Shima Seien 島成園
(February 1892 - March 5, 1970)
The youngest of the three most famous female nihonga artists of the Taishō era (1912-1926), Seien, along with Uemura Shōen 上村松園 (1875-1949) and Ikeda Shōen 池田蕉園 (1886-1917), was known as one of the "three 'en' of the three cities," Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo. She became best known for breaking with the traditional idealized/romanticized portrayals of women in the genre known as bijin-ga (pictures of beautiful women). She brought personal insight and experience into much of her early, pre-1924, work resulting in a realism absent in traditional bijin painting. These aspects of her work are epitomized in her 1918 painting titled Untitled an expressive self-portrait, discussed below.
Seien became an Osaka media sensation for her skill as a painter of haunting bijin scrolls (see right), her success at the government sponsored Bunten exhibition in 1912 at the age of twenty, and her "striking looks".
Primarily a painter in the nihonga style, a mix of various Japanese styles and traditional materials often tinged with western influences, she was sought after as an illustrator for popular novels, women-focused magazines and, on occasion, a designer of woodblock prints.
Prints in Collection
click on image for details
Osaka Emuseum https://www.emosaka.com/museum/oosakajilyoseigaka/simaseienn/
Given name Narue 成栄 (なるえ), Shima Seien 島成園 was born in Sakai City just south of Osaka in February 1892. The family register (koseki) shows she was adopted into her mother's family, surname Suwa 諏訪. Her father Shima Eikichi 島栄吉 and her older brother, given name Ichijirō (1885-1968), were both nihonga style painters. Attending elementary and high school in Sakai, she obtained the usual education for girls focusing on domestic duties and crafts. To what degree she had any formal teaching at home from her father and brother is unclear, but sources suggest they played a supportive role in developing her talent, with her assisting her brother in fan painting.
At the age of thirteen in 1905 her family moved to Shimanouchi, a busy cultural and entertainment district of Osaka. It would be in Osaka that her formal teaching would begin, studying under the nihonga and print artists Kitano Tsunetomi 北野恒富 (1880-1947) and Noda Kyūho 野田九浦 (1879-1971). While her entry into the male dominated art world was aided by the earlier success of the older female painter Uemura Shōen 上村松園 (1875-1949), credited with "legitimizing bijin-ga (pictures of beautiful women) as a major genre within nihonga," it was her own extraordinary talent, with the required introductions by her teachers, that allowed her entry into the conservative government-sponsored exhibitions that were important vehicles for gaining recognition and commercial success.
At the age of twenty her painting Evening in Soemon-chō 宗右衛門町の夕, picturing two maiko standing on a street corner, shown below as a reproduction, was accepted for exhibition at the 1912 6th Bunten (Ministry of Education Fine Arts Exhibition). The following year her work Festival Attire 祭のよそおい, shown below, was selected, receiving a certificate of merit. While winning recognition and awards for her work exhibited at the Bunten and at department store exhibitions (important venues for the display and sale of work by prominent contemporary artists), notoriety and controversy came with her 1918 self-portrait titled Untitled, pictured and discussed below.
In her remarkable work “Untitled” (1918), a woman in a black kimono sits on the floor, her hair disheveled, staring directly at the viewer. Under one eye spreads an ugly bruise, as if she has just been struck. Rather than use a model, Shima studied her own face in a mirror when working on this painting. The bruise, she said, was symbolic of the many abuses routinely inflicted upon women by men. 
In addition to some critics, even some established male and female artists denounced the work of the emerging young women artists in Osaka and Kyoto. The famous yōga (Western-style oil painting) artist Kishida Ryūsei (1891-1929), best known for his portraiture, singled out Shima in "denouncing the 'women like ghosts' recently on display." Even the female artist Uemura Shōen did not hide her irritation with these younger rivals. In a 1920 magazine article, she remarked, "Nowadays 'Woman Painter' has become a kind of fashion. Everyone is so boasting about herself and is falling into ecstasy, that no one would be able to build her own sanctuary of the fine arts. Newspapers and magazines irresponsibly praise them and show their unskillful works in photographs and make their heads swell. I cannot find any trace of originalities in works by such young women nowadays, maybe because they have become painters so thoughtlessly." She went on to complain that young artists had emulated her name by taking names ending with "-en."
In 2008, along with her works Festival Attire (shown above) and Fragrance of Aloeswood (shown below), Untitled was designated as a Municipal Tangible Cultural Property of Osaka (度大阪市指定有形 文化財).
A Painter and an Illustrator
Supplementing Shima's paintings was her work designing sashi-e 挿絵 (magazine and book illustrations; sometimes also included in the kuchi-e genre) of bijin to illustrate serialized novels and for placement in various popular women's magazines such as Shufu no tomo (The Housewife's Friend) and Fujin Gahō (The Lady's Graphic). In commenting on the role of female artists as illustrators, Kendal Brown states, “Female artists are disproportionately better represented in bijin kuchi-e than they are in other areas of the Taishō art world…since many female artists found it impossible to make a living by selling their paintings, work for magazines was essential. [B]ecause consumers of bijin kuchi-e were primarily women, females artists were thought to have a special affinity with both the subject and the audience."
Most of Shima's illustrations were not woodblock prints but rather reproduced as offset color lithographs, the technology of choice for Taishō era magazines for faithfully reproducing the colors and brushwork of painters. Her woodblock print design production was quite limited, a web search revealing only the examples shown below.
Various illustrations (color lithographs) designed by the artist
Woodblock prints designed by the artist
The artist's two best known woodblock print designs
Other woodblock prints designed by the artist
Students and Artist Associations
Seien was a member of the Osaka bijutsukai (Osaka Art Association), likely joining shortly after it was formed in 1915 with the assistance of her teacher Kitano Tsunetomi. In 1916 Shima, along with three other young female artists Okamoto Kōen 岡本更園 (1895-?), Kitani Chigusa 木谷千種 (1895-1947) and Matsumoto Kayō 松本華羊 (1893-1961), formed the Joshi-ri no kai (also seen romanized as Onna yonin no kai) 女四人の会 (Four-Woman Society) for mutual support and to promote and exhibit their own work. The group held a single exhibition in May 1916, showing paintings based on the work Kōshoku gonin onna (The Sensuality of Five Women) written in 1686 by Ihara Saikaku 井原西鶴 (1642-1693). It's unclear how long this association continued, but during the time these four women were sensations on the art scene, evoking both positive and negative reviews of their work and themselves, the mutual support must have been comforting.
In January 1918 nine Osaka artists, including Seien, organized the Osaka Discussion Group (Osaka sawakai 大阪茶話会) to proclaim the creative independence of painters and promote self-reflection and the portrayal of individual "spirit" as legitimate artistic goals. Other artists in the group were Seien's former teacher Kitano Tsunetomi 北野恒富, Kanamori Kan'yo 金森観陽 (1884-1932), Mizuta Chikuho 水田竹圃 (1883-1958) and Yamaguchi Sohei 山口草平 (1882-1961). The group held a "trial" exhibition in June of that same year. It is unclear how long this group, whose manifesto declared the importance of the artist's individuality and sharing their "spirit" through their work, existed.
Marriage and Moving
In 1920, at the age of twenty-eight, Shima reluctantly accepted an arranged marriage to Morimoto Toyojirō 森本豊次郎, a bank employee. With her father on his deathbed, her family, concerned about her lifestyle, arranged this marriage without her knowledge. Shima wrote: "I am not sure if a woman like me, whose only life is painting, will be able to live the same life as her husband...although I will try my best to do so."
Her marriage would take her away from her beloved Osaka. Starting in 1924 until after World War II, as her husband's job demanded his presence, she would live in Shanghai, Manchuria, the port city of Dalian in China, Matsumoto in Nagano Prefecture and Otaru, Hokkaido. For a period she would commute back to Osaka from Shanghai, likely via ferry, a two day trip.
Whether it was her marriage in 1920, or leaving Osaka in 1924, or society's growing conservatism, the tenor of her work began to change after her marriage. Critics' response to her first post-marriage solo exhibition in 1923 at the Osaka Takashimaya Department Store found her work skillful and even beautiful, but also found it "lacking in spirit" and "individuality," hallmarks of her previous work.
Some modern-day art critics have written that Shima lost her "desire to paint such provocative work" because of her marriage and that her style became "bland" after marriage. Others point out that her early provocative works were part of a movement towards Taishō Realism rather than the romanticism associated with earlier times, particularly in the bijin-ga genre, and that losing her edginess in her work corresponded with the shift back to romanticism by many artists at the end of the Taishō era and beginning of Showa.
In the period between her marriage in 1920 and her return to Osaka in 1946, Seien would continue to submit work to the government sponsored exhibitions, with her work Fragrance of Aloeswood, shown below, picturing an aging oiran (the figure reportedly modeled after her mother), being accepted at the second Teiten exhibition (the follow-on to the Bunten) in 1920 and her work Musical Accompaniment 囃子, shown below as a reproduction, being selected for the 1927 8th Teiten.
Tooth Blackening, 1920
In 1928 and 1929, her submitted works were not accepted by the Teiten and she seems to have stop submitting works after that. During this period she continued to create illustrations for novels and magazines and held multiple exhibitions at the Takashiyama Department Store in Osaka.
There is a blank period in her record during the time she spent in Hokkaido with her husband (1937-1946) until her return to Osaka at the age of 54, upon her husband's retirement. According to Seine's own accounts (see "I am Moving to Hokkaido"), her production of work during that period was limited. There is some unclarity about her work and exhibitions after her return to Osaka, but multiple sources report that her first exhibition after her return was not until 1951 at Osaka's Daimaru Shinsaibashi department store where she held annual exhibitions until 1956. Other recorded exhibitions are in 1960 at the Osaka Women's Association Exhibition 大阪女人社展 and in 1966 at the Tokyo Daimaru. Tobunken (National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Tokyo) does state in their brief outline of Seien that "After the war, she held a solo exhibition at the Takashimaya Department Store in Osaka every year" but does not specify the years. The Osaka e-museum timeline of the artist lists a 1963 exhibition at the Osaka Takashimaya with her student Okamoto Seikun 岡本成薫 (1907-1992). These joint exhibitions may have continued until Seien was into her 70s.
In preparing for her departure for Hokkaido in 1937, Shima wrote a poignant article about her upcoming move in the Osaka journal Daimai Bijutsu. In the article, translated on the right, Shima laments leaving her beloved Osaka to go with her husband to Otaru, Hokkaido. She worries about her increasingly fragile health and the snow and cold that awaits her, but reminds herself that it will be a new experience learning Hokkaido's manners and customs and that she will get used to the weather. She will miss her grown daughters and a place rich in character where she was happy.
Death and Legacy
I am Moving to Hokkaido
The below is a somewhat condensed and edited translation of the transcription in Japanese of Shima's article in the Osaka journal Daimai Bijutsu 大毎美術, May 5, 1937, Vol. 16, No. 5, go to: Shima SeienI Moving to Hokkaido - E Museum Osaka (emosaka.com)
The Brief Flowering of Taishō Democracy
The Taishō era (1912-1926) brought with it the rise of political and cultural liberalism. On the political front representative democracy became more inclusive (though women would not have the right to vote until 1946), labor unions flourished and power further shifted to Japan's Diet, as the ill emperor withdrew from public life. On the cultural front, especially for those in the major urban centers, there was a proliferation of mass market magazines and books, literature clubs flourished, film, theater and cafe-culture blossomed and a nascent feminist movement arose as more women entered the workforce. It saw the rise of the female urban intellectual epitomized by a group of young women writers known as Seitōsha (Bluestocking Group), formed in 1911 by Hiratsuka Raichō 平塚 らいちょう (1886-1971) who called "out to Japanese women to reclaim their sense of self-worth, reaffirm their creativity, and fulfill their human potential."
Along with this liberalization, the early Taishō years, overlapping with WWI (1914-1918) in which Japan fought on the side of the Allied Powers, brought an increasing concentration of wealth and power to the zaibatsu (a small number of family-controlled businesses who dominated finance and industry, e.g. Mitsui, Mitsubishi, Sumitomo) and increasing inflation and joblessness, resulting in growing labor unrest and the traumatic 1918 Rice Riots (米騒動, kome sōdō). This social instability combined with the devastation from the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake provided the opportunity for a power shift to more conservative politicians and the Japanese military and a resurgence of Japanese imperialism. With the passing of the Peace Preservation Law (治安維持法, Chian iji hō) in April 1925 the era of Taishō Democracy was effectively over.
 In the Beginning, Woman Was the Sun: The Autobiography of a Japanese Feminist Hiratsuka Raichō, Raichō Hiratsuka, translated with an introduction and notes Teruko Craig, Columbia University Press, 2006, p. VII.
Representative Artist Signatures and Seals
Shima Seien's signature appears on her work as a scripted rendering of the characters 成園 making up her artist name Seien. Her signature appears either with or without a seal, most of which contain the same characters 成園 in seal script form.