Japanese artist Taki Katei (1830–1901) lived in one of the most fascinating periods of Japanese history: when Japan was just opening up to the West. During that time, many artists integrated Western art elements into their works, but Taki stayed true to the traditions of Japanese art.
He grew up in a time when Japan’s art was rich with traditions. Artists borrowed particularly from the traditions of classical Chinese painting, but they also followed the tradition of studying from life: people, animals, and plants.
Taki started learning these traditions when he was just 6 years old. At 20, he traveled to Nagasaki to be closer to Chinese culture. At that time, Nagasaki was the only port open in Japan, and trade was restricted to the Netherlands, Korea, and China. Here, Taki could mix with Chinese artists and literati who taught him about their culture firsthand.
Then, for 15 years, he traveled in Japan learning traditional art practices and building a portfolio of works and a good reputation as an artist. In 1866, he set up an art school at his home in Tokyo to pass on traditional Japanese art.
By 1868, Japan was in turmoil. The Tokugawa shogun “great general” of the Edo period (1603–1867) was overthrown, ending Japan’s feudal system. Japan’s emperor replaced the shogun, becoming the supreme ruler, and reigned as the Meiji emperor of “enlightened rule.”
Thus began a time of immense transition for Japan, as the country opened itself up to the world, and tradition largely came second to Westernization. Japan welcomed steam locomotives and Western styles of architecture and dress, for example.
The government opened museums and art galleries, and encouraged artists to integrate elements of Western art into their works.
Taki, however, stayed true to his traditional culture and art practice. He belonged to the Japan Art Association, a group of artists who sought to uphold and promote the established form of Japanese painting.
Japanese paintings, just as in Chinese classical art, used nature to portray meaning. For instance, the peony brimming with its multiple layers of dense petals represents wealth and prosperity, and a deer represents longevity. Deer are seen as sacred messengers in the Shinto belief system. According to legend, a kami (deity) rode on the back of a deer at Kasugataisha shrine in Nara, southern Japan.
Taki and his students used this language of East Asian art—a language conveyed not by the written or spoken word, but by the language of symbolism. Taki honored this tradition throughout his life.
Great artists converse with our hearts without uttering a word. They animate the greatest and most tragic moments in life, from battlefields that appear gut wrenchingly real to divine jubilations that make our souls sing. But seldom do we celebrate the way these artists lived in the world: the values they lived by, how they overcame challenges, or how they treated their fellow man. Yet these stories are as inspiring as the artworks these artists made.