Persona August, 5th 2021 by

World Fine Art Professionals and their Key-Pieces, 326 - Ogata Gekko

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World Fine Art Professionals and their Key-Pieces, 326 – Ogata Gekko

A few weeks ago I visited the exhibition ‘Ogata Gekko and his contemporaries’ in the Japan Museum SieboldHuis in Leiden. Ogata Gekko made beautiful prints that are reminiscent of the best cartoonists of today. But then something more special. The lines are smoother and the colors softer.

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I saw beautiful ladies in colored kimonos strolling in parks, of course occasionally with blossom trees, but also battle scenes with fierce warriors. Usually in triptychs.

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The prints were made from woodcuts. The picture paper was placed on the wood block – made by wood carvers – and colored. A new woodcut was made for each layer of a print. Those wooden blocks can also be seen in the exhibition.

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Ogata Gekko (1859 – October 1, 1920) was a Japanese artist best known as a painter and designer of ukiyo-e woodcuts. He was self-taught, won numerous national and international awards and was one of the first Japanese artists to win an international audience.

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The Meiji Period

Gekko grew up during a time when Japan went from a traditional closed society to a modern society – the Meiji period – beginning in 1868. Born in the capital Edo, now Tokyo, his father earned his income as a garbage collector. Ogata wanted to become an artist, but there was not enough money for an art academy or an apprenticeship with an established artist.

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So he set to work himself, making illustrations for newspapers and painting side panels of rickshaws. He also started making prints which he exhibited in 1885 at the Painting Appreciation Society, where he became acquainted with the art scholars Ernest Fenellosa and Okakura Kakuzo.

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Sino-Japanese War

In 1886 Gekko produced the print series ‘Gekko’s loose sketches’. In 1888 he married a student, Tai Kiku – his second marriage – and changed his family name to Tai. He became an evaluator in the Japan Youth Painting Association, which he helped to found in 1891. The First Sino-Japanese War became an important topic. Japan’s efforts to gain more influence in Korea at the time led to wars with both Russia and China. In 1894/95 Gekko made a series of colorful triptychs of the exploits of shooting and saber-wielding soldiers.

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Gekko’s great talent was depicting everyday life. He also paid a lot of attention to the landscape. His women are more lifelike, the faces are a bit rounder and less rigid than those of predecessors.

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Scroll paintings

A number of scroll paintings by Gekko are also special. Like a love letter seller, or a fair lady sitting on a balcony over the water – and her reflection betrays that, as Japanese folklore has it, she is actually a fox.

From the 1890s, Gekko gained appreciation. He has won a number of art prizes, both nationally and internationally. At the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, he won an award for ‘Edo’s Sanno Festival’, and in 1904, he won the gold award for the ‘One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji’ series. In 1898 the emperor, Emperor Meiji, bought his painting ‘Night Attack on the Soga’. His work was exhibited at the World’s Fair in Paris in 1900 and at the Japan-British Exhibition in London in 1910.

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Although his fellow printmakers – such as Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Kobayashi Kiyochika and Toyohara Kunichika, also on display in the exhibition – initially gained more appreciation and fame with sharper contours and large, bright areas of color, the outsider Gekko, who as a self-taught artist had to find his own way, ultimately gained the greatest recognition.

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