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The Future of Nihonga - Kimio Muraoka’s Unique World of Japanese Traditional Technique and European

Born in 1966 in Kyoto Prefecture, Muraoka integrates the traditional techniques of Nihonga (Japanese painting) with the spirituality and icons of Western painting to portray the sense of presence felt from people and objects. In the Japanese Art Institute Exhibition in 2020, he won the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Award for his work titled, Abyss. In 2021, he received the Prime Minister Award for his work, Cycle. In 2019, he was appointed Professor of Japanese Painting in the Department of Fine Arts at Joshibi University of Art and Design. In addition to his imaginative Japanese paintings that give off an air of antiquity, Muraoka also creates three-dimensional artworks. We spoke to him about his philosophy as an artist.

The Allure of Materials in Japanese Painting

Muraoka is a central figure leading the field of contemporary Nihonga, but his path to becoming a professional artist was far from smooth. When he was 20 years old, he became interested in Nihonga and decided to move to Tokyo to take the entrance exam for Tokyo University of the Arts. It was a late start compared to other students who had already been preparing for the exam throughout senior high school. “It was difficult to pass the exam, and I also felt a gap between the technical skills of others around me and my own,” says Muraoka. “I thought I wasn’t cut out for art, so unfortunately, I quit painting at that point.”

Muraoka became distant from the world of art. It was when he was travelling for work that he rediscovered his creative impulse despite his busy life. “I was gazing absent-mindedly at the landscape and remembering things from the past. Then all the feelings that I’d been suppressing came back to me. I felt a strong urge to paint again.”

After several years of working in a different field, he returned to art and entered the Department of Fine Arts at Tokyo University of the Arts. “Since then, even when things became painful while making art, I could compare it to the pain of working as an employee and keep going,” he says.

What drew Muraoka to Nihonga was the powerful texture of the medium. “The iwa-enogu (mineral pigments) of Japanese painting don’t involve a lot of binders (that hold the pigments together and allow them to adhere to the support), so the paints themselves are very beautiful,” he explains. “Even with the same colour, different nuances in tone will come out depending on the person using it.”

For most materials in Japanese painting, the artist needs to put in much effort and time to use them. At the same time, there is a depth to them that made Muraoka want to explore their qualities over a lifetime. There is no end to his curiosity when it comes to the media of art; now, he also makes three-dimensional works, studying the sense of presence that a solid object has.

“Oftentimes, when I’m working on a sculptural piece, I’m inspired by the atmosphere around things like ruins, museum objects, antiques, and curios. They have a certain touch, and textures, and they match well with iwa-enogu.”

What Muraoka gained from his creative practice, paying tactile attention to real objects, has become a foundation for forming his own ways of expression in Nihonga.

Clear Night: A Bird's Dream 浄夜~鳥の夢~

The Woman as a Symbol: Muraoka’s Interest in Western Paintings

Although his style is realistic, what Muraoka pursues most isn’t photographic reality, but the sense of presence, the lingering echo, of a person or an object. When it comes to portraits, he is not so interested in reproducing the softness of the body or the minute, material details of the subject.

Among Muraoka’s portraits, those featuring women are particularly memorable. When asked why he paints women, he says, “I’m primarily interested in painting people. I think, in the beginning, I was drawn to Western art more than Nihonga because they tend to portray people more.”

He paints women because, as a man, he will never be able to fully understand them for as long as he lives. “Of course, it’s really difficult to understand other people, regardless of their sex. In my paintings, the woman functions as a symbol of something mysterious, one among the elements that make up the work.” Therefore, “femininity” in the sexual sense or “maternity” aren’t important themes for his work.

The woman in Murakami’s artwork, shrouded in an air of mystery and indecipherability, breathes within the surface of the painting—a wavering presence that faces the viewers like a mirror to reveal their inner worlds.

A Land of Calm 凪の国

Art that Allows for Ambiguity Lives on tothe Next Generation

Muraoka has established his own singular style. Though we might expect him to have a vivid image of the completed piece in mind when he begins a new painting, he says that he only has a vague idea of the direction of the work in the beginning. “It comes together in the process of painting, like pieces of a puzzle.”

For his finished pieces, too, he believes it’s important to leave things open for the viewer to interpret the work. “It’s the same with films, for example,” he says. “It might feel good to watch something that has a clear plot with a beginning, middle, and end, but a film that leaves some kind of ambiguity makes the viewer think back and wonder, ‘what did it mean?’. It stimulates our imagination, I think.”

Muraoka hopes that people will look at his work in whatever way they like: “I don’t mind some interpretation sticking, even if it’s different from how I see it.” When asked why, he explains, “For a painting, what’s important is that it’s passed down from generation to generation after it’s completed—that it’s handed down from one person to the next.”

“A piece of artwork isn’t complete until someone sees it, talks about it, and enriches its content that way. Take Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, for example. Of course it’s a wonderful piece of artwork, but it grew into a world-renowned masterpiece through so many people talking about it, sharing their interpretations, and delving into it over time.”

An artwork shines all the brighter when viewers engage with it and talk about it freely, passing it down over generations. It’s clear that Murakami’s philosophy of art feeds into his works that express a unique, profound vision, a world of ideas.

The Need to Preserve Traditions and to Revolutionise: The Future of Japanese Painting

While teaching Nihonga to university students, Muraoka feels the tendency of contemporary society to conform to traditional forms. “There are also systemic issues in education at art schools and entrance exam preparations, but overall, students nowadays are too quick to look for the ‘correct’ answers.”

As for the world of Japanese painting in the future, he says, “While we need people who preserve traditions, it’s also necessary to change our culture when we think about reaching international audiences. We need people who step outside the framework of Nihonga, too.”

In that sense, Muraoka firmly believes that “young people are full of potential.”

Muraoka is thoroughly immersed in the fascinating appeal of Nihonga. It is precisely because of his dedication to the art form that he is so determined to explore his own distinct ways of expression and enliven the world of Japanese painting with the younger generation of artists.


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