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Eleonora Ragusa or O’Tama Kiyohara: Japanese Painter in Sicily

O'Tama Kiyohara. Source: https://www.palermoviva.it/

Women Artists

Eleonora Ragusa or O’Tama Kiyohara: Japanese Painter in Sicily

Italy still holds so many secrets to me! One of such secrets was O’Tama Kiyohara (later Eleonora Ragusa), a woman so brave to leave her homeland for her husband and so ambitious to found a Japanese art school in Sicily.

O'Tama Kiyohara
O’Tama Kiyohara, Portrait, 1883. Photo: https://www.blogsicilia.it/

After centuries of closure, Japan opened to foreign influence and trade in 1853. In his efforts to catch up with the global developments in technology, military, agriculture and science, Emperor Meiji, or Meiji the Great, invited European scientists and experts to Japan. In the invited group there were also three Italian artists who received a task to found an art school which would train young artists who would later equate Japanese art to European modern styles. Quickly did the new Kobu Bijutsu Gekko school in Tokyo open its doors to students trained in painting by Antonio Fontanesi, sculpture by Vincenzo Ragusa, and architecture by Vincenzo Cappelletti.

O'Tama Ragusa
O’Tama Kiyohara, A sketch for a fan, 1887. Source: https://www.blogsicilia.it/

Vincenzo Ragusa, originated from Palermo, met O’Tama in a garden where she was painting fans. He fell for her straightaway and asked her to pose for a sculpture. Despite of a 20 year age difference, they quickly became lovers.

O'Tama Kiyohara
Vincenzo Ragusa, O’Tama Ragusa, 1883, photo: Davide Mauro.

O’Tama was a real pioneer. She was the first Japanese woman in history who married a European artist. She was also a skilled painter with enough courage to paint differently. Aged 21, she left her beloved Japan to follow her husband to Sicily, thankfully together with her sister and brother in law. They moved in a house in Palermo, where O’Tama lived until 1933.

O'Tama Kiyohara
O’Tama Kiyohara, The blessing of the animals, 1891. Source: https://www.blogsicilia.it/

She changed her name to Eleonora Ragusa and set off on a new exciting project: to found a school of Japanese art in Sicily where she would teach lacquer, painting and weaving. Unfortunately, after a couple of years the school had to close due to financial problems and complicated Italian bureaucracy.

The Japonist and art historian Maria Antonietta Spadaro tells that…

when arrived to Palermo, O’Tama found herself facing the entirety of Italian art. Her painting was instead variable and eclectic, ahead of its times since she chose to use techniques which did not yet exist in Japan. Let’s take The Night of the Feast of Ascension (Notte dell’ascensione): although all contemporary painters had depicted Mount Pellegrino, she was the first one to do it as a nocturnal scene. She showed the mount from above with a nebulous sky and lanterns which nobody had ever painted before, since the electric lamp posts were a complete novelty for Palermo and other Italian cities. Only the Futurists would have focused on them some time after that.

O'Tama Kiyohara
O’Tama Kiyohara, The night of the Ascension feast (La notte dell’Ascensione), 1891. Source: https://www.blogsicilia.it/

O’Tama undoubtedly brought innovation to the hermetic Italian art world which had been fearing that art from the Far East would contaminate its pure artistic expression. Instead, it enriched it.

A video with English subtitles produced by Salvatore Militello accompanying the exhibition on Otama which opened in Palermo in December 2019.

O’Tama’s husband died in 1927 but she remained in Palermo. Not long after her husband’s death, her extraordinary story was unearthed by two Japanese magazines which started writing a cover story on her life. Her Japanese relatives sent for her to Europe and in 1933 she returned to Japan, after 51 years of absence. Soon after she opened a painting workshop in Shiba where she taught Italian art and culture until her death in 1937.

If you enjoy Japanese art, check all you must know about Japanese erotic art, shunga (18+)

Magda, art historian and Italianist, she writes about art because she cannot make it herself. She loves committed and political artists like Ai Weiwei or the Futurists; like Joseph Beuys she believes that art can change us and we can change the world.

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