Tamamura Hokuto

Undated photo of the artist

Tamamura Hokuto 玉村方久斗 (1893-1951)  


Source: Metropolitan Museum website https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/853257
Tamamura Hokuto was born in Kyoto. His given name was Zennosuke 善之助 which he used for his writings and traditional Japanese paintings. He graduated from the Kyoto Municipal School of Fine Arts in 1915 where he studied with Kikuchi Hōbun (1862-1918). From 1915 until 1923 the artist contributed to the official juried Inten exhibitions. After 1923 he became active in the proletarian and dadaist art movements and published a number of artistic journals. He was a major figure in Japan's avant-garde movement. He produced prints using woodblock and lithograph techniques both in sōsaku hanga style and in the traditional Japanese way by working with a carver and printer.

Flyer from First Half of Exhibition (11-03-07 through 12-16-07)

click on images to enlarge

Exhibition - Tamamura Hokuto: Revolutionary of the Japanese-Style Painting at The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto (January 8, 2008 through February 17)

Source: The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto website https://www.momak.go.jp/English/exhibitionArchive/2007/361.html [accessed 12-19-23]

TAMAMURA Hokuto (Zennosuke; 1893–1951) was born in the central ward of Kyoto to a family that ran a shop dealing in geta, a type of Japanese footwear.  He graduated from the Painting Department of the Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts in 1911, and went on to study under KIKUCHI Hōbun at the Kyoto Municipal Fine Arts College.  Upon graduating in 1915, he founds Mitsuritsu-kai, an association for studying and exhibiting nihonga (Japanese-style painting), with his colleagues from the two schools, including OKAMOTO Shinsō, KAINOSHŌ Tadaoto, and IRIE Hakō.  He also submits Inariyama, Kyōgokokuji, Kiyomizudō to the 2nd Saikō Inten (Reorganized Japan Fine Arts Academy Exhibition), where his work is accepted for the first time.  In 1916, he relocates to Tokyo to study at the Academy, and in 1918, he submits Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales of Moonlight and Rain) to the 5th Saikō Inten.  This time, he wins an award and receives a nomination as an associate member of the Academy, and thus makes his mark.  However, he expresses dislike for conventional nihonga and leaves the Academy after submitting his work one last time to the 6th Saikō Inten.

From then on, Tamamura dedicates his efforts to avant-garde movements, such as “Daiichi Sakka Dōmei (D.S.D.),” “Sanka,” and “Tan’i Sanka (Unit Sanka).” During this period, he also presents avant-garde 3D works (now defunct), is associated with founding avant-garde magazines such as Epoch and GE.GJMGJGAM.PRRR.GJMGEM (G.G.P.G.)1, and takes part in a widely varied range of artistic activity, as seen for instance in his prolific printmaking.  He continues to hold solo exhibitions, presenting a brand-new interpretation of nihonga with his own uniquely grotesque and humorous style, a representative example being his major work Ugetsu Monogatari Picture Scrolls, composed of nine scrolls that will be shown for the first time in eighty-odd years in the present exhibition.  In 1930, Tamamura founds an association named after himself, the Hokuto-sha, with the aim to spread a new conception of nihonga by creating opportunities to present work with like-minded artists.  He paints nihonga portraying moments in everyday life or focusing on everyday sentiments, exemplified by such works as Holiday, which portrays a father and son playing catch.

The present exhibition will introduce the entire scope of Tamamura’s work—known until now merely in fragments—for the very first time, through approximately 140 works and materials, such as magazines.

1 G.G.P.G was a Dadaist magazine sponsored by Tamamura and its first issue appeared in June 1924. 

TAMAMURA Hokuto (1931) Scene in a Port Town

color on paper

60 x 60 cm.

The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto

Quixotic quest of a 'revolutionary'

Source: The Japan Times online http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fa20080124a1.html

By Matthew Larking

Thursday, Jan. 24, 2008, Special to The Japan Times

Breaking away from the herd, exploring new artistic directions and assuming time itself will bring the ultimate vindication is one of the great romantic ideas of avant-garde painting in the 20th century. But rather than defining the field for generations ahead, such an artist risks simply becoming obscure, or worse, forgotten.

At age 48 in 1943, nihonga (Japanese- style painting) artist Hokuto Tamamura (1893-1951) could ask exactly what it was he had been doing up until that point. Despite a long career, Tamamura had yet to be included among the 190 members of the state-selected Nihonga Inventory Control Association. To assuage the sleight, he came to consider himself the 191st member, adopting the personal artistic seal of "No. 191," with which he signed his paintings.

The passage of time has been unkind to Tamamura. Works have been lost or destroyed, and what, when and where he exhibited is often a matter of conjecture. It is only recently, at Kyoto's National Museum of Modern Art in "Tamamura Hokuto: Revolutionary of the Japanese-Style Painting," that the artist's oeuvre, previously known only in fragments, has been assembled. But the issue remains as to whether Tamamura will now be recognized as a pioneer or remain a contemporary curiosity when the exhibition doors close.

Tamamura attended the painting department of the Kyoto Municipal School of Arts and Crafts before joining the Kyoto Municipal Fine Arts College, from which he graduated in 1915. Though he studied under Kyoto nihonga luminary Hobun Kikuchi at Kyoto Municipal, Tamamura remained aloof from conventional Kyoto painting circles. Instead he formed the Mitsuritsui-kai with associates from his two schools, with a view to studying and exhibiting nihonga.

His earliest work was a loose, colorful and simplified version of literati painting. In 1915, works submitted to the prestigious Inten (Reorganized Japan Fine Arts Academy Exhibition) were accepted, and after the show, he moved to Tokyo to strengthen the connection to the organization. (It may have also had to do with escaping family discord.)

Cannibal Priest (1923-1924)

The move was initially a good one for Tamamura, and in 1918 he won the Inten's Chogyu Prize for his picture scrolls Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales of Moonlight and Rain.) Regrettably, the originals were destroyed in the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, and Tamamura painted the versions on display in the current exhibition between 1923 and '24. Ugetsu Monogatari was a series of supernatural tales penned by Akinari Ueda in the 18th century, and Tamamura's visual and calligraphic reworking of the text in nine scrolls tends toward a scratchy, rough finish. He focused on sensationalistic visual moments from the tales — in particular, a grotesque and nearly naked Cannibal Priest who gorges himself on flesh atop a ground red with blood.

But in 1920, Tamamura's submission to that year's Inten was rejected, so he left the association and never again had any affiliation with Japan's other major arts organizations. From here on in, he pursued a succession of supposedly avant-garde groupings that might better be termed fringe movements, and which culminated in a series of group exhibitions named with supreme self-confidence — "Hokuto Society."

TAMAMURA, Hokuto   1893 - 1951 Goldfish Bowl on the Tree, c.1943

color on paper/hanging scroll, 135.0×52.5 cm 

image source: Independent Administrative Institution National Museum of Art

Withdrawing from the Inten led Tamamura's artistic activities to take on breadth. Not only did he join avant-garde groups such as Daiichi Sakka Domei (Primary Artists' Alliance), Sanka and Tan'i Sanka (Unit Sanka), he began to exhibit geometrical sculptural works based on a Russian Constructivist style similar to that of Vladimir Tatlin, and took to playwriting, printmaking, and typography. In 1925, he even designed his own house in Constructivist Sanka-style.

In hatching the Hokuto Society in 1930, Tamamura returned to nihonga with the aim of reconceiving the nature of the medium. Despite whatever revolutionary fervor he had envisioned in the above activities, Tamamura's return to form led him to depict highly conventional, airily Impressionistic scenes of urban contentment, with occasional forays into themes from Japanese literature and history. In his final decade's work, a proclivity for odd combinations of imagery also arose, as in the telephone wire "Insulators and Shower (Phoenix Tree)" (1943) or "Goldfish Bowl on the Tree" (1943), [shown left].

With his "Sanka house" demolished and the artist's bold but quickly discontinued sculptural work destroyed, appraising Tamamura's "avant- gardeness" would fall to his nihonga, given that "No. 191" was adamant about his allegiance to the art form.

While an undeniable fluidity and elegance inform works such as Four Landscapes: Afterglow (1926), his vistas often become dirty accretions of layered washes with figures that fade into the terrain, as in Hougen Monogatari (War Tale) — Killed (1928). And even in works from the '30s where Tamamura claimed he was reconceiving the medium, it is difficult to see where he was heading — he mostly took up run-of-the-mill subjects from Japanese art history or created works in traditional pigments that took on nuances of oil paint, before quickly abandoning such projects.

Thus, in the final assessment, Tamamura seems less the revolutionary than the dilettante.

A Contemporary's Comment

Source: Shredding the Tapestry of Meaning: The Poetry and Poetics of Kitasono Katue (1902-1978), John Solt, Harvard University Press, 1999, p.26.

Tamamura’s contemporary, the avant-garde poet and writer Kitasone Katue (1902-1978), wrote about his friend Tamura:

“Tamamura made a living painting chrysanthemums and other objects in Japanese style (Nihon-ga). He had been in the Fine Arts Academy but, after quitting, was considered a heretic. He was rich and would buy books about new art trends in the West. My first encounter with the Bauhaus was when Tamamura bought all the volumes in the Bauhaus series and showed them to me. He published Takahar (Plateau), but gave it up and issued a new art magazine, Epokku (Epoch), in which expressionism and cubism were presented with examples of the works.” 

Tamamura's Avant-Garde Work

Involved in many avant-garde ventures, his design work for the Kōgenkai (Association of the Highlands), which he formed with the painter Taibokushi Murakumo 村雲大樸子(1893-1957), was "critical to the subsequent development of Japanese poster design [and] by extension, it also affected book and book and magazine design."1

The poster below right, designed by Tamamura, advertised a performance-oriented event titled "Gekijo no Sanka" 劇場の三科 at the newly established Tsukiji Little Theater [Tsukiji Shogekijō], showcasing various avant-garde expressions ranging from underground to absurd theater and happenings. Tamaura was one of the founding members of Sanka.

In discussing the artist's avant-garde involvement, Gennifer Weisenfeld writes, "Tamamura's graphic compositions for these [avant-garde] magazines, and later for a 1927 Sanka poster publicizing a second group performance, display a deep familiarity with avant-garde design abroad and a lively sense of formal experimentation."2

1 MAVO: Japanese Artists and the Avant-Garde, 1905-1931, Gennifer Weisenfeld ,  University of California Press, Berkeley, 2002, footnote 76, p. 308.2 Since Meiji, Perspectives on the Japanese Visual Arts, 1868-2000, ed. J. Thomas Rhiner,"The Expanding Arts of the Interwar Period," Gennifer Weisenfeld, p. 77.

Tamaura's cover design for the  4th issue of Kōgen (Plateau), the avant garde magazine of the Kōgenkai published in 1922

大正11年 高原 4冊

Epoch (Epokku) No. 5, 1923



founded and published by Tamamura

Tamamura Zennosuke - "The Theater of Sanka," 1927

ink on paper


玉村 善之助「劇場の三科」


General MacArthur's Tokyo HQ in Spring, 1946



30.2 x 39.2 cm

The Artist's Woodblock Prints

Although their are multiple references to Tamamura as a prolific printmaker, few examples of his print designs can be found on the web.1 His most well-known woodblock print is this collection's c. 1923 woodblock print Spirit of the Wine (Shuten Dōji), designed for the Woodblock Print Supplements to the Complete Works of Chikamatsu. The only other woodblock print that I could locate on the web is a 1946 rendering of General MacArthur's occupation headquarters, shown left.

1 The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto notes that the artist was "vigorously engaged in printmaking," and the Metropolitan Museum of Art notes  that "he produced prints using woodblock and lithograph techniques both in sosaku hanga style and in the traditional Japanese way by working with a carver and printer."

https://www.momak.go.jp/Japanese/exhibitionArchive/2007/361.html [accessed 12-19-23] and https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/853257

Sample Signatures and Seals of the Artist

方久斗作 Hokuto saku


方久斗 Hokuto  

方久斗  Hokuto followed by unread character


方久斗 Hokuto  

last revision:


Prints in Collection

click on thumbnail for print details