Kiyokata Kaburagi was a great artist of Nihonga - traditional Japanese painting. But he was even more influential as an art teacher and promoter of the Shin Hanga movement. Kaburagi had trained such Shin Hanga giants like Hasui Kawase, Ito Shinsui and Shiro Kasamatsu.
Born in Kanda district in Tokyo, Kiyokata Kaburagi became a pupil of the Meiji artist Toshikata Mizuno when he was 13 years old. His first job was as an illustrator for Yamato Shinbun, a Tokyo newspaper founded by his father.
Kiyokata made his living as an illustrator - mainly for the frontispieces of popular novels. These book title illustrations are called kuchi-e. The production of the kuchi-e was of course subject to commercialism and a tough job - later described by his son in an article. Kaburagi was torn his whole life between his successful illustrations and his real passion - painting.
Kiyokata Kaburagi specialized in the genre of bijin-ga - images of beautiful women. He won several prizes in exhibitions and established a few art groups that disappeared later.
Kiyokata's art style was the perfection of nihonga. Everything the artist painted or designed was beautiful. Ugliness did not exist in the world of Kiyokata Kaburagi. He was born to an affluent and literate family. But when he was still a child, his father went bankrupt and the family had to sell their home. Maybe this bitter experience explains the artist's sentiment for pure beauty.
If Kiyokata Kaburagi had lived in today's United States of America, he could have been sued for age discrimination. When Kawase Hasui wanted to become his student, Kaburagi rejected him for his age - at twenty-six! But Kawase Hasui was a stubborn guy. Two years later - now aged twenty-eight - he tried it again. And this time the great master accepted him - heaven knows why!
Kiyokata soon found out how talented Kawase was and he made good on him by promoting him and bringing him together with the publisher Watanabe Shozaburo.
When Watanabe Shozaburo had started his print export business, he needed many talented artists who wanted to make appealing print designs for him. Kaburagi's art school was some kind of recruiting center for Watanabe. Kaburagi organized exhibitions with works of his students and introduced his best students to Watanabe.
Next to Watanabe himself, it was probably Kiyokata Kaburagi, who had the greatest influence on the development and promotion of the Shin Hanga art movement. Not only Kawase Hasui, but also Ito Shinsui, Shiro Kasamatsu, Yamakawa Shuho and Terashima Shimei were trained by Kaburagi and then introduced to Watanabe.
When Kaburagi had reached his late 40s, he was already a well-respected artist. In 1929 he became a member of the Imperial Art Academy and in 1938 he was appointed to the Art Committee of the Imperial Household. And in 1954 Kiyokata Kaburagi received the Order of Cultural Merits. The attribute of imperial had become a bit out of fashion by that time.
Kiyokata Kaburagi died in 1973 at the age of 96. In 1998 the Kiyokata Memorial Museum was opened at the site of his residence site. On display are paintings, screens, scrolls and prints. In 1999 the Tokyo Museum of Modern Art hosted a retrospective of the artist's work. Paintings and prints by Kiyokata Kaburagi are in the collections of all important art museums.
Author: Dieter Wanczura