Look at this radish. It is an Owari Daikon, a kind grown since the Edo Period. Legend says that Lord Tokugawa loved this Owari region variety so much that it was elevated to fame across Japan for its unparalleled, delectable flavor. As in this painting, they were sometimes wrapped in straw and adorned with a small ornament as a gift given at the New Year (the painting’s date is December 29, 1925.) This excellently rendered painting of a gifted Owari radish allows the viewer a glimpse at the Japanese obsession with the art of food.
This painting has a bold, brash composition; the radish hovers at the center of the image and cocks its “hip” into the middle of the page. Although it is an excellent still life, the painting bears more resemblance to a fashion photo by Helmut Newton. The radish is our model, dressed in straw with a perfectly coiffed head of leaves, posing with gusto for the artist. It doesn’t attempt the solemnity of high art. Instead, this piece exudes gritty personality and irreverence. Paradoxically, its lack of seriousness makes Koen’s Radish a truly excellent piece of art.
About the Artist Born in 1869, Niwayama Koen (also called Keizo) studied under two prominent artists, Ueda Kochu and Suzuki Shonen. He was schooled in Shijo-school traditions. The delicacy of his works was found increasingly less receptive in the Meiji era when the art world was busy mimicking western-style aesthetics. The eventual return to Japanese core aesthetic values in the art world was too late for his career. Koen’s subsequent history, such as his death date, is unknown. His talent was only discovered in later years.