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Japanese art and Keisai Eisen: Reality and unreality and the View of Shogetsu Pond

Japanese art and Keisai Eisen: Reality and unreality and the View of Shogetsu Pond

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times

If one views the stunning image of the View of Shogetsu Pond by Keisai Eisen, then only images of tranquility, order and a nation at peace comes to mind. It appears that nature, order and a majestic rural life fits smoothly together. Therefore, one can easily depict an image of idealism whereby nature and humanity blend together.

Likewise, if we take this image by itself and try to analyze the artist from such a scenic piece of art, then it would appear that the artist was at peace with himself. After all, buildings are in the background and the natural towering strength of the mountains in the distance seems to imply order and control. Also, the individuals in this piece of art seem in a natural order and the same applies to the pond, trees and every single aspect of the View of Shogetsu Pond.

However, looks can easily be deceiving because the artist Keisai Eisen faced many demons related to drink and owning a brothel. This reality seems a million miles away from the delightful scenery of the View of Shogetsu Pond.

Yet, Keisai Eisen was also known for wit and one never really knows how deep his drinking was. Likewise, was the brothel the “real deal” or something that the artist played up in order to generate rumors and whispers? In this sense, just like the image of the View of Shogetsu Pond, it is clear that many things are a mirage in life but often people change mirages and believe that they are true.

Or, it could just be that Keisai Eisen was disillusioned with the trappings of life. Therefore, this piece of art represents a distant desire within his soul. Yet, of course this is nothing more than pure speculation. In saying that, it is speculation which the artist would appreciate because he was blessed with so many talents related to art and writing.

Keisai Eisen once stated that he was “…a hard-drinking, rather dissolute artist.” This statement is clearly a mirage to reality. After all, Keisai Eisen was blessed with so many skills in the field of art and writing. He clearly knew that many individuals thought highly about his skills and this statement suits the wit of this amazing artist.

Turning back to the brothel comment then it is factual that this type of business did exist in Nezu, Tokyo. Yet, the reasons related to the usage and the role of Keisai Eisen remains debatable. Many individuals have stated various statements about the reality of this brothel. However, these comments are often conflicting. Therefore, speculation remains the order of the day with regards to the true nature of his role in this brothel.

It also could be that the View of Shogetsu Pond by Keisai Eisen lacked any real meaning to the artist. Yet, if you view this one majestic piece of art by itself, then it is nice to dream and think deeply. In this sense, the image and nature of Keisai Eisen represent the mirages of life whereby individuals try to understand the bigger picture. However, in the distance of time, then does the bigger picture mean anything? 


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Posted by on November 6, 2012 in Japan


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Japanese art and Kamisaka Sekka: Rimpa, modernism and European influence

Japanese art and Kamisaka Sekka: Rimpa, modernism and European influence

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times

The artist Kamisaka Sekka (1866-1942) is one of the most mysterious Japanese artists to have hit the international world of art. This applies to his magical artwork which expresses the finer aspects of traditional Japanese art but fused with modernism and the impact of European art. Therefore, Kamisaka Sekka was an artist which belonged equally to the old world and new world of art which was impacting on the Japanese art scene.

Kamisaka Sekka was born in the cultural city of Kyoto and one can only imagine the splendor he must have witnessed in his early life. This similarly applies to the stunning reality of Kansai and places like Nara and Koyasan where religion, traditions and Japanese high culture, remains vibrant in the modern world.

The internal convulsions that hit Japan after the Meiji Restoration in 1868 radically altered the body politic of this nation. Indeed, Kamisaka Sekka lived in a period blighted by regional wars and major international wars. This reality highlights the convulsions that were sweeping through many nations whereby nationalism, capitalism, the colonial period, communism, technological innovations, religion, secularism, and so many different forces, were shaping the world for either the better or worse.

However, in the field of art then the same period provided enormous opportunities for Japanese artists to study various different art forms and to travel the world. Kamisaka Sekka would indeed travel to learn about new concepts and to open-up his artistic horizons to an even greater level. True to the nature of Kamisaka Sekka he gained enormously from his travels and studying about new art forms. However, he never lost sight of the power of Rimpa and the inner beauty of Japanese art.

From a very early age it was clear that Kamisaka Sekka was blessed with amazing artistic skills. In the early period he focused heavily on the traditions of Japanese Rimpa. However, he was always open to new art forms and styles. Therefore, modernism and traditions fused naturally together within his heart and this is the beauty of Kamisaka Sekka.

In an earlier article about Kamisaka Sekka I state that “In 1910 the Japanese government sent Kamisaka Sekka to the United Kingdom and while he stayed in Glasgow the Art Nouveau style would influenced him greatly. Kamisaka Sekka was also fascinated by Japonisme and he wanted to understand the attraction of Japanese art in the West and which areas appealed the most. Therefore, his time in Glasgow was most rewarding because his studies enlightened him in many areas.”

Also, the trip to Glasgow in 1910 further cemented his deep admiration of aspects of European art. His earlier trip to Europe in 1901 had impacted greatly on Kamisaka Sekka because the Paris International Exposition opened up his eyes to new fresh ideas and concepts.”

One can only imagination how the environment of Kyoto and his studies of Rimpa masters who blessed the Japanese art world had impacted on Kamisaka Sekka. Added to this were major Western art forms like Impressionism and Art Nouveau which reached his heart. Also, Kamisaka Sekka was fascinated about the impact of Japanese art on Western art. Therefore, in a world being torn apart by nationalism and politics you had artists like Kamisaka Sekka who studied the beauty of humanity and the power of different cultures.

The Art Institute of Chicago comments that “Centuries-old schools of art, such as the decorative Rimpa style with its quintessential Japanese literary and seasonal themes, had become unfashionable. To help keep the country’s unique artistic culture afloat, the government established a policy to upgrade the status of traditional artists that encouraged them to infuse their craft with a dose of modernism. Consequently, in 1910 Sekka was sent abroad to Glasgow, where he was heavily influenced by Art Nouveau. He came home to teach at the newly opened Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts. Thanks to Sekka, the Rimpa tradition remains a signature of Kyoto design to this day.”

Kamisaka Sekka highlights how individuals can learn new artistic thought patterns and art forms but remain within the initial environment despite fusing new ideas. He truly is an international artist who pushed new internal boundaries in order to produce stunning pieces of art. Therefore, when viewing his finest pieces of art you can feel many different things related to the past and modernity. This quality was done in a way which was not only natural but is strikingly unique and beautiful.

Many amazing artists have been born in Japan and without a shred of doubt Kamisaka Sekka belongs to the crème de la crème of Japanese art. His creativity and connection with the old world and modernism enabled him to reach new heights and to highlight many artistic angles.

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Posted by on July 24, 2012 in EUROPE, Japan


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Japanese art and Keisai Eisen: the early life of this acclaimed ukiyo-e artist

Japanese art and Keisai Eisen: the early life of this acclaimed ukiyo-e artist

Lee Jay Walker

Modern Tokyo Times

Keisai Eisen (1790-1848) learnt to be independent from an early age and he chose a path which was fraught with economic danger. In a sense, Keisai Eisen represents aspects of “the real Edo period” for individuals who resided in big cities in this period of history. This applies to many deaths within his family, poverty, uncertainty, and amidst all this chaos you had natural raw energy which manifested itself through the arts.

It is difficult for people in the modern world to connect with the reality of the old world. After all, infant mortality in Tokyo, Paris, Manchester, and all important cities in this period of history, was deplorable. Therefore, with the average lifespan being much shorter and the central state providing little in the way of cushions to help, then individuals had no time to dwell.

Of course, in all societies you always had “a small minority” who could enjoy the material comforts of this world. However, for individuals like Keisai Eisen, then the real world was about death, hardship, and seeing the world for what it is. Yet this didn’t mean “weakness” or “pity,” on the contrary, for Keisai Eisen this led to him being independent because he refused economic help from family relatives when he was a young man.

Keisai Eisen was born in the district of Hoshigaoka in Tokyo and today this applies to the Nagatacho area which is part of the Chiyoda district. His father, Ikeda Masabe Shigeharu, was a very interesting character. He was a low ranking warrior who enjoyed the finer parts of culture. This applies to enjoying poetry, tea ceremonies, reading, poetry, and writing. Therefore, this must have rubbed off on Keisai Eisen and indeed it was through his father’s friend that he apprenticed under Namiki Gohei.

Namiki Gohei was a kabuki/kyogen writer and when Keisai Eisen was a young adult he had hoped to become a professional kyogen writer. Kyogen applies to a form of traditional theatre in Japan. However, once more death within his family would impact on his dream and after this he focused on becoming independent and turned to the world of ukiyo-e and other means to survive.

Turning the clock back to when Keisai Eisen was a child then at the age of six he was adopted by his stepmother following the death of his mother. Therefore, when he was thinking of becoming a kyogen writer events turned against him because of death once more. This applies to the death of his father and stepmother in the same year when he had turned twenty years of age.

Given the circumstances of his reality and with having three sisters, then Keisai Eisen abandoned his dream of becoming a kyogen writer. Also, he bravely refused financial support from relatives who had wanted to help him. This indicates strongly that he was tenacious, independent, extremely determined, and pragmatic. After all, he had been dealt a difficult “deck of cards” but despite this he refused “any aces” which may help him in order that he could support himself.

Keisai Eisen distinguished himself in the field of ukiyo-e but his literature is also highly regarded. Indeed, some individuals believe that he was a ghostwriter for Tamenaga Shunsui and Yoshimi. These two writers of ninjou-bon (stories focused on ordinary people) were popular during their time but this theory is still openly debated. However, it highlights the quality of his writing to be linked with these two individuals irrespective of 100 per cent certainty.

Irrespective of what happened in the later years of his life it is clear that events during his young adulthood impacted greatly on Keisai Eisen. Also, the choices he picked when he was twenty years old, despite enormous adversity, were very admirable.

His artistic legacy is abundantly clear because he created many stunning pieces of art.

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Posted by on March 8, 2012 in Japan


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Katsushika Hokusai: Japanese artist with a rich legacy

Katsushika Hokusai: Japanese artist with a rich legacy

Modern Tokyo Times

Lee Jay Walker

Japanese art in all its majesty can be viewed in abundance by the lifework of Katsushika Hokusai.  Hokusai was born in 1760 and he died in 1849 and despite living in the Edo period he was a free spirit from a very young age. 

Hokusai was a sublime Japanese artist, printmaker, and ukiyo-e painter and the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji represent a visual majesty of creativity. This series of artwork includes The Great Wave off Kanagawa and it was created in the 1820s.

The Great Wave of Kanagawa is a masterpiece and art lovers all over the world will know this acclaimed artwork.

Indeed, it was this print-series that made Hokusai an international figure because The Great Wave of Kanagawa and Fuji in Clear Weather showed the stunning natural beauty of Mount Fuji and the potent power of nature. 

Hokusai often changed his name and while it was common for artists to do this in this period it is clear that he took this to a different realm. 

At the age of 18 he joined the Katsukawa Shunsho studio after being a wood-carver apprentice between 14 and 18 years of age.  Shunsho practiced ukiyo-e and the central theme was images of kabuki actors and courtesans which was common for the time. 

Sadly, in the personal arena his first wife died very young and the same fate awaited his second wife. This must have impacted on Hokusai who had 5 children from both marriages.

Ironically, Hokusai developed after he was expelled from the Katsukawa School and it was during the same period that Hokusai’s interest in western art began to increase.

Hokusai stated that “What really motivated the development of my artistic style was the embarrassment I suffered at Shunkō’s hands.”

Hokusai by being forced out of Katsukawa School began to develop his own style because he now focused on landscapes and daily life in Japan and this cut across the social barrier.

After joining the Tawaraya School it dawned on him that he needed freedom from structures which while helping to enhance his skills; it also held him back from reaching the heights that were within him. 

After Hokusai published two collections based on landscapes called Famous Sights of the Eastern Capital and Eight Views of Edo.  He began to attract attention and now students began joining him in order to enhance their respective careers and to learn from a high quality artist.

The early 19th century saw Hokusai in increasing demand and for a short period he collaborated with the novelist Takizawa Bakin starting from 1807.  However, the illustrated books that they both worked on came to an end because of a clash of personality but it is notable that the publisher remained loyal to Hokusai.

In 1814 Hokusai, now named Taito (changed his name in 1811), published his manga sketches and for an artist like Hokusai this was a good way to earn money quickly and to gain more students who admired his work. 

B1820 he had published 12 volumes of manga and added another three and these consisted of thousands of drawings and many had wit within the drawings he did.  This form of manga was very popular and many drawings focused on ordinary people, religious figures, and animals and had a natural charm within the simplicity.

The 1820s would become a period of growth and in time this enabled him to obtain an international legacy but not at the time because of isolation during the Edo period.  Hokusai was now over 60 years of age but like the most delicious wine he matured magnificently and once more he had changed his name to Iitsu.

During this period he completed the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji and the unforgettable and powerful Great Wave off Kanagawa was part of this celebrated masterpiece.  He also published other quality prints in the same period and this applies to Unusual Views of Celebrated Bridges in the Provinces and A Tour of the Waterfalls of the Provinces.

In 1834 he now changed his name to Gakyo Rojin Manji and in this period he also did major pieces of art in the area of landscape.  This applies to the One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji which added to his stature and the longevity of Hokusai also witnessed a greater spiritual dimension, where nature and the landscape seemed embedded within the soul of Hokusai.

During the last few years of his life other artists like Ando Hiroshige were emerging and in 1839 Hokusai’s studio was destroyed by fire and the fire ravaged much of his lifelong work. 

One year prior to his death he had completed the Ducks in a Stream at the ripe old age of 87 and on his deathbed he uttered the words that “If only Heaven will give me just another ten years…Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter.”

Hokusai died in 1849 and Nichiren Buddhism, Mount Fuji and the mountains had served him throughout his life and these forces combined to make him what he became and he expressed this through art.

After death and with the opening up of Japan he would influence many European artists alongside other notable Japanese artists like Ando Hiroshige. 

Hokusai, just like the mountains and nature surrounding Mount Fuji, is timeless and today people from all over the world get great pleasure from his art. This especially applies to the 1820 and mid 1830s period whereby Hokusai expressed such stunning landscape images.

This article is part one of several articles about Hokusai and the next article will focus on the erotic side of Hokusai’s work.  (Hokusai) (please visit)

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Posted by on June 1, 2011 in Japan


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