In 1900, Makino Nobuaki, who was ambassador to Austria at the time, had an idea to introduce to Japan an art exhibition called “Salon,” which had been started in France under Louis XIV (1638-1715). Founded on the ideal of developing modern culture in Japan, the first Bunten (“Ministry of Education Art Exhibition”) was held in 1907, and it continues even today under the name of Nitten (“Japan Fine Arts Exhibition”).
Nitten is the largest annual fine arts exhibition in Japan and considered the most prestigious and national among various specialty exhibitions, such as Nihonga (Japanese traditional painting), Yōga (Western oil painting), sculpture, calligraphy and crafts. Artists can be extremely competitive in trying to attain a prize and thereby have their works shown in the preeminent art venue. However, it is an open secret that awards are always shuffled amongst an elite group chosen from among Nitten members and acknowledged master artists. As the judging is based on a hierarchical system nodding to seniority, it is extremely difficult for up-and-coming artists to enter their work and win a Nitten prize.
To have a work exhibited in Nitten’s nationwide tour that follows the main Tokyo exhibit has been known to cement an artist’s career, because the works can catch an art dealer’s eye and thereby fetch hefty prices. In reality, however, there are many unselected artworks which would never been exhibited anywhere, even though color paints and other materials for paintings are expensive, not to mention the transportation expenses. What is the problem with those rejected artworks? A master of Japanese painting once said to a student, “Your paintings are the best when the canvas is still blank.”
In the Salon series, I picked up three great Japanese-style painters, Yokoyama Taikan (1868-1958), Yamamoto Kyūjin (1900-86) and Sugiyama Yasushi (1909-93) who each contributed to the development of Nitten. I painted their names on a large-scale canvas respectfully using techniques characteristic of each painter. I sent those artworks to the Nitten exhibition, and as anticipated, all works were rejected and returned to me with a notice of rejection.
The Salon series ironically alludes to the closed nature of Nitten, where artists are judged by how well they are known, reinforcing the echo chamber of the art market.
Translation by Eiko Aoki