Minami Kunzô (南薫造), the eldest son of a physician, was born in Kure City (呉市), Hiroshima Prefecture near the Seto Inland Sea. He studied Western-style painting (yôga, 洋画) from 1902 to 1907 with Okada Saburôsuke (岡田三郎助 1869-1939) at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts (Tokyo Bijutsu Gakkô, 東京美術学校) where a yôga department had been established in 1896. Four months after graduation, Minami traveled to England in July 1907 to study British art, arriving on September 21, 1907. He saw the works of Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (founded 1848). He also honed his skills as a watercolorist. In 1909, Minami went to Paris for five months where he encountered the art of the Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, and Fauvres. He also traveled to Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium.
During his years in Europe, Minami spent time with Tomimoto Kenkichi (富本憲吉 1886-1963), the great potter, ceramicist, painter, printmaker, architect, and designer who would be named a Living National Treasure (Ningen kokuhô, 人間国宝) in 1955. Minami and Tomimoto attended the Tokyo School of Fine Arts around same time (Tomimoto in 1904-1908). Now together again in Europe, the two artists experimented with woodblock printmaking. They continued doing so after their return to Japan in 1910, sharing a house in Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo and, side-by-side, making self-carved, self-printed woodblock prints (moku-hanga, 木版画).
In an article published by the Osaka Asahi Shimbun (大阪朝日新聞) newspaper on November 16, 1913, Minami was quoted as saying: "My attitude [in making woodcuts] is not different from when I am painting. I am just using a knife instead of a brush, cherry wood instead of a palette" [translation from Ogura in Suzuki ref. below]. Minami originally carved and printed the design shown above called "Observation tower" or Uomi ("Fish lookout") circa late 1911 in an image size of around 165 x 191 mm (sheet = 260 x 380 mm). Blocks for the same design were recut in slightly smaller size by Igami Bonkatsu (伊上凡骨 1875-1933), the leading ukiyo-e-style carver, for impressions to include in Bijutsu Shinpô ("Art News)", Vol. 11, No. 3 (issued Jan. 1912). Examples of the original version are in the Chiba City Museum of Art and the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh (Austin Collection). In both the original and recut printings, Minami's soft, textured application of colors and minimal linework situates the freely carved image within a modern woodcut idiom influenced by avant garde European art.
An early painting completed by Minami in 1905 while attending the Tokyo School of Fine Arts is shown above. In the yôga department, students were taught the use of Western (European) artistic conventions, techniques, and materials. These included oils on canvas, watercolors, pastels, pencil on paper, etchings, and lithography. Minami was particularly skilled in oil painting and watercolor. In his 1905 scene of the Seto Inland Sea, there are aspects of Barbizon-School realism, plein-air spontaneity, Impressionism, and Post-Impressionism. An expanse of dark-blue water dominates the composition, but the well-observed promontory on the far side is bathed in sunlight, as are the trees and sailboat in the foreground. These elements introduce effective contrasts as the brighter forms punctuate and balance the composition.
Minami's earliest public display of his art works seems to have taken place when he submitted nine watercolors in 1905 to an exhibition sponsored by the Hakuba-kai ("White Horse Society," 白馬会), the yôga painting organization established in 1896 by the eminent Western-style painter Kuroda Seiki (黒田清輝 1866-1924). Five years later, in the summer of 1910 (July 3-20), the White Birch Society (Shirakaba-ha, 白樺派), a seminal and influential literary and art coterie, held a showing of works by Minami, who was a member of the society, and the novelist/painter Arashima Mibuma (有島壬生馬 1882-1974, real name Arashima Ikuma 有島生馬), who was also a member. The event was titled, "Exhibition of paintings by Minami Kunzô and Arishima Ikuma: Commemorating their homecoming from Europe" (Minami Kunzô • Arishima Ikuma taiô kinen kaiga tenrankai). This was the society's inaugural exhibition, and it succeeded beyond expectations. The art works were mounted in a large temporary wooden structure called the Takenodai Chinretsukan (Building no. 2) in Ueno Park, Tokyo. Arashima had gone to Europe in 1905 to study painting and sculpture in Italy and France, and was especially drawn to the works of the great French painter Paul Cézanne (1839-1906). Arashima returned to Japan the same year (1910) as did Minami, whose paintings also revealed the influence of Cézanne (see still life below). Both artists had encountered Cézanne's work while studying at the Académie Julian in Paris. In the Tokyo homecoming exhibition, Minami had 47 watercolors and seven oil paintings, while Arishima had 69 oils, two watercolors and one tempera. Most were done while the artists were living in Europe. Moreover, to promote the study and appreciation of contemporary European art, the show included monochrome reproductions of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works by Cézanne, Degas, Gauguin, Manet, Monet, Renoir, and Van Gogh, which turned out to be quite popular with the visiting public.
Minami had further engagements with coteries and their magazines (dôjin zasshi, 同人雑誌), contributing works for publications such as Hosun ("Square inch," 方寸, vol. 4, no. 6) in 8/1910; Shirakaba ("White birch," 白樺 vol. 1, no. 8 and vol. 3, no. 2, cover images) in 11/1910 and 2/1912; Kokoromi ("Trial," ココロミ vol. 1, no. 1) in 12/1913; Etchingu ("Etching," エッチング vol. 83 and vol. 100) in 9/1939 and 4/1941; and Nihon Hanga Kyôkai Hô ("Journal of the Japanese Print Association," 日本版画協会々報 vol. 32) in 12/1939.
Two paintings by Minami finished during his European sojourn are shown above. In both works, which are oils on canvas, there is very little evidence of traditional Japanese painting principles. Without the signatures, one would be challenged to identify these portraits as works by a Japanese artist. Indeed, by the year of their creation (1909), Minami had assimilated much of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European painting idioms, including Impressionism and Post-Impressionism.
In 1911, Minami was given a one-person show at Rôkandô, the first modern art gallery in Japan. It was the first-ever solo exhibition in Tokyo by a living artist of "creative prints" (sôsaku hanga: 創作版画). In 1912, Minami became one of the first members of the "Light and Wind Club" (Kôfûkai, 光風会), an association of Western-style painters who have held public exhibitions of their work nearly every year up until the present day. In 1910-1912, he won a third-prize and two second-prizes at the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Annual Bunten (文展), respectively, often referred to as the "Japan Fine Arts Exhibitions." In 1913, Minami also participated in founding the Japan Watercolor Society (Nihon Suisaiga-kai, 日本水彩画會).
Besides exhibiting at the aforementioned Bunten (Monbushô Bijutsu Tenrankai, Ministry of Education Fine Arts Exhibitions: 文部省美術展覧会 held 1907-1918), for which he served as a judge after 1916, Minami also had his works shown at the Teiten (帝展, Teikoku Bijutsu Tenrankai, Imperial Art Academy Exhibition, 帝國美術展覧會 held 1919-1934) and Nitten (日展, Nihon bijutsu tenrankai, Japan Art Exhibition, 日本美術展覧会 held 1946 - present). In 1929, Minami became a member of the Japan Art Academy (Nihon Geijutsu-in, 日本芸術院 formerly 日本藝術院 later Imperial Art Academy, Teikoku Geijutsuin, 帝国芸術院 in 1937), and in 1939, an honorary member of the Japan Print Association (Nihon Hanga Kyôkai: 日本洋画協会 founded in 1931) when the organization had a special showing of his prints.
Another work from around 1909 is Minami's atmospheric view of the Thames River at night, a watercolor on paper (shown above). This work is one of the highlights of Minami's oeuvre from his London period. It is difficult not to think of the expressive "nocturnes" of river views in London and Venice painted and etched by the American master James Whistler (1834-1903). It is likely that Minami was familiar with at least some of Whistler's works from his stay in England. Here, the range of colors has been compressed into a palette of blue and purple with a few yellow highlights. The entire scene, done in thin washes, evokes a Whistlerian riverscape — the foreground suggested by just a few key outlines, the boatman in his skiff near the pictorial center, the reflections of pale yellow and red illumination rendered as vertical streaks in the water, the nearly silhouetted warehouses at the far side of the Thames, and the smokey, patchy sky. Minami's technique was accomplished and his assimilation of the European mode complete.
Throughout his career, Minami was an influential proponent of moku-hanga in the sôsaku hanga mode and Western-style painting in the European manner. In 1911, not long after his return from Europe to Japan, Minami produced several small woodcuts in the landscape genre (fûkeiga, 風景画), some with figures, as in the example shown below, "Tilling the field" (Hatakô, 畑耕). In this scene, it is early morning as the moon sinks below the horizon, while a farmer uses a hoe to work the soil. All these early Minami woodcuts have a softly textured application of pigments, mostly pinks, yellows, greens, and blues, and often sparing use of keyblock outlines. Their overall style and subject matter are partly reminiscent of certain woodcuts, lithographs, and intaglio prints by French artists such as Henri Rivière (1864-1951), Amédée Joyau (1872-1913), and others, although the impressionistic surface quality and the frequent omission of keyblock lines separates Minami's efforts from the typically more uniformly applied chromaticism and keyblock-outlined forms in the French prints. Minami was also well aware of the admiration in Europe for ukiyo-e and the near cult-like phenomenon of Japonisme, and he would have recognized and appreciated the reciprocal influences between Europe and Japan.
The influence of Cézanne is obvious in Minami's still life with apples (shown below). Minami's brushwork, however, is distinctly different, with its energetic, wet-on-wet technique and gestural strokes of impasto. Minami could very well have seen original Cézanne paintings while living in Paris, and surely he would have been familiar with the French master's work through reproduction in art and poetry magazines both in Japan and Europe. From corner to corner, Minami's brushwork is nearly as much the subject as are the apples and cloths. A small but intense painting, the expressionistic technique animates the realism of the still life.
Around 1949, the year before his death, Minami painted a bright, sun-drenched view of the Seto Inland Sea (shown below) typical of his later work when he continued to experiment with the impasto technique found in the still life above. In this late view, Minami applied the paint in thick, parallel strokes to form the land masses in the distance and the details of the rooftops and trees in the foreground. The expressive simplification of shapes approaches abstraction, especially on the distant promontory, where the color strokes are stacked and angled, floating the forms on the pictorial surface with limited effort at realistic integration.
From 1932 to 1943, Minami was a professor at his alma mater, the Tokyo School of Fine Arts, where he shared an office with the sôsaku hanga master Hiratsuka Un'ichi. In 1944, he was forced to evacuate the city, relocating to Utsumi in Hiroshima Prefecture. Then, in 1945, he lost his home atelier in Hyakuninchô, Okubo (百人町 大久保), Tokyo during an Allied bombing raid. In Utsumi, where he lived with family members, he focused on paintings depicting one of his favorite themes, the Seto Inland Sea (Seto Naikai, 瀬戸内海), excelling in scenes rendered in the Western manner (as shown above).
Broader recognition came posthumously with and exhibition of his works at the Hiroshima Prefectural Museum of Art in 1983. More important was the establishment, two years later, of the Minami Kunzô Memorial Hall (Minami Kunzô Kinenkan 南薫造記念館) in 1985, located within the Yasuura History and Folklore Museum (Yasuura Rekishi Minzoku Shiryôkan, 安浦 歴史民俗資料館) in Kure City, Japan. The collection houses many of the artist's works as well as his painting materials and selected personal items. Most recently, an exhibition, hosted by the museum from January 15 to May 15, 2022, was titled, "Try listening to the sound of the picture" (E no 'ne' o akira miru, 絵の「音」を聴いてみる). The curators proposed that when you look at pictures such as Minami's, you not only see what is drawn, but you can imagine or "feel" the sound that is represented within the images, such as the tilling of soil, rubbing of plant leaves, murmuring of water, barking of creatures, chattering of children, and so on.
Since the founding of the memorial hall in Kure City, there have been two major retrospectives featuring Minami's oeuvre. First, in 1998, an exhibition was held at the Hiroshima Prefectural Museum of Art, which focused mainly on Minami's work during his time in England. The second retrospective was held at three consecutive venues: the Shoto Museum of Art in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo (Feb. 12 to Mar. 7, 2021), the Tokyo Station Gallery (Feb. 20 - April 11, 2021), and the Kurume City Museum of Art (July 3 to Aug. 29, 2021). The Shoto Museum show was titled, "Minami Kunzô: Beautiful moments from everyday life" (Hibi no mi shiki mono, 南薫造 • 日々の美しきもの). Kurume City titled its show, "Minami Kunzô: Seventy years on [after his death]" (Botsugo 70 toshi - Minami Kunzô, 没後70年 南薫造). The Tokyo Station Gallery included the following commentary: "There is nothing eccentric or showy about his works, yet there is a sense of peace and serenity in the fine-tuned way he expressed his fascination for nature that quickly earned him acclaim. That style is brought to life with an outstanding command of oil paint, transparently and delicately colorful use of watercolors, and a well-defined composition in his woodcut prints. He was front and center at government-sponsored exhibitions for many years, and taught many new artists at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts. His skill is unmistakable, even in the humblest of landscapes and the most unassuming of portraits."
Minami Kunzô's work can be found in many private and public collections, including the British Museum, London; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; Chiba City Museum of Art; Fukuyama Art Museum; Hiroshima Prefectural Museum of Art; Imperial Household Agency, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo; Koriyama City Museum of Art; Kurashiki City Art Museum; Machida City Museum of Graphic Arts; Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo; Shoto Museum of Art, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; Tokyo University of the Arts; and Waseda University Aizu Yaichi Memorial Museum. © 2022 by John Fiorillo