Teaching Japan to Paint the Western Way: Charles Wirgman and the yoga movement

Aside from editing and curating the way the West saw Japan through his own art and his partnership with photographer Felice Beato, Charles Wirgman also made important contributions to the teaching and practice of Western-style painting and drawing (yoga) in Japan. He literally taught Japanese artists to see in a new way, and render what they saw using techniques totally alien to their artistic tradition.

Wirgman’s family descended from Swedish silversmiths,  and in their cosmopolitan upper-middle-class circle he was exposed to a wide range of cultural influences. After private schooling he spent some time in Paris studying drawing. Although his younger brother Theodore Blake Wirgman was a noted painter and Royal Academician, it can’t be confirmed that Charles actually did any painting in oils before arriving in Japan: his previous works were watercolours and line drawings. Still, he proved a good enough teacher and mentor to guide, encourage and develop some of the leading names in Western-style art in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Japan.

The Japanese Government had set up a school to study Western culture in the 1850s. A Painting Division was established in 1861, the year Wirgman arrived in Japan,  and a Government-sponsored study of Western art began in 1877. Nihonga, traditional Japanese art, was distinct from yoga, the art of the West, in important ways – notably a different concept of space and distance and different conventions of rendering light and darkness. As far as I can ascertain, Wirgman was the first foreign professional to teach Western art techniques in Japan.

This doesn’t mean that he was the only one: other expatriates began early on to help Japanese artists experiment with western materials and techniques. Wirgman referred pupils to Anna Schoyer, wife of the American entrepreneur and auctioneer Raphael Schoyer, who had helped Shimo’oka Renjo to make a Western-style panorama picture around 1860. Although it was not considered proper by many Japanese to refer a man to a woman for teaching, the unconventional Wirgman had no such scruples.

He also encouraged his pupils to look to the art world beyond Japan. Takahashi Yuichi (1828-1894), already an accomplished nihonga artist, had studied Western art under Kawakami Togai. He began to study with Wirgman in 1866, becoming one of the first Japanese yoga masters. Wirgman was so impressed by his skill and diligence that he called on his European contacts to sponsor Takahashi’s work at the 1867 Paris World Exposition.The enduring friendship between teacher and pupil is proved by Takahashi’s attempt to get permission for Wirgman to come and stay with him in Tokyo in 1869. (This was refused.)

In 1870 Takahashi became a professor at Daigaku University, and in 1873 he opened his own private Western art school. In 1880, he founded the first art journal in Japan. By this time, the Technical Art School set up by the government in 1876 had several Italian artists on its staff, but  Wirgman continued to influence Japanese art teaching through his pupils. The Tokyo School of Fine Arts opened a yoga department in 1896. Kawabata Gyokusho (1842-1914), a Wirgman student whose principal works are in the nihonga tradition, was appointed a professor there in 1899. Kano Tomonobu (1843-1912), another Wirgman protege, became an assistant professor there.

Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847-1915) seems, in many ways, very similar to Wirgman himself, and his work reveals how much he benefited from Wirgman’s sympathetic influence. He tried his hand at a series of odd jobs before becoming an artist, then worked across a range of different media, including cartooning and photography. He merged his two artistic cultures, creating traditional Japanese prints with Western techniques of light and shade. His nihonga work shows the same playfulness and appreciation of caricature as his Western-style prints and cartoons. Like Wirgman, he was also a war artist, creating a remarkable series of prints during the Sino-Japanese war.

Goseda Yoshimatsu (1855-1915) became Wirgman’s pupil at the age of ten. According to the painter Yamamoto Hosui, Wirgman taught his father Goseda Horyu, whose portrait Wirgman painted. Yoshimatsu and Wirgman remained in close contact, and Yoshimatsu’s portrait of Wirgman was  shown at a private exhibition of Western-style painting organised by pupils of Takahashi Yuichi in 1893, two years after Wirgman’s death. A number of his teacher’s own works were also on display there.

More information is becoming available on this fascinating era in Japanese art. Ellen P. Conant’s Challenging Past and Present: the Metemorphosis of Nineteenth-century Japanese Art is one accessible (and currently reasonably-priced) academic work on the topic. Aside from the links on this article, MIT holds a fine archive of Kiyochika’s wartime prints, Princeton has interesting material, and a quick online search will uncover many more examples.

One thought on “Teaching Japan to Paint the Western Way: Charles Wirgman and the yoga movement

  1. Pingback: The Art of Nihonga, The Heat of Georgia « Reply2Julian

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