed isolation Japan re-established diplomatic and trading relations with the outside world in 1854, during the last years of the shoguns. With the restoration of the rule of the Meiji emperor in 1868, Japan was opened up to an unstoppable flood of influence from the West.

Even during the period of isolation some artists were exposed to Chinese and Western art through the privileged port of Nagasaki. Chinese artists visited the city, which also acted as a conduit for Western books and prints, introducing techniques such as scientific perspective and chiaroscuro shading.

But the vast scale of Western inroads and the collapse of traditional patronage that followed the Meiji restoration threw Japanese art into a state of crisis. In the face of this, artists found themselves dividing into two broad schools: nihonga, which continued to use time-honored Japanese materials and techniques, and yoga, which adopted Western-style oil painting.

Nihonga artists are among the least known outside their home country of all the principal historic schools of Japanese painting, and are little represented in international collections. Two important exhibitions of nihonga paintings were held in Rome, in 1911 and 1930. The second event, showing 177 pieces by 79 artists, attracted 166,500 visitors.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of founding of the Japanese Cultural Institute in Rome and the 400th anniversary of the departure of the first official Japanese embassy for the Eternal City, the National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto has organized a dazzling and revelatory exhibition of 170 nihonga paintings and decorative art pieces from their own and more than 50 other collections around Japan.

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Roderick Conway Morris
New York Times

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