This post is part of a new series featuring prominent Japanese artists of the mid-20th century. Our third installment features Japanese painter Umehara Ryūzaburō (1888-1986) who along with Yasui Sōtarō (1888-1955) was considered one of the twin luminaries of yōga style painting. A new exhibition of Prange materials titled “FUJI Mountain as Metaphor in Postwar Japan” casts a spotlight on Umehara, along with Nihonga painter Yokoyama Taikan (1868-1958). The display cases are on view until March 3, 2023 in the Maryland Room, on the 1st floor of Hornbake Library North at the University of Maryland College Park. Open 10am to 4pm Mondays thru Fridays.
When the Meiji period began and Japan ended their strict national isolationist policy, artists quickly took interest in European painting techniques and media, including oil painting. The first Japanese oil painters studied traditional academic European painting rather than exploring the newly emerging post-Impressionist and abstract styles.
In the early twentieth century, a new generation of Japanese artists pioneered an avant-garde style, producing oil paintings as formally innovative as those made by their European contemporaries. Many of these artists pursued training abroad before returning to Japan; one of these men, Umehara Ryūzaburō (1888-1986) spent 1908-1911 in Europe to study the effects of color harmonies and contrast, and notably studied under the Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Umehara imbued his landscapes, portraits and still lifes with drama, abandoning realism in favor of expression through his use of thick, bold brushstrokes and an exaggeratedly saturated palette. While his highly subjective scenes recall European post-Impressionism and Fauvism, Umehara also incorporated traditional Japanese painting materials, such as mineral pigments, into his oil paintings.
During the war, the Japanese government employed Umehara as an Imperial painter. He traveled to the Japanese puppet state Manchukuo in northern China each summer between 1939 and 1943 to record the landscape, culture, and people within the Japanese colonies. However, worsening conditions for the Japanese prevented Umehara from returning to China after 1943, severing him from the subject matter that had inspired his painting for years.
Japan’s impending surrender marked a turning point in Umehara’s career. In the tumultuous early summer of 1945, Umehara stayed in an inn from which he could clearly observe Mt. Fuji from his window and began depicting the mountain. After producing so many images of Japanese colonies, Umehara ultimately turned to Mt. Fuji, an emblem of Japan. In one of his earliest Fuji images, a 1945 pastel drawing titled Mt. Fuji, reprinted by Atelier art magazine one year later, Mt. Fuji rises out of an abundance of summer foliage and rolling hills into the clear sky. Though naturalistically colored, Umehara’s visible, loosely blended strokes and slightly lopsided shape of the mountain invoke exhaustion and frustration, perhaps due to the demoralizing conditions of the war’s end.
Though the Japanese previously associated Mt. Fuji with Imperial Japan’s militaristic pursuits, after August 1945, familiar images and phrases that once connotated nationalism quickly evolved past this. Japanese society rapidly changed after surrender, and the symbolism of Mt. Fuji followed suit. To many Japanese like Umehara, the mountain’s image offered hope and resilience during the uncertainty of the U.S. -led Occupation. In the mayhem of the war’s end and Occupation’s beginning, Umehara produced dozens of images of Fuji in pastels, ink and oil paint. In dedicatedly exploring this subject, an embodiment of the eternal homeland, Umehara created an abundance of Fujis that differ vastly in appearance.
Umehara’s 1947 oil painting Fuji Painting (Ohito), presents a view of the mountain from the same viewpoint as his 1945 Mt. Fuji pastel drawing. However, in the later image, Umehara abandoned the naturalistic palette for his characteristic expressive style. In Picture of Fuji (Ohito), Umehara greatly exaggerated the color palette and used these bold, flat colors and large brush strokes to abstract the forms of Fuji and surrounding land. The simplified red, blue, and green forms loosely depict a mountain rising from the land behind a river.
In each scene, the surrounding landscape changes completely with Umehara’s exploration of different palettes of contrasting colors, but Mt. Fuji remains constant. Despite the uncertainty of the Occupation, the permanency of Fuji offers hope.
Magdalena Frances Mastrandrea is an MA student in Art History studying modern Japanese art, specifically 20th century paintings. She has been working as a student assistant in the Prange Collection since the Fall semester of 2022 and co-curated the exhibition “FUJI: Mountain as Metaphor in Postwar Japan.”