Eyes & Curiosity—Flowers in the Field: Focus on Kimura Ryōko’s Nihonga Paintings of Beautiful Men (Bidan-ga)

Eyes & Curiosity—Flowers in the Field (16 March – 21 April 2019), a group exhibition by four Japanese artists opened on 16 March, 2019 at Mizuma Gallery in Singapore. The exhibition, according to the gallery’s press release, embodies new interpretations of traditional techniques and explores the relevance of old ideals in today’s society. Working in different mediums, the artists— Kato Ai, Kimura Ryōko, Kobayashi Satoshi and Mizuno Rina present works that are a treat to the eyes.

From decorative natural landscapes, intricate relief paintings of nature, nihonga (Japanese-style) paintings of men to bubblegum-pop style depictions of women, the show updates contemporary themes and reflects how the artists navigate the legacy of tradition and of visual tropes.

Here, I will focus on a discussion of Kimura Ryōko’s selected works for the exhibition—Paradise of Dragon Palace, Fugen Bodhisattva, Monju Bodhisattva and Jizo Bodhisattva.

The Sea of the Enchanted Palace—Paradise of Dragon Palace, 2016. Japanese pigments and gold leaf on paper mounted on a four-panel folding screen, 176 x 340cm. Image courtesy of Kimura Ryōko.

The centerpiece of Kimura’s exhibited works in Eyes & Curiosity is a large, four-paneled folding screen painting on the subject of Ryūgu (Ryūgu-jō) or Dragon Palace. In Chinese and Japanese folklore, sea gods were said to reside in these undersea palaces. Reference to Ryūgu is found in the popular legend of Urashima Tarō, who rescued a turtle and was rewarded by time spent at the Dragon Palace with Princess Otohime. In Kimura’s Ryūgu, mermen and other half-man-half-sea creatures frolic around in the underwater world. The painting is almost like an encyclopedic record of sea creatures and plants, showcasing species such as a stingray, squid and shark, amongst other detailed and decorative depictions of various corals.

Using Japanese pigments from Nihonga and gold leaf, the painting is a magnificent display of both technique and subject matter. Nihonga, or Japanese-style painting was a term coined in the modern history of Japanese art during the Meiji era. When Western (primarily oil painting) influences in art were rapidly gaining popularity, Japanese art was bifurcated into this dichotomy of Japanese-Western painting due to the circumstances of the time. The pigments used in nihonga are usually derived from natural minerals and through a process of grinding down to specific particle sizes, they are then mixed with a binder (nikawa or glue made from animal skin) and applied in layers. Unlike oil painting where mistakes or changes in the application of paint can be corrected, nihonga pigments are harder to manipulate through all stages from the preparation of the pigments to mixing and application on the painted surface. Considering that nihonga specialty courses in colleges and universities spend at least a year in foundation, learning how to handle and treat pigments, Kimura’s self-study and grasp of nihonga is impressive. In an interview with the artist in Musashi Bi Tsūshin (a monthly publication from Musashino Art University), she shared that she had learnt the techniques from nihonga friends to painting manuals and correspondence courses.

The stylistic treatment of Ryūgu—from the application of a gold leaf background, the rich palette of colours, the detailed depiction of underwater plants down to the gold clouds which part to reveal and contain individual settings within, reference the Kanō school style of painting. Kanō artists were active in the Muromachi period to the early Meiji era with some even serving as official painters for the shogunate. They followed a Chinese-style lineage of painting, adapting Chinese ink painting with the Yamato-e style.

Kimura’s careful study of past painterly traditions is successfully captured in Paradise of Dragon Palace which at a casual glance, seems to resemble a traditional Kanō-style painting. Upon closer observation, the painting reveals itself to be a rakuen or paradise where every unclothed male-fish subject is perfect. Their lean, naked torsos are sculptured, their chiseled good looks modeled after a selection of differently styled characters found in shōjō magazines, manga, anime and pop idol groups.

While Kimura admits to model them after certain bidanshi (beautiful men) found in pop culture, she did not intend to have them resemble actual idols. This deliberation allows each viewer to impose his or her own individual fantasy onto these subjects. Whether it was a high school classmate or an older rockstar idol, it was possible to find your fantasy amongst the paradise to one’s liking. The absence of women in this landscape aids in a powerful invitation to insert yourself into this imagination.

Jizo Bodhisattva, 2017. Japanese Pigments and Gold Leaf on Silk. Image courtesy of Kimura Ryōko.

The same attraction is felt towards the Boddhisattvas found in the three paintings of Fugen, Monju and Jizo. In Buddhism, Boddhisattvas are persons who consciously delay their own nirvana to help others attain enlightenment. Jizo, is arguably one of the most commonly seen statue of Boddhisattvas in Japan, recognised by the red knitted bibs and caps that usually drape them. As the guardian deity of children, parents pray to Jizo for protection from illness or for the unborn and departed. Although the genre of Buddhist paintings (Butsu-ga) has a long history, the subjects are rarely depicted in the manner that Kimura does.

They are given a contemporary update, and in doing so, question conventions of portrayal and stereotypes associated with monks. A few months ago in Japan, social media erupted with footage of monks dressed in robes doing activities like skipping, skating and juggling. These “I can do this in monk’s robes” videos were an outpouring of support in response to a monk who was fined for driving dressed in his religious attire. The traffic police ascertained that religious robes were hazardous to everyday activity.

Kimura spoke about these new series of Buddhist paintings, relating a personal event at a temple ceremony years ago where the presiding monk was not only soothing in his performance of religious rites but also with his good looks. Almost a decade later, Kimura has finally had the chance to draw from memory, her lasting impression of this encounter.

Fugen Bodhisattva, 2017. Japanese Pigments and Gold Leaf on Silk. Image courtesy of Kimura Ryōko.


Monju Bodhisattva, 2017. Japanese Pigments and Gold Leaf on Silk. Image courtesy of Kimura Ryōko.

Bodhisattvas Fugen and Monju, often depicted in a triad with Shakyamuni (the historical Buddha) are represented here with beautiful faces and in masculine poses, showing off their ripped bodies. The dynamism and energy seen in Monju Bodhisattva, striding a lion, and the deliberate pose of Fugen sitting with his leg apart, excites and impresses. In a separate exhibition of these paintings in Kyoto last year, Kimura titled her show 「多情仏心」or Tajō Busshin which translates to “fickle but kind-hearted”​. If monks in their religious garb could be allowed to partake in everyday activities such as in those videos mentioned-above, could they then not also exhibit human traits of being fickle, emotional or even amorous? Can they also exceed the norm, and be portrayed as impossibly beautiful, sexy demi-gods? By continuing with her theme of eros in the portrayal of men, Kimura moves her investigation into a new arena, exploring these questions in the pin-ups of religious personalities.

About the Artist, Kimura Ryōko  木村了子

Kimura Ryōko (b. 1971, Kyoto, Japan) is an artist who works and lives in Tokyo. She paints with a wide-ranging knowledge and interest in Japan’s pictorial heritage, including Chinese-style landscapes, Zen Buddhist ink portraiture, and Ukiyo-e paintings and woodblock prints. At the same time, Kimura’s works are unmistakably contemporary due to her chosen subject matter, namely beautiful males, especially the movie idol and pop singer types commonly reproduced in Japanese teen girl magazines. Kimura graduated with a Master’s Degree in Mural Painting at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, Japan. Her most recent exhibitions include Tenderheartedness at Kyoto-ba, Kyoto, Japan (2018); IkemenMärchen at Artcomplex Center of Tokyo, Tokyo, Japan (2017); Beaute Animale de L’Homme at Galerie Vanessa Rau, Paris, France (2015); her works are in the public collection of Spencer Museum of Art, Kansas, United States, and Honolulu Museum of Art, Honolulu, United States.



Mizuma Gallery (Singapore)

Sueo Mizuma established Mizuma Art Gallery in Tokyo in 1994. Since its opening in Gillman Barracks, Singapore in 2012, the gallery aims for the promotion of East Asian artists in the region as well as the introduction of Southeast Asian artists to the international art scene. Mizuma Gallery Singapore is located at 22 Lock Road #01-34 Gillman Barracks Singapore 108939.

https://www.mizuma.sg/ and http://mizuma-art.co.jp/en/

Reproductions of images have been granted by the artist.

To download a PDF copy of this essay, please click >> Eyes & Curiosity—Flowers in the Field- Focus on Kimura Ryoko’s


Kochi Kenten , nihonga department

Kochi-Kenten is the annual art exhibition of Kochi Prefecture. This year’s event (the 72nd Exhibition) features a variety of artistic disciplines in 8 sections: Nihonga, Western-Style Painting, Calligraphy, Photography, Crafts, Graphic Design, Sculpture, and Contemporary Art (Sentan art). Any adult residing in  Kochi prefecture can present his or her work to be selected for the exhibition. There is two exhibition sites: Kochi Prefecture Museum of Art and  Kochi Cultural Centre.


The Nihonga section is exhibited in the Kochi Prefecture Museum of Art. When a person wins the first prize three times, he/her becomes Mukansa (a person who becomes exempted from future examinations required to display art in the exhibition). There is 6 Mukansa in nihonga section now including Yoichi Araki. 

Mukansa choose a judge every year. he is selected from Inten-school, Nitten-school and Sogakai-school (three big schools in nihonga today ) in rotation. This year they asked Chiori Miyakita to be judge.

.Yoichi Araki presents the works of his selected pupils .

I was surprised about the diversity of works and styles, although represented in the single discipline of nihonga. Some works are almost monochrome paintings while others have vivid and multi-coloured nuances. But as it is often in Nihonga, I find, that there is  harmony and a sense of balance that is special to it. The works are almost essentially figurative.

Araki Sensei‘s work is the portrait of his dog, a Barzoi. I can feel the sadness of this painting for his dog had recently died of bone cancer at only 11 years of age. His  colors softness and the subtlety of its fur doesn’t minimize his melancholic eyes depth .



This year the first prize was awarded once again to Mariko Yagi. This is the second time that she has received this award. I was very fortunate to be able to speak with her (she is fluent in English) and was particularly touched by her work.

Mariko Yagi came late to Nihonga. Graduating from university where she studied Wester- style painting, she then worked in the design domain for kimono. After spending some years as a housewife, she took up painting about ten years ago, studying with Araki sensei. She likes the diversity of possibilities offered by mineral pigments, which she does not find in oil paints.

She believes that the process of superposing the layers of pigments brings to the work an incomparable richness. “Regardless how many layers of pigments are applied, the initial drawing is always present.” One could draw a parallel with the human being.



For the first time, I can explore Mariko’s work which I had only seen in photographs. I am impressed by its format. And it imbibes me with a feeling of positivity just by looking at this work. It gets free of it as a soft invigorating energy. Such is the cycle of life . It shows a fossil (an ammonite) which forms as an ascending spiral pulling in its trail, flowers and butterflies in a harmony with natural tints of ochre.
Applying silver leaf around the drawing, Mariko painted successive layers of pigments.It took her 3 working months to complete it.

I notice that certain parts are more sketched. She held on painting the flowers of too fresh colors  she told me. “If you paint too much it does not work anymore”. “Less is more” seems to be the currency . It is necessary to realize the bet to make feel a length taken place by an economy of means however. Through the fossil, Mariko wanted to make feel an impression of age-old times,
With the material given by the crystals of mineral pigments and fine lines drawing, she  give the feeling of a work for a long time elaborated . Approaching closely we can see stars. It’s like if we could see the cosmos in the macrocosmos.


Remembering Kochi is the place of birth of the most famous Japanese botanistsTomitarô Makino, I asked Mariko-san for the  flower’s name which she represented. So you can recognize it as ‘ Casablanca “, the sunflower, the anemone, the dandelion, the blueberry, the wild vineyard, the wild berries, the ferns, the maple, the ginkgo, the cycads (kind of palm tree), lychens, jasmine of Asia. The spiral of flowers goes blooming and ends at the top of the picture by the appearance of seed pods. Symbolizing the movement of the past towards the future and the various stages of life. Seeds carry  the potential of life as well as an idea of the future. The presence of butterflies above the flowers symbolize short-lived life and remind us at the same time the impermanence and the present moment.

She named her work « Life »

In the 72nd kenten, Chiori Miyakita from Inten was chosen. Here is her comment on kenten. “Selecting the pictures, I focused on what made the painter moved and what he/she wanted to express. When it comes to technique or skill, you can gain it gradually. But it’s difficult how to express your impression. I think it’s more important and painters including me should keep it in mind consciously. I don’t care much about titles. However they often show the painter’s intention. The best thing is that you can understand his/her intention instantly without title. Mariko’s work was not necessary to ask the title. Regarding her work, first, preliminary design is excellent, second, its material (texture) is so beautiful. I can feel her sense of beauty and strong preferences. Entering the museum, I immediately knew her work is the best. It has more presence than others. The color is not vivid, but it really fascinates me.”


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Hope by Yuriko Kitano


Hope 2 希望2, mineral pigments 150 x 200 cm, Private Collection.

In the distance, the morning sun peaks over the mountains of Chôkai鳥海山, casting a warm blanket of sunlight across the horizon. The mountains, whose name suggests the resemblance of a bird in the sea, weave in and out of the painting like restless tides. Much of the landscape is rather sombre- enveloped in an elegy of grey and drowned in muted shadows. Some respite however, is found in the stirring of life in the light and what the snow-dusted peaks have come to reveal . The sun, an ever-reassuring presence, rises above and illuminates the heaving ridges.

Mountains have always been close to the heart of Japanese culture. Revered as sacred sites where Gods were said to dwell, they offer sanctuary to meditating priests and welcome thousands on arduous pilgrimages. As one of the most enduring symbols of Japanese culture, they have been admired, written about and painted. From the poems of hyakunin isshu (one poem each by one hundred poets) to Hokusai’s prints and the paintings of Yokoyama Taikan, mountains have soothed and inspired many. These are the feelings that stir when we encounter Hope, by Nihonga artist Yuriko Kitano.

In the aftermath of the Tohoku Earthquake, Kitano looked for ways in which she could help those who had lost their families and homes. In her search, she found the answer in her paintings and in the magnificent beauty of Chôkai (mountains that borders Akita and Yamagata in the Tohoku region). Just like Nihonga masters before her time, they too, used art to encourage and inspire. During Japan’s participation in the war in Asia and the Pacific, Yokoyama Taikan’s images of Mount Fuji and the symbolic rising sun served as encouragement for the conscripted. Post-war Japan found hope in Higashiyama Kaii’s country Path道  that veered into the unknown. Decades later, a young Nihonga artist working in Yamagata offers the same precious hopes and inspiration in her art.

In Hope, there is immense comfort in knowing that the sun will always rise and the advent of each new day continues to bring hope and symbolic new beginnings.  Kitano hopes that her work will encourage and inspire those who continue to face adversity and loss arising from the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011.

Many of Kitano’s large-scale landscape paintings are inspired by the abundant nature of Yamagata. The artist’s respect for nature and admiration for harmony in natural environments has been a consistent theme in her work. Kitano’s works are opportunities for quiet contemplation — from pounding waterfalls to swirling river currents, and magnificent mountainous ridges. Each scene, an impermanent beautiful state is delicately captured and brought to life in her paintings. The piercing sunlight right at this juncture in the sky balanced by  stirring mist awakened from its slumber is an impermanent moment never to be seen again in the same way. From a culture that places much joy and appreciation in the impermanence, Kitano understands this well and successfully captures beautiful impermanence for our enjoyment.

Yuriko Kitano graduated from Tohoku University of Art and Design with a major in Japanese painting in 2012. Having held a solo exhibition earlier this year, Kitano hopes to continue her practice as a Nihonga artist and realise her childhood dream of exhibiting at the Inten *oneday.

*The Inten is an annual art exhibition organised by the Japan Art Institute. It is a prestigious art exhibition showcasing the country’s finest Nihonga artists.

Postnote: Just received news that Yuriko has been selected for the Inten! Congratulations!!


References and Further Reading




Giveaway for our Readers and Fans of Nihonga


We have a little giveaway for our readers and fans of Nihonga.

Please leave a message here with your name. And we will pick out 2 lucky winners to receive a 3000Bon T-shirt or Tote bag.

Rules for entry are simple:


Leave a comment in the comments section. Clearly stating your first name or nickname. Please let us know what you think of our Blog and if you have any messages for aspiring, young Nihonga artists.



While stocks last, we will try to accommodate your request for Tshirt sizing and apologise if we can’t.

There is no cost on your end meaning we even deliver it to your postal address, wherever it is.

The GIVEAWAY will open from 21 August 2013 – 31 August 2013. We will use a random generator to pick the lucky winners (with names and numbers assigned).


About 3000 Bon

3000 Bon or Sanzen bon Nikawa, literally means 3000 sticks. Usually made of animal glue, it refers to a type of binding glue Nihonga artists use in their artwork to make the pigments adhere to the painted surface. The manufacturers were said to be ceasing the manufacturing of this and since the announcement, has sent some into a buying frenzy or campaigns to “save 3000 Bon”. There exists however, other alternatives to this glue.





3000 Bon T shirts and Tote Bags – samples available

Dear All

Here are some samples of the 3000 Bon T shirts and Tote Bags that the Geidai students have made.

They have yet to receive any orders (other than mine) so if you would love a T shirt or a tote bag, please contact them.

Instructions on ordering are :


and their email is: 3000bon.2013t@gmail.com





Innocent World. Tomoyuki Kambe Solo Exhibition in Singapore 神戸智行個展

“Through the observation of the small things around us. I believe that we find the form of the big world.” – Tomoyuki Kambe

星に願いを Wish Upon the Star 2010

[星に願いをWish Upon the Star, 2010]

Innocent World  is an exhibition of Japanese-style paintings by emerging artist, Tomoyuki Kambe 神戸智行. Japanese-style painting, otherwise known as Nihonga, originated in the late 19th century (Meiji period) and took inspiration from the rich heritage of traditional Japanese art. Considered a modern art movement, Nihonga evolved with the times reflecting contemporary issues and themes. While some artists may continue to depict conventional Japanese themes and motifs, most contemporary artists explore a range of subjects relevant to their context.

The single most identifiable characteristic of Nihonga is the medium. Artists who paint in the style of Nihonga use time-honoured materials and a  select combination of mineral and synthetic pigments. Much training is spent understanding how pigments work, how to grind them precisely down to the exact milimetre to achieve the right hue and how to prepare them with nikawa (animal glue) so that the pigments adhere to the paper; all these not before priming the paper in layers. Then the artists have to understand the way of the brush and how to manipulate all of these to create a final work of art. Depending on the effect they want to achieve, gold and silver foil is also used for a decorative touch.

Nihonga paintings have a distinctive appearance- they refract light due to the sized particles found in the pigments. Just like how oil paintings carry that glossy sheen, the colours in Nihonga appear to shimmer ever-so subtly by bouncing light off the surfaces of the paintings.  This delicate visual acuity has to be experienced in the flesh as photographs in catalogues can never reproduce such sensation. Another dynamic feature of Nihonga is how paintings change in appearance when seen in different light according to the times of the day.

Kambe’s solo exhibition showcases around 15 works- all of which depict nature and the beautiful forms which can be found within. In some of the paintings, there are little things waiting to be discovered if you find time to do so. And as soon as you spot a lizard or a lady-bird hiding among the leaves, you start to notice the presence of others in the works and you want to look for more. The artist engages us in this act of looking and searching and brings us back, even if for a brief moment, to an innocent world where once as children, we indulged in the very same activity of discovering life in nature.

Kambe acknowledges that everything coexists in relationships to one another, all coming together to give form and meaning in the world. While each living thing is uniquely original, it is the sum of these that make up the world. When he paints these small elements of nature, he illustrates their connections and brings to our attention the affinity of relationships in our societies.

This is Kambe’s first solo exhibition outside of Japan and also Singapore’s first exhibition of Nihonga paintings. The exhibition also includes a small display of Nihonga raw materials which are largely unavailable in Singapore. The works in the exhibition include new paintings displayed in various formats as well as a series of screens from the collection of Dazaifu Tenmangu shrine in Fukuoka.

Despite international audiences being no stranger to modern and contemporary Japanese art, Nihonga remains one of the least known artforms outside of Japan. The exhibition and education initiatives by the Japan Creative Centre present a wonderful introduction to the beautiful world of Japanese-style paintings.

Innocent World runs from July 20 – August 3o at the Japan Creative Centre.

About Tomoyuki Kambe 神戸智行

Born 1975, Gifu Prefecture, Japan. Graduated from Japanese painting (Nihonga) course at Tama Art University. Exhibited in China, Korea, the United States. Collected by the Sato Museum of Art and the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture.

Tomoyuki Kambe website

[ photo permission granted by the artist]

Art + Living: Takashimaya. The Department Store as a Culture Setter (Exhibition Info)

Art + Living: Takashimaya The Department Store as a Culture Setter 

presented by the Setagaya Museum of Art and Takashimaya

In the Meiji period, artists were presented with an alternative site to exhibit their work- the department store.

Artists who were engaged by department stores now had access to additional exhibition opportunites and new ways to promote themselves. Working with these commercial ventures also introduced new dimensions to their practices as they experimented with both different formats and media for the production of commercial goods.

This new way of engagement was a radical depature from the exclusive patronage relationships seen for instance, during the Edo period. The artists’ designs were now far-reaching to a wider and even international audience made possible by the department stores.

Japanese textiles based on the collaborations of artists and textile designers were being showcased in international expositions. Other collaborations were evident in advertising, fashion and design.

Focusing on the role of the department store as a cultural institution, Art + Living: Takashimaya. The Department Store as a Culture Setter presents works of art from the collection of the Takashimaya Historical Museum and explores the cultural history of this Japanese department store in such fields as design, architecture, advertisement, and fashion.

Of particular interest to us here will be the nihonga works on display both at the Setagaya museum and at select Takashimaya department stores as part of its Art Walking programme.

Screen shot 2013-05-05 at PM 10.17.51




Kyoto Painting Circles and Kamisaka Sekka 


4/24 – 5/6 Yokohama Takashimaya Gallery (8th Flr)

5/29 – 6/10 Nihonbashi Takashimaya 8th Flr

The Respendence of the Nihon-Bijutsu-in (Japan Art Institute)


4/24 – 5/12

Tamagawa Takashimaya West Annex Arena Hall (1 Flr)


Takashimaya was not the only department store who engaged artists for commercial ventures. For more information on the roles of Department Stores, their Artists and its influence, please refer to the following:

Julia Sapin, “Merchandising Art and Identity in Meiji Japan: Kyoto Nihonga Artists’ Designs for Takashimaya Department Store, 1868 – 1912”. Journal of Design History, Vol. 17. No.4. The Design History Society: 2004, pp.317 – 336.

Younjung Oh, “Art into Everyday Life: Department Store as Purveyors of Culture in Modern Japan”. Phd Thesis. University of Southern California: 2012.

Ellen P.Conant, Challenging Past and Present: The Metamorphosi of Nineteenth-Century Japanese Art. University of Hawaii:2006.