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Uuntil the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Kyoto’s Gosho Palace, a rectangular compound of approximately 110,000 sq. meters, housed Japan’s Imperial Family for more than 1,000 years. The buildings have been destroyed by fire on a number of occasions, but were rebuilt each time exactly in the original ancient style.

One can only imagine the countless artistic treasures consumed by the flames — the finest of each era — and lament their loss.

When the most recent, still-extant building was being reconstructed in the 1850s, several eminent artists were commissioned to decorate the fusuma (sliding, paper and lacquered-wood framed doors) that would be placed throughout the palace. Sheltered for conservation reasons, they have almost never been seen publicly before. Now, for “Sliding Door Panels of the Kyoto Imperial Palace New Year Special Exhibition,” which runs till Feb. 18 at the Kyoto National Museum, the Imperial Household Agency has loaned 212 painted paper door panels together with 10 cedar ones. Perfectly preserved, they present a time-warp view into late Edo Period Kyoto’s artistic milieu and the court life that was just beginning to break out of a mold that had hardly changed in centuries.

When the Gosho Palace was being rebuilt, the authority of the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate was crumbling. Western powers were demanding open trade relations, while more than hinting at their superiority in arms technology and ocean shipping. After centuries of being sidelined and used by powerful warlords, the Imperial Family found itself as a focus for growing popular support. Activists revived the Emperor’s divine role in invoking the benevolence of the gods for the orderly passing of the seasons and the prevention of natural disasters, and saw his establishment as head of state as a vital step in Japan’s modernization.

After a brief civil war in 1868 that was won by Imperial loyalists, the next few years saw the enthronement of the Meiji Emperor as the nation’s titular leader, the moving of the capital to Tokyo and the start of Japan’s march to become a modern nation.

Most of the door panels from the palace have been painted with the finest color pigments and decorated with gold leaf, which was applied in sheets, flecks or powder to decorate gloomy recesses as the metal reflects light from any source, no matter how dim. While their splendor echoes the reviving confidence of the Imperial Court, many also symbolically underscore the ideal role of an emperor as a nation’s ruler: wise, with the highest moral values, while at the same time mystical and aloof.

Such symbolism can be seen in door panels from the Emperor’s living quarters which display images of two phoenix — traditionally associated with a wise and virtuous emperor — together with bamboo and a paulownia tree. Another set from the same room further underscore the Imperial role with a court scene of the Chinese Emperor Yao (2353-2234 B.C.), who, in addition to being famed as the inventor of the go board game, is held in classical literature as an exemplar of an ideal ruler. The Emperor Yao is seen here appointing Shun — a man who was of low birth but demonstrated impressive wisdom — to administer China and eventually become his successor on the throne.

These door panels were painted by Kano Eigaku (1790-1867), leader of the Kyoto School of professional painters that had been commissioned to decorate the castles and palaces of the Imperial and shogunal courts, as well as of regional warlords, since the 16th century. By the 19th century, the Kano School had become largely outdated, though, as most of its members practiced a “painting-by-numbers” decorative approach to natural and classical Chinese subjects that had become repetitive and boring.

But late-Edo Period Kyoto supported a lively artistic scene made up of individual painters and schools of artists that were exploring other subjects and techniques, some learned through exposure to work imported from China and the West. The Shijo School, in particular, had outstanding artists who were using subtle, gradated brushwork to capture nature in a softer, more impressionistic manner. Their work influenced Eigaku, as can be seen in the elegant, innovative compositions and more naturalistic paintings that make him a more appealing artist than many of his Kano School confreres.

One set of door panels painted by Komai Korei (1793-1860), a member of the Shijo School, show an Imperial procession to the Kamo Shrine, which was famous for its archery and horse-racing events and the popular Aoi Matsuri (Hollyhock Festival) held each spring. A decorated, Imperial ox-drawn cart is accompanied by banner-bearers and attendants in between pine trees. Clouds of applied gold dust suggest distance and space, and — as the doors would be illuminated by diffused natural light by day and candles or oil-lamps by night — would magically glow in the palace interiors.

The Sumiyoshi School of court painters, founded in the 17th century, is represented in a set of eight door panels by its leader, Sumiyoshi Hirotsura (1793-1863), that offer New Year’s greetings to the Emperor and Empress. The panels capture the dignity and details of a court ceremony from the Heian Period (794-1185), as if seen through clouds of gold from a 45-degree angle. Hirotsura’s brilliance at expressing movement in traditional court painting revived the reputation of the Sumiyoshi School, which had fallen out of favor, elevating it to equal status with the Kano School.

In addition to reflecting courtly tradition and prestige, these artists tried to allude — as in most other Japanese paintings — to the layers of feeling and mood in their subjects. In doing so, they succeeded in echoing on these door panels the poetry that has been at the heart of court culture since ancient times.

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