Takehisa Yumeji: Young German art scholar’s falling in love with his art

Yumeji Northern Winter

Takehisa Yumeji, "Northern Winter" (Hoppo no fuyu) from the series "Ten Subjects of Women" (Onna judai, 1920) published posthumously by Kato Junji. (Collection Santa Barbara Museum of Art)

It has now been about 4 years since I first came across works of the popular Japanese artist Takehisa Yumeji (1884-1934). During my study at Kyoto University I tried to visit museums and exhibitions as often as possible.

When a friend asked me to accompany her to a Yumeji exhibition I first asked her, “who’s exhibit?” In fact, I hadn’t heard the name before, although I had already studied about early 20th century Japanese art.

Cultural News, 2010 January Issue

By Sabine Schenk in Hanford, California

(Japanese names are spelled in traditional order with last names appearing first.)

My first encounter with Japanese art actually was rather indirect. My hometown Munich is not only famous for the Oktoberfest, but also one of the centers of Jugendstil, the German expression of the art-nouveau-movement.

Art has always been a part of my life and I grew particularly fond of the artistic styles found in Jugendstil. Later I learned that these artistic principles were based on the reception of Japanese art which was eagerly received through the world fairs in the late 19th and early 20th century Japan participated in, after repealing the closure politics of the Edo period.

Elements of Jugendstil such as exceptional perspective or uncommon image formats can clearly be traced back to the roots in Japanese art. To shed more light on this phenomenon I began to explore the history of Japanese art.

It has now been about 4 years since I first came across works of the popular Japanese artist Takehisa Yumeji (1884-1934). During my study at Kyoto University I tried to visit museums and exhibitions as often as possible.

When a friend asked me to accompany her to a Yumeji exhibition I first asked her, “who’s exhibit?” In fact, I hadn’t heard the name before, although I had already studied about early 20th century Japanese art.

Takehisa Yumeji, however, is still not well known in America and Europe and there are only a few non-Japanese references on him. The reason for that is that he didn’t fit the academic definition of fine arts during his active period from the 1900s to the 1930s, and that his work is not restricted to visual arts only, but ranges from painting, through all kinds of commercial arts, to poetry.

It is not easy to categorize him and outside of Japan he has not been recognized as part of the history of fine arts and, therefore, has not been the subject of detailed research, yet.

Takehisa Yumeji was born in a small village in Okayama in 1884 and he has been drawing since his childhood. He was interested in classical Japanese literature and in the romantic spirit of the Edo period rather than in modernization, contemporary in vogue.

In 1901 he ran off to Tokyo, the cultural center of that time, where he wanted to study literature, but at the urging of his father he entered Waseda Business School. However, he continued writing and drawing and soon had his first texts and sketches published.

His early works also reflect his sympathy for socialism at that time. Yumeji started to design postcards, a modern, flourishing medium and, as he was quite successful, he planned to earn his living as an artist.

Yumeji then met Kishi Tamaki, his wife and first important model, who became an ideal of beauty of that time. They opened the Minatoya (harbor shop), a shop for crafted paper items and prints in Tokyo.

In this shop Yumeji not only sold his artworks, but it also became a meeting point for young progressive artists of the new print (shin hanga) movement such as Onchi Koshiro (1891-1955) and others.

After he and Tamaki were divorced, he moved to Kyoto. He had already met his second model Kasai Hikono, an unfulfilled love ending tragically with her sudden death caused by sickness.

In 1912, also in Kyoto, Yumeji had his most successful exhibition which was more popular than the one of the Bunten, the artistic salon of the education ministry of that time.

His works in the 1920s was influenced by his third important model Sasaki Kaneyo, called O-Yo (Leaf). Yumeji had tried to enter the contemporary academic circles, but although he had been rejected, he maintained good relationships with recognized artists of that time such as Fujishima Takeji (1867-1943) and others.

Yumeji was self-trained without academic background and it was therefore quite difficult for him to realize his dream of going abroad to study arts in America or Europe.

Nevertheless, he finally managed to organize a journey to California in 1931, where he stayed in Carmel and San Francisco among other places. In 1932, Yumeji left the U.S. for Europe, where he stayed in Berlin, but also traveled, for example, to Paris for research. Back in Japan, Yumeji died from tuberculosis in 1934.

Returning to my time in Japan, I finally went to the exhibition and was instantly struck by the unique appeal of Yumeji’s works. In essence, I fell in love with his art.

Later I learned that this feeling was not so much different to the reaction people had to his art in the early 20th century. Apparently his works and especially his albums, were impatiently awaited for by his fans and, although he had a non-bourgeois flair because of his socialistic past and unconventional lifestyle, especially young people swarmed the bookshops for the release of his new work, often to the annoyance of their parents.

For me, Yumeji’s art transports a very emotive flair and also a unique sense of beauty. In the Summer volume (Natsu no maki) of his famous album series Yumeji’s collected illustrations (Yumeji ga-shu), Yumeji himself states: “It is neither a world of truth, nor a world of goodness, but nothing else than a world of beauty adolescents are longing for.”

In Japan, Yumeji consequently was and is predominantly known for his bijinga, the depiction of beautiful women. Many of his design items, such as book covers or textile patterns, continue to have an effect to this day and his images remain to be found on fancy stationary and accessories.

In fact, the exhibition “Zuan: Expressions of Modern Design in Early 20th Century Japanese Art” (April 24-July 31), which I will curate at the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture, focuses on aspects of design in Japanese art of Yumeji’s active period and I plan to show some of his works among various other examples.

Actually what really fascinated me most in his work was the Japanese flair paired with the obvious influence of an international sense of modernity.

While many of his contemporaries express in their art either an adoption of the Euro-American art concept or the attempt to revive Japanese traditional art forms, Yumeji succeeded quite individualistically in amalgamating aspects of Japanese traditional arts and the modernity of the culturally vibrant world of early 20th century Japan.

Lacking an academic training and not being accepted as an artist in the contemporary understanding might have even been an advantage towards this.

Yumeji, as many other artists of his time, absorbed almost all new artistic influences from impressionism over cubism to Russian constructivism.

Especially in Yumeji’s work the reflection of the European fin de siecle (end of the century) art and in particular Jugendstil, is apparent and there is evidence that he studied the concept of this art form very intensively because of its emotionally moving content.

I have been studying the life and art of Takehisa Yumeji now for some years since I dedicated my master’s thesis at Munich University, Germany, to selected aspects of his work, but for my Ph.D. thesis there is still a lot of work to do.

For example, my focus at the moment is, to learn more about his stay in California and probably discover new traces of his artwork and contemporary witnesses. With my thesis I hope to be able to provide an overall study on  Takehisa Yumeji.

I think it is about time to make Yumeji’s art known to people outside of Japan and I am sure that more will fall in love with the irresistible appeal of his work as I did.

Sabine Schenk, Ph.D. candidate at Munich University, Germany, is presently Curatorial Assistant at the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture located at 15770 Tenth Ave. Hanford, CA 93230, (559) 582-4915, www.ccjac.org.