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Acceptance and Reinterpretation: Western painting in East Asia in the early 20th century

Self-portraits by three artists

Self-portrait<br /><strong>自画像</strong>

Kuroda Seiki, Self-portrait, 1915.


Li Shutong, Self-portrait, 1910.

Self-portrait<br /><br />

Go Huidong, Self-portrait with Jeongjaguan, 1915.

Self-portrait<br />자화상

Go Huidong, Self-portrait, 1914. 

Self-portrait with a Fan<br />부채를 든 자화상

Go Huidong, Self-portrait with a Fan, 1915.

Duke Matsukata<br />松方公肖像下絵

Kuroda Seiki, Duke Matsukata, 1915. 


Self portrait established as a genre in the Renaissance by artists who wanted to reflect their appearances to the paintings; therefore, it has been regarded as an indicator of changing artists' conscousness and status.[1] In Asian countries, they put more emphasis on figure paintings than religious paintings or landscape paintings when they accepted Western paintings, because they followed Western paintings' trend which regards human as important.[2] Self-portrait was one of the most popular genre in modern Asia, and it received attention with Tokyo School of Fine Arts' system. Tokyo School of Fine Arts mandated every graduate students from Western painting department to submit their self-portrait in 60.6cm by 45.5cm.[3] In this exhibition, I will examine the meaning of self-portrait in modern Asia, and look at some of the artists' self-portraits.

There is no documentation about the reason why Kuroda Seiki made their students to paint self-portraits as a graduation requirement. For Kuroda, describing human body and figure is the most important process in art, and he might have thought self-portrait is one of the simple ways to describe a figure in this respect because no models are needed when one draws himself.[4] Also, Kuroda might have understood self-portraits as a mean of self-establishment for artists.

In China and Korea, Western style oil painting self-portraits were first created by graduates from Tokyo School of Fine Arts; therefore, it is no exaggeration to say that modern self portrait in East Asia was established by Tokyo School of Fine Arts' system. 

Li Shutong's self-portrait is painted in short strokes or dots in dark color. In comparison with Kuroda's self-portraits, Li's self-portrait has blackish hue despite the fact that Li was influenced by Kuroda's technique of using the brush. 

There are three self-portraits of Go Huidong which were created when Go was in Tokyo School of Fines Arts. In a self-portrait with jeongja guan (a hat for nobleman in Joseon Dynasty), his face is filled with sober. While this portrait's figure is facing front, the other two self-portraits shown right above and below face three-quater front angle which is general in Western style self-portrait. It is not clear which self-portrait was created first, but the self-portrait with a fan shows more mature colors and drawing -- indicating this piece may have been drawn in a later date. In comparison to Kuroda Seiki's portrait of Duke Matsukata, the pose and appearances are similar between Go and Kuroda's work, because Go referred to Kuroda's work. 

In Go's self-portrait with a fan, Go decorates the background with books and a painting to present himself as a literary person. Go is wearing unbuttoned hemp cloth jacket with natural pose, and it was preposterous under Confucianism. In this painting, the face and the body were painted realistically with detailed contrasts, while showing the effects of light. Therefore, we can assume Go Huidong mainly learned to paint with realistic description as well as impressionist's color usage at Tokyo School of Fine Arts.  


[1] Joanna Woods-Marsden, Renaissance Self-portraiture: The Visual Construction of Identity and the Social Status of the Artist, New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1998, p.1-9. 

[2] Sato Doshin, "Terminologies of Art in Modern Japanese Art (Geundae ilbon misul ui misul yongeo)," Johyung Vol. 21, Seoul National University Formative Arts Research Center (1998), p.144.

[3] Daehee Kim, "Self-portrait and Korean Modern Western Painting (Hanguk geundae yanghua wa jahwasang)," Korean Modern Art (Guendae hanguk misul nonchong) (1992), p.210.

[4] Reichi Noguchi (野口玲一), "Change of Curriculum and Self-portrait (カリキュラムとしての自画像とその変貌)", Graduation pieces of Oil Painting and Self-Portrait (油画の卒業制作と自画像), 東京藝術大學, 2002, p.6-7.