SHIGA, Japan — Yuki Ogura’s 1962 “Portrait of a Painter” offers a rare glimpse into the artist’s psyche. In it, she looks out at the viewer and sketches on a pad of paper, as if she’s observing us from life. That same sketchbook — which has been preserved since the artist’s death in 2000 — reveals that Ogura repeated the composition nearly 20 times before painting it. Although she portrays herself with a somber expression in the drawings, she has a knowing, confident, youthful look in the painting, and an almost mischievous grin. Something has transformed for her here: whether she’s depicting herself or something else, the act of making a picture clearly brings her a sense of completion and even joy.
The piece is the only self portrait in Yuki Ogura and the Painters of the Japan Art Institute: Taikan Yokoyama, Shunso Hishida, Yukihiko Yasuda, Seison Maeda, Gyoshu Hayami, and others at the Shiga Museum of Art. Curated by Hatsuki Tano, the exhibition features more than 90 works by Ogura and the artists who influenced and later worked alongside her in the Nihon Bijutsuin, or Japan Art Institute (JAI), a group originally founded in Tokyo in 1898. Ogura was a rare female artist in an organization and field that were both dominated by men, and it’s fascinating to see how she forged her own path throughout a lifetime that spanned the entire 20th century.
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Ogura was born in 1895 in Otsu, Shiga prefecture. She studied Japanese and classical literature at what is now the Nara Women’s University, though she spent much of her college years drawing. After graduating in 1917, she began working as an elementary and high school teacher, a job she would continue in Kyoto, Nagoya, and Yokohama for the next 22 years. However, the drive to make art pulled at Ogura, and in 1920 she began to study painting under Yukihiko Yasuda, a JAI artist based in Ōiso.
Works by Yasuda included in the exhibition provide an opportunity to appreciate just how much Ogura differentiated herself from her mentor and from her male peers. Paintings like “Nukada-no-okimi at Asuka in Springtime,” made by Yasuda two years after Ogura’s lively 1962 self portrait, often include historical figures with generalized features in static poses. By contrast, Ogura mostly painted from life. Although her art is rooted in the traditions of Japanese painting, her pictures of contemporary women and girls — often modeled by the artist’s family members and friends — convey the complexity and quirkiness of real, breathing people.
“Sisters” (1970) exemplifies this. Though it’s painted in a light, almost cartoonish style, the girls’ angled skirts draw our eye up to the older sister’s quizzical, serious look, a reminder of the responsibilities a sibling can carry even at this young age. In “A Dancer” (1969), portraying a maiko or apprentice Geisha, the young woman’s splendid garments and hair pins coexist with her ambivalent expression, which perhaps signals a certain weariness about the night before or behind her.
Another difference between Ogura and her JAI peers is her receptivity to Western influences. Japan’s first exhibitions of Picasso and Matisse in 1951 offered artists the opportunity to experience artworks in person that they’d seen previously only in books, photos, and magazines. That year also seems to mark a shift in the artist’s approach: though she continued to work on paper, her delicate, soft figures and flowers became more dynamic, hefty subjects painted with a bolder, more sinuous hand. “Family” (1958), a large-scale painting of a man and woman in a Western-style room, is rendered with dark, confident lines over solid, unblended passages of paint, and is especially striking for its experimental feel.
While she specialized in portraying women, perhaps Ogura’s favorite genre — and the one she pursued until her final days — was still life. Her artwork was informed by her meditation and spiritual practice — she later married a Zen priest. Works like “Grape” (1959), with its pared-down composition and colors, are imbued with an essential vibrancy, and the scattered bell peppers and bundled greens on counter tops in “Kitchen Goods” (1980) remind us that for Ogura, who spent many years as her mother’s nurse, the subjects of her paintings weren’t purely aesthetic; they were also the raw materials of labor, care, and sustenance.
Ogura’s exceptional skill and perseverance was recognized during her lifetime. Beyond her frequent exhibitions and prizes, she was named a fellow of the JAI in 1928, became its first female member in 1932, and served as the organization’s director in 1978. Two years later, she became only the second female painter to be awarded the Order of Cultural Merit. Despite the accolades, she continued to work with a quiet sense of exploration and innovation. She is a master colorist whose works subtly take on personal and social issues. Humble and incredibly human, even her pictures of flowers and fruit are filled with an undeniable sense of life. Her art is worth seeing and celebrating today.
Yuki Ogura and the Painters of the Japan Art Institute: Taikan Yokoyama, Shunso Hishida, Yukihiko Yasuda, Seison Maeda, Gyoshu Hayami, and others continues at the Shiga Museum of Art (1740–1 Setaminamiogayacho, Otsu, Shiga, Japan) through June 18. The exhibition was curated by Hatsuki Tano.