KANO TAN'YU

Painter and powerbroker to the shoguns

by Victoria James

Throughout history, powerful regimes have used art to reinforce their control and shore up their claims to legitimacy.

Two current exhibitions (reviewed in The Japan Times, Oct. 30) trace the relationship between artists and rulers in Europe — one spotlighting the Versailles court of Louis XIV, king of France, the other showing paintings from the collection of the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg Dynasty.

Meanwhile, proving that Japan is no exception is an exhibition of works by Kano Tan’yu now at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum.

In 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasu won a decisive victory at Sekigahara, clearing the way for the Tokugawa bakufu to become the longest-lived of Japan’s military regimes, surviving until 1867. In its early years, however, the bakufu’s grip on power was less than total, and it was not until the destruction of rival warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1615 that the dominance of the Tokugawa Shogunate seemed assured.

Power gained, what the Tokugawa rulers sought next was legitimacy. To that end, an ambitious program of artistic and architectural iconography was implemented — with Kano Tan’yu, okueshi (artist to the shogun) — chief among its executors.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of Tan’yu’s birth — hence the timing of this exhibition — but it is only in recent decades that the painter’s crucial role in Tokugawa statecraft has been seriously assessed. Through the late 1960s and early ’70s, art historians tended to dismiss Tan’yu’s work as being stylistically insubstantial and his influence, and that of the Kano School, as merely perpetuating the same insipid artistry for generations.

Since then, however, scholarly opinion has been swinging in Tan’yu’s favor, peaking in 1999. In that year, Toshie Kihara of the Agency for Cultural Affairs received the prestigious Shimada Prize for “Yubi no tankyu: Kano Tan’yu ron (The Search For Profound Delicacy: The Art of Kano Tan’yu),” and Karen Gerhart, now associate professor of Japanese art at the University of Pittsburgh, published “The Eyes of Power: Art and Early Tokugawa Authority.”

Now this impressive exhibition gives viewers a chance to make up their own minds, comprising a wide range of Tan’yu’s work, from small sketchbooks and albums to large panels temporarily removed from the audience chambers of Nagoya Castle and Nijo Castle in Kyoto.

The first two exhibits, “Plum, Bamboo and Birds in Snow” (1634) and “Pawlonia and Phoenixes,” are exquisite — and confirm that Tan’yu chose wisely when selecting for his professional name the Chinese characters for “elegance” and “beauty.”

The phoenix is an ancient Chinese motif symbolizing good fortune, and it is thought this magnificent pair of gold-leaf screens was used at weddings. “Plum, Bamboo and Birds in Snow” at first seems its stylistic opposite, since less is more in this sparse composition, with the heavy weight of snow not painted onto the sliding panels, but given shape by leaving areas untouched. Kihara argues that this use of untreated spaces broke new artistic ground, and that Tan’yu employed such techniques to create atmosphere and to disrupt the traditional placement of elements within pictorial composition.

However, there were other, more prosaic considerations governing many of Tan’yu’s compositions. For instance, the “Plum, Bamboo” sliding panels, as well as those titled “Wasteful Payment for an Observation Tower” and “Compensating the Governors” (both 1634), were created for the Jorakuden of Nagoya Castle — where the areas of the panels that remained visible when they were slid apart to create doorways formed the focus of the design.

The Chinese sages depicted in the Jorakuden works were part of a decorative program intended to project an image of virtuous rule. Inspired by the Japanese version of a Chinese manual, “A Mirror for Instructing the Emperor,” these offered models of good conduct (and cautionary tales of bad behavior). The example shown here is an easy-to-read lesson in frugality and good governance, the Han emperor in question having heeded the advice of his retainers to abandon a vainglorious building enterprise.

The most famous of Tan’yu’s “political” paintings were done for Nijo Castle, the shogun’s Kyoto residence whose construction was begun by Oda Nobunaga and completed by Ieyasu. Tan’yu provided the final touch to this symbol of shogunal power during the rule of Ieyasu’s grandson, Tokugawa Iemitsu, with monumental depictions of pines on the panels of the castle’s audience halls.

Gerhart’s in-depth analysis of this pine-tree imagery draws on the tree’s meaning in Chinese and Japanese folklore and poetry, and the reciprocity achieved by the presence of real pines visible in the garden outside. The principal meaning, however, is plain to see: The pine’s branches spread outward, never upward, and high in the tree sits a hawk — a clear message to the shogun’s retainers to know their class and place and respect those in power high above them. “Tan’yu depicted the simple pine tree as a powerful and captivating image,” writes Gerhart, “subtly transforming it into a symbolic expression of Iemitsu’s legitimate right to rule.”

Tan’yu built myths of power not only around his master Iemitsu, but also around the Tokugawa Shogunate itself. Two striking works on show are portraits of Ieyasu, here under his posthumous name of Tosho Gongen. Though predictably showing the former shogun seated in elegant surroundings with swords by his side, what sets these works apart from generic images of the time is Tan’yu’s rendering of his face with an individuality that even extends to faithfully depicting his somewhat bulbous features.

Perhaps influencing Tan’yu’s realistic portraiture was his habit of drawing from life — a technique not widely practiced at the time. Examples here include portraits of his friends Ishikawa Jozan and Sakuma Shogen (the latter clutching his tortoiseshell cat), delicately colored studies of fruits, grasses and flowers, some fluid linear sketches along the Tokaido, and a beautifully observed painting of an otter. The latter offers an intriguing glimpse into the discipline and eye for detail of an artist whose most famous animal subjects are, rather unfairly, the lumpy, amiable tigers — painted not from life but from tiger-skins — which romp across screens in the abbot’s quarters of the Nanzenji Temple in Kyoto.

Shukuzu, small-size sketches or copies of Japanese and Chinese paintings, are another rarely glimpsed genre of Tan’yu’s handiwork on show here. Tan’yu was renowned not only as a painter but also as an art expert, and collectors would bring pieces to him asking for them to be identified or their provenance authenticated, offering gifts in return for his services. Tan’yu would copy the works and record copious additional information which, together, have now become invaluable aids to art historians — as well as being lively examples of Tan’yu’s wide-ranging skills.

As Tan’yu’s most recent champions, Kihara and Gerhart are agreed on the dominant traits of Japan’s most influential political painter: beauty and power. Tan’yu’s influence and authority in the art world of his day led the Meiji Era art historian Okakura Tenshin to dub him “the Ieyasu of the painting world.” His art, however, has long outlasted the secular power it was created to serve.