Yokoyama Taikan: An Artist Remembered

— Satyasri Ukil

Monochrome reproduction of Japanese landscape with trees and boat by Yokoyama Taikan
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
This article is reprinted from ‘Art & Deal’, March-April, 2001.

To get a perspective on Yokoyama Taikan and his role and influence in starting the revivalist / nationalist art movement in Bengal in the first decade of the last century, it would be fit to start the inquiry at the event of Okakura Kakuzo’s visit to the house of the Jorasanko Tagores in the year 1902.

This visit of Okakura to the Tagores in Calcutta is well known to the students of modern Indian art history. Also well-known was Okakura Kakuzo’s book Ideals of the East (1903) with its oft quoted opening sentence “Asia is One”, which had influenced Rabindranath for a considerable period of time, at least philosophically till the time he visited Japan in 1916 and saw for himself the raw aggression at the root of Japanese nationalism and its tendency to ape the West in the name of modernism.

Therefore, Okakura’s Japan remained a hero to Tagore and his colleagues and students at Santiniketan, who had celebrated tiny Japan’s victory in 1904-05 over Russia with a log-fire in the evening amid frenzied shouts of “banzai” in a desolate and then obscure corner of British India (Tagore, pp. 96-97).

Yokoyama Taikan
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
Thus it may not be an exaggeration that, in a way, Okakura Kakuzo with his philosophy of Asian supremacy and a pride in its cultural tradition had fuelled the subsequent Swadeshi Movement in Bengal from 1905 onwards, at least conceptually (Indian terrorist Rashbehari Bose, alias P. N. Tagore’s stay in Japan, and his contacts with Rabindranath Tagore is well known).

However, what may not be that well known to the art historians in India is the role and influence of an American orientalist Ernest Francisco Fenollosa (b. 1853-d. 1908), on Okakura Kakuzo and his contemporaries such as Kano Hogai, Hashimoto Gaho, Yokoyama Taikan (b. 1868-d. 1958), Shimomura Kanzan (b. 1873-d. 1930) and Hishida Shunso (b. 1874-d. 1911).

Fenollosa, apart from being a pioneer eye-opener of the Japanese to their own traditional art (a counterpart of E. B. Havell, George Watt and Margaret Noble in Japan?), had financed in 1881 an exhibition in Tokyo of representative Japanese art, helped to found the Tokyo Fine Arts School in 1887 and to draft a law for the preservation of ancient Japanese temples and shrines and their art treasures which were falling into neglect amid the national drive to modernise during the period of early Meiji Restoration.

Fenollosa’s views had inspired and influenced Japanese painters such as Kano Hogai and Hashimoto Gaho who became pioneers to revive the Japanese School of painting in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Yokoyama Taikan (original name Sakai Hidemaro) whom Dey had met in May 1916, had studied painting with Hashimoto Gaho at the Tokyo Fine Art School and became a favourite student of its principal Okakura Kakuzo.

Yokoyama Taikan, later on, had joined the Fine Art School as a teacher of design in 1896 but left when Okakura Kakuzo was ousted in 1898.

However, the same year (1898) Okakura Kakuzo had established his Nippon Bijutsuin (Japan Academy of Fine Arts) with the help of followers such as Yokoyama Taikan, Shimomura Kanzan and Hishida Shunso.

Yokoyama Taikan had reconsidered the whole technique of traditional Japanese painting, which depended heavily on line drawing, and with Hishida Shunso developed a new style of painting, which sort of eliminated the lines and had concentrated more on colour combinations.

It is most interesting to note how subsequently their concepts of colour combinations, rather than linear drawing, had persuaded Abanindranath Tagore and Gagonendranath Tagore to create the so-called ‘wash-technique’. However, in Japan, the new technique was pejoratively nicknamed morotai (Moro means vague or indistinct).

Yokoyama Taikan, after his ouster from Bunten (Fine Arts Exhibition sponsored by the Ministry of Education, Japan), had concentrated on reviving the Nippon Bijutsuin, which had closed down upon Okakura Kakuzo’s death in 1913. The Bijutsu-in was revived in 1914 and its annual exhibitions, which had the abbreviated name INTEN, became one of the most important, non-governmental outlet for young talents.

Japanese art lover and silk merchant Tomitaro Hara
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
One of the chief sponsors of Yokoyama Taikan, at this point of time, was the rich-silk merchant and art lover Tomitaro Hara. Incidentally, it was Tomitaro Hara, who at the request of Yokoyama Taikan, had provided hospitality to Rabindranath Tagore and his companions in 1916, at his fairytale like country home, Sano Tani, on the outskirts of Yokohama, complete with individual Geisha companions for Tagore, Andrews, Pearson and Mukul Dey! (Dey, p. 57 and p. 71)

Though at a later point of time (1924-25) and at a different geographical location, Tagore’s stay at Ocampo’s residence, Miralrio at San Isidro have provided enough material for a deeply investigated and published research on the relationship between one woman and two men (Tagore being one of them), I believe, the story at Sankeien at Sano Tani contains substantial material for an entirely new research on Tagore’ psyche and personality. It is positively an area yet to be fully explored by Tagore scholars.

Though Dey was not the first modern Indian artist to come in contact with Yokoyama Taikan, he was definitely the first Indian artist to gain and enjoy a most intimate proximity to this Japanese painter of rare distinction.

In 1916, we find Dey as a student of Yokoyama Taikan, with an assurance of five year’s scholarship from Tomitaro Hara to study Japanese art and techniques at Nippon Bijutsu-in (Kazuo Azuma, p. 31). We find him busy organising the first ever exhibition of Bengal School paintings at the premises of Nippon Bijutsu-in with the active support of Yokoyama Taikan and Tomitaro Hara (Dey, p. 2 and p. 3 and Kazuo Azuma, pp. 28-29). And at this point of time (July - August, 1916), we also find Dey being deeply influenced by Japanese ways of life and in love with his young companion, Okiyo (Kazuo Azuma, p. 33).

Rabindranath Tagore and Mukul Dey with Japanese artists at Sankeien, 1916
Photo: Mukul Dey Archives
From Japan, Dey wrote to his family regularly. These letters are the repository of most lucid and intimate descriptions of his interactions with his Japanese friends and art teachers like Yokoyama Taikan and Shimomura Kanzan.

Why Dey was not allowed by Rabindranath Tagore to continue his art education in Japan under the direct guidance of Yokoyama Taikan is open to speculations. Probably, Tagore had resented his romantic relationship with Okiyo (Kazuo Azuma pp. 34-35).

During the last ten years I have found from Dey’s papers about 49 letters to his family members, which illuminate Tagore’s 1916 visit to Japan entirely from a different angle. These are yet to be published.
Dey throughout his life had remained a friend of the Japanese with a most sincere appreciation for their tradition and cultural heritage.

During his tenure as the principal of Government School of Art, Calcutta (1928-1943) he had sponsored at least two important exhibitions, in 1931 and 1936, by Japanese artists Tomimaro Higuchi and Kosetsu Nosu at the premises of the art school.

On February 26, 1958, Yokoyama Taikan died in Tokyo at the age of ninety. The same year, in the month of May, Dey put down in words his reminiscences about the Japanese master painter.

A three-page, typed and unpublished article, entitled Yokoyama Taikan: As I Knew Him by Mukul Dey was found in two parts: The first two pages being found in May 1996 and the rest in December 2000 among Dey’s papers in Santiniketan. This was dated May 19, 1958.

Vineet Sabharwal helped me to find out more about Francisco Fenollosa and the Japanese artists. His kindness is acknowledged here with gratitude.

References:

  1. Azuma Kazuo, Prasanga: Rabindranath O Japan, Calcutta 1998.
  2. Dey, Mukul, Amar Kotha, Visva Bharati, 1995.
  3. Dey, Mukul, My Reminiscences, 1938.
  4. Tagore, Rathindranath, Pitri Smriti, Calcutta, 1966.
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