Obituary: Kaii Higashiyama

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
CHILDREN WHO are born in a great port never forget that early relationship with the sea. They are forever marked by the mysteries and moods of that unpredictable force of nature, and are filled with eternal dreams of departure. Japan's favourite artist, Kaii Higashiyama, was one of those fortunates.

He was born Shinkichi Higashiyama in Yokohama at the turn of the century. In that international maritime city, his father was a ship's chandler. The little boy soon became acquainted with foreign tongues and ways of life, and was determined one day to explore "lands beyond the horizon".

While he was still a child, the family moved to another flourishing port, Kobe, with its strong European (and particularly British) associations. At school, Higashiyama had already shown an aptitude for drawing and, under the influence of Japanese painters who had studied abroad and adopted Western-style painting techniques and subjects, he began working in oils, a technique in which he showed promise.

He wanted to become a professional Western-style painter. But his father, a traditionalist, urged his son to devote himself to classic Japanese forms, conventions and techniques known as nihonga - a term coined in the 19th century to distinguish classical painters from those working under European inspiration with foreign materials. So Higashiyama began practising the centuries-old tradition of painting on paper or silk. The paper was hand-made native washi, often misnamed by non-Japanese "rice- paper" (which we find usually on the bottom of macaroons).

Washi is made from mulberry and other plant fibres, and makes a strong "support" for monochrome Chinese ink painting and calligraphy and for colour compositions, with pigments made from special kinds of powdered rocks, shells, insects, plants and minerals, creating unusual and extremely subtle tints bound in a medium of nikawa or glue derived from animal skin or fish bones mixed with pure spring water. Such paintings can be admired on kakemono scrolls adorning the tokonoma or sacred alcoves in homes and temples, and also on sliding screens (fueuma) and folding screens (byobu) for shrines, temples and public buildings, often on a very large scale and taking years to complete.

Higashiyama attended classes in traditional painting at the Tokyo University of Fine Arts, under the guidance of a famous teacher, Yuki Somei. At the age of 21, his first nihonga work was accepted by the influential "Nitten" group in its annual exhibition. He went on to a specialist higher course, where he formally adopted his artistic nom de plume, Kaii.

He graduated in 1933, and began to realise his dreams of foreign travel by embarking on a cargo boat to Europe. He visited Germany, Austria, France and Italy. Like any young, aspiring artist, he was overwhelmed by Florence, and spellbound by Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. He felt he could never emulate them - "I have no talent as a painter" - a mood of discouragement that was to afflict him often in later life.

In 1934, he went as an exchange student to the University of Berlin, to study the history of Western art. On his return to Japan in 1935, as his ship was passing through the idyllic island seascapes of the Inland Sea, he decided to devote himself to such scenes of ethereal, mystical natural beauty. "Europe is dry, Japan is humid," he told himself, having discovered the benefits of damp climate in the preservation of paintings on paper. One of the reasons why we see so few nihonga paintings of quality in the West is that they need a warm, humid climate, otherwise the delicate, almost sandy texture of the paint begins to crumble. So Higashiyama had only one overseas one-man exhibition, touring Scandinavia in 1963. His atelier in Ichikawa, Chibacken, was as spotless as a Honda car factory, with all materials neatly arranged.

At home in Kobe, by the mid-Thirties he found the family business deep in debt, his father dying. The military were in charge; even the world of painting was under their domination, and some painters acceded to a demand for "patriotic" pictures. Higashiyama made a living by illustrating children's books. He was finally called up towards the end of the Pacific War, and was lucky in having to serve only one month in the army. But his mother and younger brother died in the conflict.

In 1949, Higashiyama had his first big success when his painting Zangho ("Afterglow") won first prize in the Nitten show. At the age of 40 he was suddenly famous, and his fortunes took a turn for the better, making him the most popular artist in Japan. In 1950, Michi ("Road") amazed the public by its stark simplicity. Crowds of people from all walks of life thronged his large-scale exhibitions, and he was recognised as the "Grand Master of Nihonga".

His works were mainly of scenery, and some embellish the screens at the Imperial Palace. One of his greatest works can be seen at the Toshodaiji Temple in Nara, a vast mystical panorama that took 10 years to complete. His style was serene, spiritual, limpid in atmosphere, filled with a dreamy mysticism not without a frightening intensity. He himself admitted that there was a demonic side to his nature, one that imbued most of his work.

In 1965 he was selected a member of the Japan Art Academy and in 1969 won the Japan Culture Prize. He became director of Nitten, then its cultural adviser.

Higashiyama was also a good essay writer. One of his collections is Fukei tono taiwa ("Dialogue with Scenery"), a title that evokes his own intimate relationship with his landscape subjects. His favourite regions in Japan were the high moorland plateau of Oze in Gumma Prefecture and the high peaks surrounding it, once the sublime resort of wildlife and flowers, now overrun by tour groups. He called the mountain province of Nagono the "spiritual home of my art" and towards the end of his life donated over 600 items - sketches and paintings - to the Higashiyama Kaii Museum in Shiroyama Park, Nagano City.

Some years ago, in A Book of Tanka (1966), I paid tribute to Kaii Higashiyama in the 31-syllable tanka form, whose centuries-old tradition equals that of his classical style paintings. It is about one of his delicate, rather uncanny fusuma paintings of mountains:

Painted sliding doors -

their mists too seem to slide

on a cloud mountain

rising behind ghostly boughs

that frame pale nothingness.

Shinkichi "Kaii" Higashiyama, painter and writer: born Yokohama, Japan 1908; married Sumi Kawasaki; died Tokyo 6 May 1999.