A Forgotten Master, Rediscovered

One curator’s 15-year quest to recover the life and work of Fukuda Kodōjin, a legendary artist whose legacy was lost in the aftermath of World War II.


Fukuda Kodōjin (1865–1944), Blue-green Landscape (detail), 1926, ink and color on silk. Gift of the Clark Center of Japanese Art and Culture, 2013.29.902

By Tim Gihring //

Fifteen years ago, Andreas Marks had never heard of Fukuda Kodōjin. Hardly anyone had. Kodōjin, who was born in rural Japan in 1865, was among the last of the literati painters, a tradition of scholarship, poetry, and art that died with him in the wake of World War II. By the time Marks began exploring the artist’s life and work, in 2008, he had been largely forgotten for decades — especially in Japan.

Marks is the Mary Griggs Burke Curator of Japanese and Korean Art and director of the Clark Center for Japanese Art at Mia. He is also now the preeminent authority on Kodōjin, having discovered far more than he expected in what he calls the “Sherlock Holmes work” of tracking down the artist’s legacy: some 800 paintings, a humble love of study and nature, and the remarkable patronage of the rich and powerful in prewar Japan.

In Mia’s exhibition “Fukuda Kodōjin: Japan’s Great Poet and Landscape Artist” and its accompanying catalogue, Marks showcases the singular and stunning artistic vision that once captivated the elite. Here, he talks about the journey of rediscovery and what he learned along the way.

How did you become interested in Kodōjin and his art?

When I came to California to work at the Clark Center, 15 years ago, [collector] Bill Clark said, “Someday you need to do an exhibition about Fukuda Kodōjin” and started reciting parts of his biography — that he had died of poverty, that he was a poet and didn’t paint much. And I remember thinking, “Which part of class did I miss that I had never heard of this man before?”

Bill was an avid collector of Kodōjin — he had 20 or so paintings. But the only document of his work was this book by Stephen Addiss, Old Taoist, from 2001, which is mostly poetry. The Japanese curator at the Met had never heard of him, museums in Japan don’t know who he is. He’s completely disappeared. Only American collectors have found him and put him on the map.

Before embarking into Japanese art, I studied Chinese art, so the fact that there’s a Japanese artist doing Chinese-style painting suited me well — right away there was a level of familiarity and understanding. I started digging in, never imagining the extent of what I would find.

Fukuda Kodōjin in the garden of Furusawa Tokuji, May 1935.

You spoke with his family, visited his house in Kyoto — what was it like to retrace the steps of a forgotten man?

I started contacting collectors, asking for photos, visiting people here as well as in Japan. I met with his granddaughter and great-granddaughter. There are no works left in the family. I was lucky that some scholars in Japan — all of them in Wakayama, his home province — have concentrated on his poetry. They had dug up some biographical information, but there was nothing on his paintings.

So I visited Wakayama, I visited collectors and people who had inherited a collection but were not interested in the work themselves — it had been passed down by a grandfather or some relative who knew Kodōjin personally. And through the inscriptions on his paintings, I was able to create a timeline — where he went and when, places where he would stay and paint — and correct some of the biography. There’s a photograph at one of these painting events, where he’s holding his brush and drinking sake. Another photo shows him in the host’s garden and now there’s a photo of me in the same garden, following in his footsteps.

Literati painting is often said to have died out before the 20th century, and yet here’s Kodōjin in the 1930s and ’40s, still doing this work, still living this lifestyle.

Yes, even at an advanced age he’s traveling to these events where he’s invited to paint, and he would stay awhile and then move on again. It’s fascinating to see that this culture still existed, and he wasn’t the only one, though of course there were far more in the old days.

Japanese art history books always talk of the last literati painters being active in the late 19th century — the 20th century is completely ignored. It’s a misjudgment. After World War II, sure. With American occupation and American culture coming in, it’s over.

In the late 1920s, he’s so popular among Japanese politicians and industrialists that they create a Kodōjin Society — including the current and former prime ministers. Which is fascinating: this modest traditionalist, embraced by the elite trying to modernize the country.

There’s probably a certain level of idealism there — you’re in politics or business, working hard, earning a living, but what you’d really love to do is be out in nature, composing poems. And here’s this man who is doing exactly that, enjoying a life of solitude, giving his life to the arts.

It’s true that Kodōjin is not into luxurious things — he’s not driving a Mercedes or living in a massive villa. But he’s also not living in a cave. The family house looks fairly large. We know from real estate records that he was able to buy his house in Kyoto, so he was clearly generating enough income to support a family and his property. But still, it’s interesting that his modesty extends to his work: he’s not just catering to the wealthy, he’s also creating simpler paintings that sold relatively cheaply, so you didn’t have to be a big industrialist to own his work.

Fukuda Kodōjin (1865–1944), Landscape after Mi Fu, 1918, ink on silk. The Suzanne S. Roberts Fund for Asian Art, 2012.71.3

There’s this wonderful phrase he uses to describe his paintings: “Things done after studying.” Suggesting his art really is something he does in his leisure time.

For him, his real work is studying books, being very knowledgeable about traditional Chinese literature and poetry. And after he’s dealt with his books, he’ll make paintings. He says, “People after me will decide if I was clumsy or not in my paintings,” and I can imagine he was actually thinking like that. I don’t think it’s a pose. I’m not sensing any kind of aspiration to manipulate or befriend collectors or the people running museums. He’s authentic. And actually the fact that he didn’t cultivate those groups more is one reason he’s not better known today.

He dies in 1943, during the war, but not of starvation as Stephan Addiss had suggested. What happens at the end of his life?

In one of the first conversations I had with his family, they brought this up — they were shocked when they read Addiss’s book, they had never heard this. I’ve seen the Japanese text where Addiss picked up this idea and I think he misinterpreted it: Kodōjin’s student at his deathbed records that he doesn’t want to take food, he’s not eating, and Addiss takes that to mean he doesn’t have anything to eat. But in reality it’s just him being tired and without energy.

In May 1943, his son dies in the war, and then at the end of the year he dies himself. Two years earlier, suddenly this Buddhist verse appears in his poetry, where there had not been anything Buddhist before — toward the end of his life he’s turning toward nirvana. Also, the last landscape painting we have by him is lacking the quality that had been there before. It seems detailed but nowhere near his other work. Sadly, the energy is gone.

What happens to traditional Japanese culture after the war — and Kodōjin’s work?

Japan had to go through a period of trying to understand what they did — invading Korea, China, other parts of Asia — and that included rethinking the idea of China as a part of Japanese history, which is very much how it was traditionally understood. Which makes sense: so much of Japanese culture came from China, from tea to chopsticks. But after World War II, there’s a strong break. Japan’s modernization began around 1870 but now grows even stronger — it’s looking far more at America. Traditional entertainments, like tea ceremonies and geisha culture, continue but at a much smaller level than before. A year after Kodōjin’s passing, people get together for the traditional memorial service: his student is there, his wife, his friends. In 1960, a local journal in Wakayama publishes some memories of him and one of his collectors from those last days puts on a small exhibition. And then that’s it. It’s not until 1989 that foreign collectors rediscover him and start falling in love with his work.

You’ve done this research now, there’s the exhibition and the book. Is there a sense that Kodōjin is due for a revival, perhaps even in Japan?

To me, he’s a fascinating example of someone appealing to the highest levels of society and then completely disappearing. It’s incredible that it can happen. He has this group of elites dedicated to him, including the prime minister and the previous prime minister — it really is a big deal. And now, on the other side of the world, we’re holding his legacy.

It’s often the case that the impetus for appreciating an artist in their home country comes from somewhere else. It doesn’t work with every artist. But if somebody is worth looking at and being remembered again, Kodōjin is at the top of that list.



Minneapolis Institute of Art
Minneapolis Institute of Art

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