Nihonga artist Robert Crowder, 99, passed away

Robert Crowder 2007 photo

Nihonga artist Robert Crowder, 1911-2010 (Cultural News Photo)

American-born Nihonga (Japanese-style painting) artist Robert Crowder passed away at his Beverly Hill’s home on December 8, at 9:30 am. He was 99 years old. He was born in Bethany, Illinois on August 14, 1911.

Crowder visited Japan in 1934 for his first time en route to Korea for teaching at a missionary school. He lived in Japan to teach English and learned Nihonga from 1936 to 1943. At the break of the US-Japan war, he was an English faculty at the Fifth Higher School in Kumamoto or Daigo Koto Gakko (now Kumamoto University) and arrested as an enemy alien.

After his deportation from Japan in 1943 during the WWII, he never returned to Japan.

Crowder was a very successful Nihonga artist in 1960s and 70s, and he had created his own Japan apart at his Beverly Hills residence.

Crowder published his essay about Japan “My Lost Japan” (Waga Ushinawareshi Nippon) in Japanese in 1996.

The following is the Cultural News article about Robert Crowder published in April 2007.

Robert Crowder: American master painter of Nihonga

Cultural News, 2007 April Issue

One characteristic of traditional Japanese art is the importance of lineage — who you trained under is paramount, and artist signatures often bear the legend “student of.” By twists and turns of fate, it happens that a tradition of Japanese-style painting (Nihonga) has been transmitted and continues to flourish in the somewhat surprising locale of Beverly Hills, California.

Robert Crowder, 96, an American-born Nihonga painter, took the artist name of Shoji Kuroda after having studied under the master Mochizuki Shunko (1893-1979) in pre-war Japan. More than half-a century later, the delicate beauty of Shunko’s art has taken seed and flowered in the form of Crowder’s magnificent byobu, painted folding screens.

“Endangered Birds of Japan,” Crowder’s most ambitious work to date, is a series of large-sized byobu paintings that treats as their subject, birds on the point of extinction. Disappearing breeds such as the crested ibis, short-tailed albatross and Japanese crane are rendered life-size with exquisite precision. Traditional materials and techniques are used, such as mica and gold leaf applied to the background and tsuketate, a type of “boneless” brush painting method. The resulting compositions are dynamic and contemporary.

Despite the seeming fusion, Crowder’s art is less about cross-cultural encounters than one of spiritual homecoming. “I always loved fish, animals, plants and flowers even as a child, and when I first set foot on Japanese land, there was a feeling of arriving home, and, meeting Shunko, and seeing his paintings of flowers and birds, I realized I was looking at the same objects of Nature but painted through an inner sense of the Japanese eye.”

The extraordinary circumstances of Crowder’s early life is traced in two memoirs The Blue Furoshiki (2005) and My Lost Japan, first translated and published in Japanese, appearing in English last year. The journey began in 1934 when he boarded a ship en route to Korea, where his aunt and uncle had secured for him a teaching position at a missionary post in Pyongyang. During the summers he traveled to Japan where he was introduced to Shunko, under whom he began to study painting. After two years he moved to Tokyo where he taught English at private schools and then in 1939 to Kumamoto, on the southern island of Kyushu, where he was offered a faculty position in the English department at Goko (Fifth Higher School, now Kumamoto University).

At Goko, an incubator for the country’s elite, Crowder was nicknamed “Lafcadio Hearn 2,” after the eminent Japanologist who had taught there some 50 years ago. He nurtured friendships with the students, inviting them to teas and discussions at the official residence (“kansha”), a place he later described in elegiac terms of love and longing.

The “kansha” perhaps constituted a type of byobu that served to shield him from the outside world, a Japan that was increasingly moving towards war and censorship. On the morning of December 8, 1941, the day of Pearl Harbor, he was seized by the police and thrown into jail. In the eighteen months that followed he was moved from one internment camp to another where he endured, hunger and deprivation, told in harrowingly poetic detail in My Lost Japan.

His profound affection for the country, however, remained intact, and to this day he shows not a trace of bitterness or regret. He would have stayed forever, he says, had it not been for the circumstances. As it was, he returned to the United States, and the beautiful things that had captivated him in Asia — ikebana flower arrangement and painted byobu, as well as fabrics purchased from the mountain “aborigines” on his visits to Taiwan from Japan — formed the basis for establishing a studio of handpainted murals and folding screens used in decorating the Hollywood homes of the rich and famous.

Throughout the years he continued to collect Japanese costumes, Edo and Momoyama period byobu, as well as woodblock paintings, which were, he recalls, available for a ridiculously low sum in the 50s and 60s. His impressive collection was exhibited at Pasadena’s Pacific Asia Museum in 1975 and subsequently sold to Baron Elie de Rothchild. Crowder’s financial success allowed him to devote himself to painting, and he gradually became, according to the artist, “the hermit of Beverly Hills.”

His philosophy is one of great suppleness and serenity. “You have to go with the flow,” he reflects. “If you stop, you lose it.” His next project is to complete the trilogy of memoirs with Letters from the Past, based on correspondence during his pre-war travels around Asia.

Sipping fragrant green tea by a hearth flanked by a pair of elegant byobu that look out to a yuzu-filled garden, it is as if Crowder has created his own Japan apart. His long-time assistant TananoYasumasa says he owes to Crowder not only mastery of Nihonga techniques but a rediscovery of his Japanese heritage. Tanano will carry on the next series of “Endangered Species,” planned to encompass all countries of the Pacific Rim, thus providing the next link in the artistic tradition.

(The article was written by Motoko Shimizu, former Curatorial Assistant at Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena.)

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