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Watanabe Seitei

From the Collection of the Manggha Museum of Japanese Art and Technology

Manggha Museum of Japanese Art and Technology
October 09,2022 - May 03,2023
"The Imaginary of Nature" exhibition

October 9, 2022 May 3, 2023

If you ever need to say that someone has reached the pinnacle of perfection in a specific field, say Watanabe Seitei. (…) He stands for mastering to the last tiny bit the Japanese technical means of expression and ridding oneself of the last tiniest vestige of the routine, hieratism, and conventionalism of Japanese art.

Banzai Nippon!

(Stanisław Witkiewicz, letter to his son dated 13 September 1904)

Watanabe Seitei is considered one of the most mysterious, forgotten yet legendary Japanese artists. The mystery is in the fact that he is almost unknown, as it is difficult to find his works in Japanese museums and collections, just as there is hardly any mention of him in Japanese art history. But then he was almost a household name in his lifetime – both in Japan and in the West. As late as 1916, the Japanese advertised him as a ‘painter known throughout the Western world.’ He was active in three periods: late Edo (1603–1868), Meiji (1868–1912), and Taishō (1912–1926). In the 21st century, Watanabe Seitei and his work remain largely unknown in Japan.

It was not until recently that the systematic research of his oeuvre was launched in Japan. Even though a considerable number of his major works can be found in Western collections, no comprehensive publication on his work has been issued in Europe or the United States. This is surprising considering that, from the point of view of Western culture and art, Watanabe Seitei played a key role in shaping Japonisme, inspiring artists and demonstrating the transcultural potential of Japanese art. 

Born Yoshikawa Yoshimata on 27 December 1851 in Edo’s Kanda Sakuma-chō district, Seitei was adopted by a friend of his father’s, Watanabe Mitsue. He died in Tokyo’s Asakusa Higashimisuji-chō in 1918. After studying painting under Kikuchi Yōsai (1788–1878), known for monochromatic portrayals of historical figures, he apprenticed with Shibata Zeshin (1807–1891), a painter and designer of lacquerware decorations. From 1875, he worked for the Kiryū Kōshō Kaisha, a company started by the government to promote and sell Japanese artistic products abroad. Seitei designed decorations for lacquerware and cloisonné enamels.

In 1878, he went to the World Exposition in Paris as one of the company’s representatives. He received a bronze medal for his painting Pigeons at Sensōji, Asakusa Kannon Temple (now in the Freer Collection, Washington, DC). He probably spent the following two years in Paris, having befriended the art dealer Tadamasa Hayashi (1853–1906), who spoke good French and enabled him to take active part in the city’s artistic life, then dominated by the Impressionists, through contacts with such figures as Philippe Burty, Louis Gonse, Degas, Edmond de Goncourt, Manet, De Nittis, and many other intellectuals and artists. Seitei participated in exhibitions, attended meetings, and painted profusely. He became a spectacular success in the international art milieu of Paris; he was well known, admired, and appreciated. His kakemono, i.e. vertical hanging scrolls painted with watercolours on silk, were sold in exhibitions for considerable amounts, surpassing the prices fetched by the highly sought-after Japanese woodblock prints. We know that he made a sketch which he then gave to Degas, writing a dedication: ‘For Degas, Seitei, an improvisation.’ He also staged several demonstrations of Japanese painting, which were in fact performance art pieces, during which those present could watch the creative process of painting watercolours on silk, admire his unique technique and mastery, and above all experience the ‘otherness’ of Japanese art. Thanks to Edmond de Goncourt, who witnessed such a performance on 28 November 1878, we have a precise description of that extraordinary technique.    

During his time in Paris, at Émile Bergerat’s invitation Seitei prepared four illustrations for a two-volume publication on the masterpieces of the 1878 World Exposition, and was also a frequent contributor to the famous magazine La Vie Moderne.

Upon his return to Japan, Seitei began to collaborate with Namikawa Sōsuke (1847–1910), a cloisonné artist, and was commissioned to decorate the interiors of Akasaka Palace (former residence of the imperial Crown Prince, which was then used as the State Guest House).

In 1890, Seitei founded and became chief editor of the magazine Bijutsu Sekai (World of Art), published by Shun’yōdō with a view to propagating ancient and modern art in Japan, thus playing a key role in the early period of modern Japanese art. After 1893, Watanabe Seitei retired from public life, no longer took part in exhibitions, and ceased to leave his home in Asakusa, choosing the life of a hermit artist.

This nihonga (Japanese style painting) artist developed his own, idiosyncratic visual language. And though he rendered classical themes – landscape, genre scenes, and depictions of flowers and birds – his new interpretation of them commanded interest and admiration. The artist Kaburaki Kiyokata (1878–1972), known for his bijin-ga (paintings of beautiful women), noted the power of Seitei’s use of colour, and spoke of the magical charm of his ‘lacquer-like black, serene sky blue, deep, deep red. Using fine-pointed brushes like unravelled silk yarns, he wove together those three colours to beautiful effect. No one was his match in this arena.

Ryō Furuta, another prominent expert on Seitei’s work, believes that his art is characterized by a unique blend of the conservative and the revolutionary, and these ‘contradictions became a determining feature of his oeuvre. Indeed, these two facets of his work – the global together with an indigenousness informed by Japan’s changing landscape, as it shifted from the Edo to the modern period – account for the fascination of Seitei’s work.’ But it is his depictions of nature – birds and flowers – that are masterpieces of painting not just on the Japanese but on the global scale.

In 2022, the Manggha Museum received an extraordinary gift from Raymond Milewski, a botany professor from the United States: his collection of works by Watanabe Seitei and other Japanese kachō-ga artists. This is the largest collection of Seitei’s works in the world, comprising over forty paintings, colour woodblock prints, and all of his picture books.

Our exhibition, the first of this size in the West, shows a thematic cross-section of Watanabe Seitei’s work: from kachō-ga, or pictures of flowers and birds, to phenomenal landscapes, to genre scenes. It also includes Seitei’s works from the collection of Feliks ‘Manggha’ Jasieński: four 1891 paintings, Birds and Flowers of the Four Seasons. Additional context is provided by works by Shibata Zeshin, Kawanabe Kyōsai, and Nakayama Sūgakūdō, among other of his contemporaries, in addition to an installation piece by modern-day Krakow artist Olgierd Chmielewski, Ephemera (2022).

The subjects of Seitei’s kachō-ga were not rare birds or plants but rather those well known and easily recognizable, present in man’s most immediate surroundings, ‘outside the window’, in the garden, in the park, encountered during travel and pilgrimage. Being well known, they activate, almost automatically, symbolic connotations as each of the living beings depicted by Seitei – whether a bird or a plant – has its specific symbolic meaning, deeply ingrained in Japanese culture. Inspired by his observation of nature, Seitei’s works are also characterized by unique mindfulness, manifested in noting the tiniest events of natural life that goes on around us. Many of the images of nature depicted by the artist no longer exist. However, his masterly, almost magical technique – his skill in using ink and watercolours – immortalized those images, conveying their spirit, their essence, and thus capturing and articulating the imaginary of nature.

Anna Król