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“In the houses of the lords and nobles these paintings and the doors of the rooms have a background richly painted in gold, and on this gold they paint the picture in various suitable colors.’‘ (This Island of Japon. João Rodrigues’ account of 16th-century Japan. Translated and edited by Michael Cooper).

The Kyoto National Museum’s “Kano Eitoku, Momoyama Painter Extraordinaire” show provides a rare chance to see many of the works of Eitoku (1543-90) still in existence. This master of late 16th-century painting is well-known as the creator of monumental, grand-scale works on folding screens and fusuma (sliding-doors) that furnished the palaces and castles of the nobility and warlords.

Eitoku’s bold, powerful designs and lavish use of gold leaf expressed the vigor of his time and underscored the megalomania of his patrons. Unintentionally, they also reflected hubris before the fall. Many of these buildings were soon destroyed in the course of civil war and much of what is left of Eitoku’s prodigious output has been preserved in the care of temples.

Eitoku learned his skills from his grandfather, Kano Motonobu (1476-1559), who had raised the family school of painting to a position of prominence and influence among the political and religious power brokers of Kyoto. Although profoundly influenced by his illustrious tutor, Eitoku persevered to develop his own distinct style, becoming an outstanding exemplar of the Kano School. His career matured with the commencement of Japan’s Momoyama Period (1573-1615) when competing warlords were vying with each other not only on the battlefield but in building spectacular castles and cultivating ostentatious lifestyles. These feudal warlords (averaging 170 throughout Japan at any one time) controlled specific fiefs throughout the country with private armies of samurai warriors, supported economically by a share of their territory’s rice harvest.

Military values included not only fighting skills but cultural pursuits, including the noh drama, classical poetry and the tea-ceremony that was becoming something of a cult among the elite. The mark of the warlord — and of all high-ranking samurai — was to be as much at home slicing enemies in battle as arranging wild flowers in a tearoom.

This artistic renaissance spawned a tremendous demand for all manner of artisans, and the Momoyama Period stands out for excellence in painting, architecture, garden design, ceramics, textiles and lacquerware.

One of Eitoku’s first important projects — completed when he was just 23 years old — was the painting of sliding doors in the abbot’s quarters of Jukoin Temple in the Daitoku-ji complex of Kyoto. Twelve of the total of 16 door-panels can be seen in this exhibition. Four of them depict a bird that seems to be gesturing with its wing, perched on an ancient winter prunus, while three ducks float by on a nearby stream flowing between rocks and dwarf bamboo. The eight other doors show a continuation of the stream with cranes and a giant pine, all painted in ink with a faint gold wash.

You would think such large paintings would overwhelm a small Japanese tatami room, but the effect is more like gazing out of a great window.

Eitoku’s ability attracted the attention of regional daimyo and later the country’s all-powerful rulers. The daimyo Oda Nobunaga (1534-82) and his successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536/7-98), both commissioned monumental screen paintings to furnish their new castles at Azuchi, Shiga Prefecture, and Osaka, but these were burned to the ground in the final struggle for power before peace reigned. Tradition has it that Eitoku died in his 40s because of the enormous workload and brutal deadlines he endured to fulfill orders from rulers who could not be refused.

The unyielding character of his patrons is immediately apparent in portraits he made of Oda, seated in full court costume, stern-featured with mustache and tuft of hair under his lower lip, and eyes cold but missing nothing.

An even more chilling portrait shows Toyotomi seated in a court costume so voluminous that his hands are miniaturized out of all proportion, his reptilian eyes set in a gaunt, lined face like the noh mask of a warrior-ghost.

An example of the large-scale painting that decorated the castles of these formidable lords is the famous “Cypress Tree” eight-panel screen from the Tokyo National Museum. This depicts just the middle section of an aged tree, painted in bold brush strokes on a background of gold-leaf clouds — a composition that is startling to those more familiar with European paintings where such a tree would be shown in context with earth below and the sky above. Eitoku has here conceived an effect that is extraordinarily powerful, and by cutting off the top and bottom sections of the tree, the image of weight and age is all the more effective. Overwhelming though this picture appears today, what would we give for just a glimpse of recorded “great paintings” of pine and prunus trees extending for up to 60 meters in length?

But famous though he is for these exuberant screens and sliding doors, Eitoku was equally a master of fine, detailed paintings such as is seen on fans. Until the modern period, there was no dividing line between art and craft in patrons’ minds, and artists were just as likely to be commissioned to produce summer fans, (much like a new line in fashion today), as they were to decorate building interiors. And just like modern fashions, the fans were likely to be thrown away at the end of the season. A few that have survived show beautiful, miniature ink paintings of birds, early autumn fruits, boats on a misty lake, some decorated with a blush of gold dust or an inscribed poem — so continuing the tradition of the painting of the Muromachi Period (1338-1573), in which the Kano School had been born.

Another contrast to the flamboyant and decorative is seen in Eitoku’s genre paintings, which are of historic interest for their depiction of everyday life.

A pair of screens on view here, commissioned by the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshiteru in 1565, depict a view of Kyoto as if seen at a 45-degree angle from an airplane. Details reveal the Gion Festival with attendant celebrants, the business activities of merchants and the calm courtyards of temples and private dwellings. Another six-panel screen shows Hideyoshi’s lavish and richly furnished Jurokadai palace/castle, also known as Kurakutei.

We can only imagine what masterpieces of Eitoku’s hand met their end in flames and what he might have produced had his life been longer. But at least this exhibition can provide us with a glimpse of Momoyama splendor.

“Kano Eitoku, Momoyama Painter Extraordinaire,” runs until Nov. 18 at the Kyoto National Museum; 527 Chayamachi, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto-shi; tel: (075) 541-1151; www.kyohaku.go.jp

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