Nakagawa Kazumasa 

"A Passion for Creativity"

Nakagawa Kazumasa 

Photo by Koji Okabatake 

Nakagawa Kazumasa 中川一政 (1893–1991)


Influenced by the writings appearing in Shirakaba, the journal of the avant-garde modernist Shirakaba-ha 白樺派 (White Birch Society), Nakagawa was a published composer of poetry while still in middle school. Introduced to the post-impressionists through the Shirakaba he taught himself Western-style (yōga) oil painting and met with almost immediate success when his 1914 work Sakagura (Sake Brewery, shown below) was selected for the influential Tatsumi gakai (Tatsumi Painting Society) exhibition, a gateway for success.

A calligrapher, seal engraver, lecturer on the Chinese classics, ceramicist, essayist, poet, illustrator and painter, he was awarded the Order of Cultural Merit in 1975. 

Self-Portrait, 1919

自画像 大正8年

The artist at age 26

Prints in Collection

click on image for details

IHL Cat. #2641

Hōsuiro, Shinsen Daihyō Tanka Sōsho, volume 2, 1936

放水路 新撰代表短歌叢書 第2篇

IHL Cat. #2639

Ant and Eggplant with added tanka, 1936

A tanka by Zenjō Yanase added to the original frontispiece in  the 2nd volume of Shinsen Daihyō Tanka Sōsho

蟻と茄子 新撰代表短歌叢書 第2篇, 1936

image: 5 15/16 x 4 in.

sheet: 7 5/16 x  5 in.

IHL Cat. #2150

Woman Sitting on a Chair (untitled), c. 1960s-1970s


image: 15 7/8 x 10 3/4 in.

sheet: 16 3/8 x 11 1/2 in.


Biography compiled primarily  from the following sources: 中川一政 略年譜 1893 (明治26) 年-1991 (平成3)年 ("Biographical Chronology of Nakagawa Kazumasa 1893-1991," compiled by the Hakusan Museum), biographical material found on the website of the Tokyo National Research Institute for Cultural Properties (tobunken) and information provided on their websites by the Nakagawa Kazumasa Art Museum, Manazuru Town 真鶴町立 中川一政 美術館 in Japanese and English and the Nakagawa Kazumasa Memorial Museum of Art, Hakusan Museum 松任中川一政記念美術館 in Japanese and as footnoted.

The journal Shirakaba

Little seems to have been written about Nakagawa's early life. In particular, little can be found on who encouraged this precocious teenager and how he developed his extraordinary artistic skills while still in his teens without receiving any formal instruction beyond the public schools in the late Meji era.

Available information tell us that Nakagawa was born in the Hongō district of Tokyo on February 14, 1893. His father Nakagawa Masatomo 中川政朝, a policeman serving with the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department, came from a family of swordsmiths and his mother Suwa came from a farming family. When he was nine his mother passed away at the age of thirty-three and three years later his older sister died at age seventeen. While still in middle school, the highest level at the time before university[1], he displayed a talent for literature, composing tanka and haiku. Three of his poems were included in Yosano Akiko's 1908 collection of poetry, Hakkō, and in that same year he won a prize for a cover design for the magazine Shōnen Sekai 少年世界 (Boys' World). His poetry, short stories and a novel would be published throughout his school years.  

Graduating from Kinjo Junior High School at the age of nineteen in March 1912, he experienced a period of anguish as he tried to "find his own path."[2] That path turned out to be oil painting, being inspired by the works of Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cézanne appearing in the avant-garde literary magazine Shirakaba (published 1910-1923), the journal of the White Birch Society "whose membership virtually dominated the arts and literature."[3]  Receiving a set of English oil paints from an acquaintance who had travelled overseas, he threw himself into learning Western-style oil painting, based on the styles of Van Gogh and Cézanne. In studying these artists he came to the conclusion that he could forego art school by adopting their styles and looking closely to nature as a teacher. 

His first known work in 1914, painted at the age of 21, titled Sakagura 酒倉 [酒蔵 (Sake Brewery), came to the attention of the painter Kishida Ryusei 岸田劉生 (1891-1929) when it was shown at the 1914 exhibition of the Tatsumi gakai (Tatsumi Painting Society) held in Ueno Park, Tokyo for which Kishida served as a judge.[4] This dark painting, shown below, is executed with broad brushstrokes. The board it is painted on peeks through on the right and left edges, perhaps as a reminder of the artist's amateur status. In the following year Nakagawa's painting Frost Thawing on the Road, shown below, would be awarded second prize at the same exhibition, confirming his chosen path as a painter and artist.

Sakagura 酒倉 (Sake Brewery), 1914

oil on board, 9 9/16 x 13 1/8 in. (24.3 x 33.4 cm)

Shimo no tokerumichi 霜のとける道 (Frost Thawing on the Road), 1915

 oil on canvas, 13 1/8 x 17 7/8 in. (33.3 x 45.5 cm)

Kishida Ryūsei, an established and well-known Western-style painter, seemed the perfect match for Nakagawa, with Kishida's own early works being heavily influenced by the post-impressionists, particularly Van Gogh and Cézanne. "Through Ryūsei, he came to know the novelists Mushakōji Saneatsu [武者小路実篤 (1885-1976)] and Shiga Naoya [志賀直哉 (1883-1971)], as well as other members of the Shirakaba group of intellectuals and artists."[5] While at least one source notes that Nakagawa would go on to study with Kishida, how formal this arrangement was is not known.[6] Nakagawa did live in the Kidshida household for a while and in 1915 he was asked to join the Sōdosha 草土社 (Grass and Soil Society), which had just been organized by Ryūsei and the painter Kimura Sōhachi 木村 荘八 (1893-1958) to exhibit the work of young artists. Their first exhibition in October 1915 included the 172 works by 23 artists and was held in the offices of the Yomiuri shinbun in Tokyo. Sōdosha would provide a forum for Nakagawa's continued exploration of the themes of humanism and modernism addressed by the White Birch Society (Shirakaba-ha). Writing in 1918, an unidentified correspondent for the journal The New East wrote that the work of the young painters in the Sōdosha Group "marks a distinct break with the traditions of Meiji" and that "the sobriety and obvious earnestness of the Sōdosha society's activity is worthy of notice, and it will be a matter of real interest to watch its development during the next few years."[7] Sōdosha would go on to stage nine exhibitions and in 1922 it would join with the department of Western-style painting of Nihon Bijutsuin (The Japan Art Institute) to form the Shun'yōkai 春陽会 (Spring Principle Association) , a "free and open" association of artists, still in operation today.[8]

In the years following his initial success, Nakagawa would continued to show his work with Sōdosha and its successor Shun'yōkai and at exhibitions of the Nika-kai 二科会 (Society of Progressive Japanese Artists). And his style continued to evolve, from a European Fauvism to his own individual style which incorporated elements of nanga (Japanese-style Chinese literati painting) with a strong color palette associated with Fauvism and his energetic brushstrokes. A style that has been described as "full of rich colors and abundant vitality."[9]

Nakazawa declared that he wanted to create paintings in which each motif in the painting is not isolated, but rather moves in response to each other, just as the "acupuncture points" in ancient Chinese medicine were connected by "meridians" (blood and qi pathways).

 Later, he came up with the word "mouvement" to express this simply, and wrote that in his own work, his first priority is not beauty but whether the painting is alive or not, and that he aims to "capture the mouvement and fix it on the picture plane."[10]

The artist in his studio.

As he entered his nineties Nakazawa would spend his time in his studio painting his beloved flower still-lifes, creating over 1,000 of them during his career.

Nakagawa would serve as a juror for the Shin Bunten, the government sponsored art exhibition, intermittently from 1938 to 1943 and in 1944 he would become head of the newly formed school of the Shun'yokai.[11] In 1939 he would make his first of many trips to China visiting Manchuria and Northern China. In 1940, he would serve on the committee to organize the exhibition celebrating the mythical 2600 year anniversary of the birth of Japan, Kigen setsu 紀元節, in which his own work was also shown. Up until the final months of World War II, before he evacuated to the countryside, he continued to exhibit his work and publish essays and poems.[12] 

Following the war in 1949 Nakagawa built a studio near the harbor on the Manazuru Peninsula in Kanagawa Prefecture where he would spend the next forty years focusing his oil painting on landscapes of the region, such as the harbor at Fukuura, shown below, and still-lifes of flowers, see Sunflowers below, gradually enhancing his own style. He would exhibit with the aforementioned Shun'yōkai, at the Shūsaku Bujutsu-ten 秀作美術展 (Excellent Works Exhibition), the Pittsburgh International Exhibition of Modern Painting Sculpture (aka "Carnegie International") in 1958 and at numerous additional venues, exhibiting his work every year until just before his death in 1991

From November 1953 into April 1954 Nakagawa made his first visit to the United States, Brazil (to attend the 2nd Sao Paulo Biennale), Paris, Rome and London. In 1958 he would return to China touring Beijing, Datong, Xi'n and other cities. 1962 brought an extended overseas trip which included visits to India, Iran, Jerusalem, Egypt, Greece, Southern France, Spain and Germany. At the invitation of the Chinese People's Association for Cultural Exchange he returned to Beijing and Shanghai for an exhibition of contemporary Japanese oil painting in 1963 and, again, in 1964 to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the People's Republic of China. 1970 would find him in Concarneau in Brittany to paint and he would return to France again in 1974 and 1980. Two more trips to China were made in 1976 and 1982 as parts of cultural exchange programs. His final recorded international trip was in May 1982 when he visited museums throughout the United States, stopping New York, Washington, D.C., Boston, Philadelphia among other cities.

 In 1967, at the age of 74, Kazumasa chose Mount Komagatake in Hakone as his new subject matter (see below), creating over forty paintings of the mountain over sixteen years (all of them, it is reported, painted on-site, as with much of his landscape work) with one of his most famous paintings of the mountain being completed just before turning ninety.

In 1990 the exhibition "Two Masters of Contemporary Japanese Painting: Togyū Okumura and Nakagawa Kazumasa" was held at the Musée Carnavalet in Paris.

Fukuura, c. 1954-1957

福浦 昭和29-32年頃 

oil on canvas 24 3/8 x 28 3/8 in. (62 x 72 cm)

Fukuura, c. 1965

福浦 昭和40年頃 

oil on canvas 19 5/8 x 23 7/8 in. (50.0 x 60.5 cm)

Sunflowers, 1976

向日葵 昭和51年

oil on canvas 35 3/4 x 28 5/8 in. (90.9 x 72.7 cm)

[Hakone] Komagatake, 1975

[箱根] 駒ヶ岳 1975年 

51 3/16 x 63 3/4 in. (130 x 162 cm)

Nakagawa Kazumasa at the age of 88 painting Komagatake, 1981

[Hakone] Komagatake, 1988

[箱根] 駒ヶ岳 昭和63年

oil on canvas

28 3/8 x 39 3/8 in. (72 x 100 cm)

Other Medium

As we know, Nakagawa was more than a painter. He worked in other medium for his visual art including traditional ink calligraphy and mineral pigments (iwa-enogu  岩絵具). He collaborated with printers and publishers, such as Kyuryudo.求龍堂, for his various prints on paper (see "Prints" below), illustrated numerous written works, and created graphic designs for books. He studied the Chinese classics and calligraphy under the guidance of the Sinologist Kōda Rentarō 公田連太郎 (1874-1963) as a member of yōga artist Kosugi Hōan’s Rōsō-kai ⽼老荘会.[13] He wrote about and carved seals and created ceramic works. As a writer he left a canon of essays and poetry. Perhaps his most well-known and influential essay “Nihonga o dō miru” 日本画をどう見る was published in 1947 in the magazine Sansai, laying out his thoughts on the vitality of Western painting (yōga) versus tradition-bound Japanese-style painting (nihonga), summarized in the following quote from Matthew Larking's article "Death and the Prospects of Unification: Nihonga’s Postwar Rapprochements with Yōga."

In Nakagawa’s view, oil painting was a “simple and honest art(junboku bijutsu 純朴美術), whose exemplary practitioners were found in early European modernism (and not, interestingly, among modern Japanese oil painters, of whom the author could count himself). It was ideally pursued in individually expressive, and technically unmediated, ways. Nakagawa conceived yōga as technically creative, and continually refashioned anew according to the creative aims of the individual artist. 

By contrast, the technical skills of nihonga, for Nakagawa, resulted in passivity in artistic production. They demonstrated a mastery of what the painter had been taught, rather than what he or she had individually created. In this sense, painting nihonga was akin to a performance of technical skill; painters were technicians as opposed to individual creative artists. And as technical performances, nihonga was the staging of somebody else’s techniques and processes, enacting the past, rather than proposing new painting directions. - - Matthew Larking, "Death and the Prospects of Unification: Nihonga’s Postwar Rapprochements with Yōga," appearing in Japan Review 34, Journal of the International Research Center for Japanese Studies, 2019, p. 170.

Black tea bowl, Karatsu ware 

Nakazato kiln

Sakana kogiidete,1983

mineral pigment and Chinese ink on paper

18 1/ x 24 in. (46 x 61 cm)

Nakagawa Kazumasa gashū, 1926


publisher Atoriesha, Tokyo

cover design for a book with reproductions of the artist's work

Large plate with water fowl design

Kurumagi kiln

A-Un (temple lion), 1983

mineral pigment and Chinese ink on paper

22 7/16 x 28 1/2 in. (57.0 x 72.5 cm)

Zokuzoku jinsei gekijō (Theater of Life) by Shirō Ozaki, 1936

Bookbinding design by Nakagawa Kazumasa

續々人生劇場(下)尾崎士郎著   中川一政装幀

Ishida Mitsunari 2, 1938

石田三成 2

ink on paper

15 7/16 x 19 1/4 in. (39.2 x 49.0 cm)

One Way Road 獨行道 一行

ink on paper 38 9/16 x 12 3/4 in. (98 x 32.5 cm)

Ware wa deku nari  われはでくなり, 1981 paper/ink/coloring

image 13 /4 x 22 7/8 in. (35 x 58 cm)

Seals carved by Nakazawa on display in the

Nakagawa Kazumasa Museum of Art, Manazuru

Nakagawa's Prints

Nakagawa designed very few woodblock prints, with most of his prints being copperplate etchings, some printed using aquatint technique, and lithographs. A number of his prints, both lithographs and copperplate etchings, were created at the Kurumaki Studios 車木工房 in Nara, which specializes in lithographs and etchings.

It is unclear whether Nakagawa carved the blocks for his woodblock print designs. He knew seal carving so it would not be too much of a stretch for him to carve his own blocks if the designs were not overly complex. Of the artist's prints that I've seen described as woodblock prints, most of them were designed for book covers and book illustrations. This collection's woodblock print Woman Sitting on a Chair seems to be unique in that it attempts to duplicate his painting style, possibly replicating an existing painting (although a similar painting cannot be found online), rather than being a print whose design was done by the artist specifically for reproduction by woodblock, as in the case of his book cover designs. It is unlikely that Nakagawa carved the blocks for this portrait.

Woodblock Prints

我思古人 Gashi kojin, 1947

 front cover (woodblock printed)

Clematis 鉄線花, 1978

 木版画 woodblock print

12 5/8 x 10 1/4 in. (32 x 26 cm)

Other Prints

Watching the Hunt 猟を観る, 1975

copperplate engraving 銅版画

with aquatint

Kurumaki Studios 車木工房

14 9/16 x 9 7/8 in. (37 x 25 cm)

Meng Haoran 孟浩然, 1985

 [(c. 690-740) Tang Dynasty]

copperplate engraving 銅版画

with aquatint

Kurumaki Studios 車木工房

14 3/16 x 11 3/8 in. (36 x 28.8 cm)

Persimmon Camelia 柿椿, 1990

Copperplate engraving 銅版画   車木工房

Edition of 98

image: 10 1/4 x 15 3/8 in. (26 x 39 cm)

Sunflower 向日葵, not dated

Lithograph (possibly stone lithograph) 石版画

Kuromaki Studio


22 7/8 x 17 in. (58 x 43 cm)

Rose 薔薇, 1976

Lithograph (possibly stone lithograph) 石版画

Kuromaki Studio


Edition 100 エディション

14 3/8 x 11 in. (36.5 x 28 cm)

Deer 鹿, not dated

Lithograph リトグラフ

Edition 100 エディション

image size: 13 5/8 x 17 1/8 in. (34.7×43.5 cm)

Later Years

Nakazawa in the Imperial Palace courtyard after being awarded the Order of Culture, 1975

In 1975, at the age of 82, Nakagawa was awarded the prestigious Order of Culture 文化勲章 for contributions to Japanese art, literature, or culture which is presented to recipients by the emperor. Nakagawa was the first Western-style painter to receive the award. In 1984 he was made an "honorary citizen" of Tokyo (東京都名誉都民の称号) and after his death an honorary citizen of Manuzuru, where he lived and worked for four decades.

Working almost until his death, he spent his final years painting still-lifes in his studio. He passed away due to heart failure a the age of 97, on February 5, 1991. Both private and public funeral services were held and he was buried in Zōshigaya Cemetery in  Minami-Ikebukuro, Toshima, Tokyo, a public cemetery that is the resting place of many famous people. 

Both his mother's native town of Matto City (now Hakusan City) in Ishikawa Prefecture and his home of Manazuru in Kanagawa Prefecture established museums dedicated to his work

The Matto Nakagawa Kazumasa Memorial Museum of Art opened in October 1986 and the Nakagawa Kazumasa Museum of Art, Manazuru Town opened in March 1989.

Nakagawa Kazumasa Museum of Art, Manazuru Town

真鶴町 立中川一政美術館

1178-1 Manatsuru, Manazuru, Ashigarashimo District, Kanagawa 259-0201, Japan

The Matto Nakagawa Kazumasa Memorial Museum of Art

松 任中川一政記念美術館

61-1 Asahimachi, Hakusan, Ishikawa 924-0888, Japan 

[1] Under the Meiji system middle schools were designed for entrance into the university rather than institutions for the general populace. Admission to the elementary schools was set at the age of eight to be completed at fifteen. The curriculum was made up mainly of general subjects: reading, calligraphy, arithmetic, foreign languages and geography. Students were to enter middle schools from the elementary schools at the age of sixteen and continue there for seven years. The middle schools were to offer specialized curricula similar to those of the university and serve as mechanism for selecting able students for the university. [source: Ministry of Education website]

[2] website of the Nakagawa Kazumasa Memorial Museum of Art 松任中川一政記念美術館

[3] Paris in Japan: The Japanese Encounter with European Painting; Takashima, Rimer and Bolas, The Japan Foundation and Washington University, 1987, p. 46.

[4] The title of his first work is also seen in English as “Rice Wine Storehouse.” It was originally titled Settsu Fukae (the location of the brewery.)

[5] Biographical Dictionary of Japanese Art, Yutaka Tazawa, Kodansha International, Ltd. in collaboration with the International Society for Educational Information, Inc., 1981, p. 183-184.

[6] Dictionary of Japanese Potters

[7] The New East, Vol. III, No. 1, Tokyo, July 1918, p. 213.

[8] see website of the Shun'yōkai

[9] Nakagawa Kazumasa Memorial Museum of Art

[10] my translation of passage of article お知らせ §今週の1点 vol.11 中川一政「山川呼応」1933年 §今週の1点 appearing on the website of the Nakagawa Kazumasa Memorial Museum website.  

[11] the German wiki for the artist tells us that he served as a juror for the Teiten and that he served each year from 1938 until 1943. However, the name of the government sponsored exhibition had been changed in 1937 from Teiten to Shin Bunten. The timeline provided by the Hakusan Museum list his years as a judge at the Shin Bunten as 1941, 1943, 1944 and 1945, missing the 5th Shin Bunten in 1942.

[12] Various locations are given for Nakagawa's evacuation including the Izu Peninsula (article appearing on the website of the Bunshun Bookstore) and Takaoka, Toyama Prefecture (timeline compiled by the Hakusan Museum  中川一政 略年譜 1893 (明治26) 年-1991 (平成3)年 ("Biographical Chronology of Nakagawa Kazumasa 1893-1991," Tobuken's timeline of the artist lists the village of Miyatoko in Miyagi Prefecture, north-west of Sendai, as his residence when the war ended.

[13] Rethinking Japanese Modernism. Netherlands: Brill, 2011. p. 331;   At the beginning of the twentieth century, there was a trend of celebrating the great events and great historical figure of Chinese history among Japanese painters, writers, and sinologists. [source: "Traditionalism, Transnationalism, and Modernism in Fu Baoshi’s 1943 Paintings of the Red Cliff" by  Lin Li, a thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of  Master of Arts in Department of East Asian Studies, University of Alberta, 2019, p. 55.]