HIRAI BAISEN 平井 楳仙 1889-1969


Hirai Baisen was born in Kyoto, and little else is known of his youth prior to his graduation from the Kyoto Manucipal School of Arts and Crafts in 1906. Most of his fellow students continued their studies in the ateliers of wellknown artists, but Baisen pursued his painting career independently. From his acceptance at the first Bunten in 1907 until 1931. Baisen exhibited every year but one at the government shows. Critical response to his exhibited works was uneven, and although Baisen won numereous awards at the Bunten through 1915, he thereafter rarely attracted special notice.

    Among Baisen's early works, the most famous was his 1910 pair of six-panel screens, Burning of the Daibutsu(Daibutsu enjo), a historical painting depicting masses of people fleeing the burning Hall of the Great Buddha(Daibutsuden) at Todaiji in Nara after it had been set aflame by Taira forces in 1180. Although the brilliance of the flames made one critic derisively comment that it seemed a lamp had been set up behind the painting, it was a key work in establishing Baisen's popularity. The following year at the Bunten, Baisen exhibitedAkatsuchi Mountain (Akatsuchi yama), a bravura pair of six panel screens, whose composition of tree trunks standing in a forest with small birds pecking at the dark reddish earth recalls Fallen Leaves (Rakuyo), exhibited at the Bunten 1909. Baise travelled in China 1913, and thereafter he became known for painting views of the continent. Two sets of screens on Chinese themes were well received at the Bunten at the 1914 Bunten, one pair being called "the best work at the exhibition." The great differences of technique and theme visible between complex historical Daibutsuden work of 1910, the intimate nature scene of the 1911 painting , and the exoticism of the 1914 Chinese locales were typical of the diversity of Baisen's Bunten exhibition pieces. Rather than be identified with a specific style or thematic cathegory , Baisen continually changed his direction.

    A three panel painting Baisen entitled Summer (Natsu), shown at the 1915 Bunten, represented yet another new approach. Baisen used very wet brush work to depict three views of country and city scenes from a traditional bird's-eye perspective. The brushwork and compositions of these paintings resemble those in Maeda  Seison's (1885-1977) triptych on the theme of hot springs (Tojiba) shown at the 1914 Inten (Japan Art Institute Exhibition, Nihon bijutsuin tenrankai). A number of artists were simultaneously working in this wet, evocative style, and there is not a clear-cut case of one painter influencing another. Yet these paintings may have instigated the popular public  perception that linked the two artists. In 1926 an art magazine requested comments from seven artists and critics abut the carieers of Baisen and Seison, having chosen them as being representative of the new trends in nihonga in western and eastern Japan.

    By the mid 1920s, however, critical appreciation of Baisen's work had begun to slide. A hostile reviewer even suggested that a Baisen landscape submitted to 1927 Teiten "would make a suitable poster for an Osaka shipping company."Baisen begun losing status even while he was producing high-quality work, and eventually his paintings did seem to lose inspiration  and impact. Although Baisen stopped submitting works to the national shows after 1931, he continued to create smaller scroll paintings to the end of his life. The pedestrian character of his colorful postwar works seems the expression of a different artist from the one who had been so continually inventive in his youth. The phenomenon of Baisen's  apparent devolution as an artist is not unique and raises questions about the increasingly academic natue of nihonga painting groups, which may have rigidified so much that creativity was stiffed more than promoted.

Paul Berry

For refernce and the footnotes please see:

Paul Berry and Michiyo Morioka, The Transformation of Japanese Painting Traditions Nihonga from the Griffith and Patricia Way Collection, Seattle Art Museum, 2000: 270-71.