That could describe the motivations of a loose collection of rising Japanese artists who are as well schooled in their country's artistic traditions as they are eager to remake them. Tokyo's Museum of Contemporary Art identified the trend with its 2006 exhibition No Border: From Nihonga to Nihonga, which showcased talents like Matsui and Kumi Machida, whose idiosyncratic ink portraits of macabre toylike figures are the product of supreme painterly skill. You could call these painters "neo-nihonga," a term popularized by the album-cover designer turned fine artist Hisashi Tenmyouya, whose brilliantly colored acrylic paintings tweak symbols of Japanese nationalism and culture. They may be diverse in style, theme and personality, but what these artists have in common is a fierce devotion to the meticulous work ethic of the solo paintera welcome change for a scene defined for over a decade by the brand-conscious pop art of Takashi Murakami (who ironically studied for a nihonga doctorate himself).
With the long-dormant Tokyo art market healthy again, there's a hunger for new painters who keep up time-honored skills. "You have to be based in the tradition, but if you can maintain that, and at the same time do something new, that's a formula for success," says Kenji Nishimura, a veteran Tokyo art dealer. Like many supposedly venerable Japanese traditions, however, nihonga actually isn't that ancient. The term was coined during the Meiji period in the late 1800s, when artists and criticsincluding a number of Japanophile European expatriatesbecame alarmed at the way the country seemed to be shedding its cultural skin in the process of rapid Westernization. They called for the preservation of classical Japanese brush paintinga genre executed on traditional paper (washi) or silk, with nature as its most common subject. The movement succeeded in defending native painting from European acculturation, but the price paid was ossification. Nihonga artists were required to stick to landscapes and other staid topics. "It's all flowers and Mount Fuji," says Nishimura. "But that stuff doesn't sell anymore."
Hence the phenomenon of Fuyuko Matsui. Though her technique could have been lifted straight from a nihonga textbookas the holder of a Ph.D. in Japanese painting from the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts & Music, it is a skill she has mastered completelyshe breaks all the rules of subject matter in Gothic works like Pureness or 2005's Nyctalopia, which features another of her ghostly women, caught in the indecorous task of garroting a live chicken. But what truly sets Matsui apart is her frank acknowledgement of the dark personal motivations that drive her brush, often springing from the frustrations of being a woman in a Japanese art world that is as male dominated as its corporate counterpart. That sublimated struggle gives her best paintings substance beyond sheer shock value. "Sometimes I want to provoke people just to show how aggressive I am," says Matsui. "But more importantly this is purification, catharsis for me. It's my identity."
Renewed interest in nihongaand those magazine covershas helped raise the price of Matsui's works from a little over $1,000 to the low six figures. But she is not the only new artist to capitalize on traditional-with-a-twist. After years of holding down a day job as a graphic designer, Hisashi Tenmyouya's paintings now fetch $50,000 or more. Unlike Matsui or Kumi Machida, who graduated from Tama Art University, Tenmyouya is self-taught, and he brings an autodidact's passion to his work. At his spartan studio on the northeastern outskirts of Tokyo, he kneels placidly on the floor, surrounded by works in progress, many of them featuring the stylized samurai that have become his trademark. He feels a kinship to their uncompromising independence. "[Famed samurai] Musashi Miyamoto learned his skill on his own, and beat everyone," he says. "I feel similar. Instead of learning from someone else, I think it's better that I just establish myself."
He has already managed that. Tenmyouya's work has been shown throughout Japan, the U.S. and Europe; his painting of two feudal warriors battling for a football was selected as the official art poster for the 2006 World Cup. At first glance, it's easy to dismiss Tenmyouya's paintings as the latest mash-up of Asian culture and the language of fantasy cartoons. But like Matsui, Tenmyouya possesses uncommon talent with his brush, and an ability to satirize at will. In 2002-03's Neo Thousand-Armed Kannon series, he made a stroke-perfect representation of the Buddha of Compassionbut with those thousand arms carrying machine guns, pistols and daggers. Tenmyouya painted it in the wake of 9/11, when the connection between religion and violence was fresh in his mind.
While Tenmyouya's work is troubling, Machida's demented and deformed dolls are probably among the most disturbing images you will see from neo-nihonga artists todayas well as the most accomplished. The 37-year-old Machida started out painting in the traditional nihonga stylewhich emphasizes rich colorbefore abruptly shifting to drawing only in stark, monotone lines. "Colors weren't really fitting my character," she says (nor, one might add, the bleakness of her subject matter). Her art teachers initially dismissed her new style"they said it's not painting; it's just manga," she recallsbut Machida persevered, eventually earning critical and popular acceptance. Today Yuji Yamashita, a professor of art history at Tokyo's Meiji Gakuin University, calls Machida perhaps the best of the neo-nihonga artists, and three of her works are already in the public collection of New York City's Museum of Modern Art. "She always has people ready to buy," says Nishimura, the art dealer. "My biggest problem is that I can't fulfill everyone's orders."
Even more than Tenmyouya's stylized samurai or Matsui's feminist ghosts, Machida's surreal and often frankly sexual paintingslike Little Boy: Good Luck Talismanseem to have little in common with staid 19th century forms. But Machida says artistic categories are "just brand names," so she doesn't feel as though she is violating some unwritten code. "I admire Japanese painting, but I learned from the tradition without even noticing it." And that's the point. As diverse as they are, as different as they are from their flowers-and-Mount Fuji predecessors, the neo-nihonga painters aren't divorced from Japanese traditionthey're part of it, even as they push it forward. The Meiji-era critics who built nihonga as a kind of artistic Great Wall against Western invasion needn't have worried.